Local farmers are the key to a secure food future

Tropical regions could enjoy secure food supplies over the next fifty years if local smallholder farmers are helped to help themselves, says a University of East Anglia development expert writing in this week’s international journal Science.

Professor Michael Stocking acknowledges that soil degradation is rife in some areas and that around a billion people currently lack food security, but he questions the bleak picture of the future of tropical soils and food security often painted by environmentalists and campaigners.

“There are many environmental doomsday scenarios, but even climate change and soil erosion are two-edged swords which produce winners and losers,” said Professor Stocking, Dean of Development Studies at UEA and an expert on soil management.

“While hilltop farmers in Sri Lanka, for example, may suffer as water and nutrients run off their land, farmers down in the valley below benefit greatly from enriched soils and so provide for local food needs.”

Experts visiting tropical regions often exaggerate the problems faced by local farmers, especially if they visit in the dry season when everything looks dead. But many tropical soils are resilient and even some areas that were degraded can come back to life within a couple of years with the right management.

Science does not always get it right and does not necessarily provide workable or acceptable solutions. Soils are dynamic and respond to demands placed on them. If simple provisions such as access to technology are made available, food production by smallholders can be transformed.

“Often local people have the solutions and the appropriate technologies – not necessarily the technologies we would use in the west. We need to understand what local farmers are doing and suggest that others try something similar,” said Professor Stocking.

Working with the United Nations and over 200 developing country scientists, Professor Stocking’s group at UEA has collected numerous examples of sustainable management of tropical soils by smallholder farmers that ensure future food supplies, while protecting the environment.

Eastern Ugandan farmers have turned to diversity, planting coffee, bananas and coco-yam together, which provide local foodstuffs and healthy crops to sell on the international market while reducing the chances of disease and erosion.

“It’s wonderful conservation. This and many similar examples make me optimistic for the future. The answer doesn’t just – in the old phrase – lie in the soil; it lies in listening to those who tend it, and in getting them to spread the word,” he said.

* ’Tropical Soils and Food Security: The Next 50 Years’, by M A Stocking, appears in the November 21, 2003 edition of Science.

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