Investing in small-scale local farm activities can take on rural poverty, sustainability, and nutrition challenges according to a report released today by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development. The report, Transforming Food Systems for Rural Prosperity, recommends supporting all elements of food production, not just growing crops. Expanding the focus of food systems to include storing, processing, and marketing will result in an expansion of job opportunities, especially for women and young people. Many of the small-scale farmers, agrifood entrepreneurs, and rural workers who work to make the global food supply are unable to earn a decent living, an indictment of the current model.
Why This Matters: Small-scale farming is part of the climate solution. Farms that are two hectares and smaller produce about a third of the world’s food, so how they grow and distribute their products matters. The current global agriculture system, focused on productivity over all else, has paradoxically led to an increase in malnutrition and food waste. Another paradox: modern food systems create 37% of greenhouse gas emissions, but a warming planet is already changing where food can be grown.
The report emphasizes the importance of taking local conditions and politics into account and makes the following recommendations for policy makers establishing “nutrient-dense, knowledge-intensive, circular and equitable agricultural systems”:
Create opportunities for smallholder farmers to diversify, such as where and how they can sell their products and growing a wider range of crops.
Incentivize sustainable production so that farming can move away from maximizing output and focus on optimizing natural resource use.
Invest in local farm-level research and educational programming that bridges the divide between farmer-led indigenous knowledge and public and private research and innovation.
“Current food growing practices are not good for our environment,” Dr. Jyotsna Puri, Associate Vice President of IFAD’s Strategy and Knowledge Department, said in a statement. “It is clear that we need a revolution. A revolution so dramatic that previous versions of food systems are unrecognizable.”
Between 1830 and 1912 meat consumption per head almost doubled in Britain. This was made possible by the transformation of huge swathes of the planet into grazing land for cattle. Following the lifting of the embargo on live animal importation in 1842, Britain became, in the words of Otter, ‘the stud farm of the world’, as selectively bred cattle breeds from Hereford and Aberdeen came to dominate the landscape of New Mexico and the River Plate.
As late as 1930, Otter calculates that more than 90 percent of Argentina’s beef exports were going to Britain. As meat became more abundant it also became abstracted from nature, mediated by technology and distance, with cattle governed as vast overseas populations and beef arriving as standardised slabs on refrigerated ships.
A similar process happened with wheat. The abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 marked the symbolic beginning of a century of liberal free trade imperialism, but it also transformed the ecology of distant continents. In the ensuing decades, vast zones of the world were transformed into breadbaskets for Britain’s expanding population. Fields of wheat destined for the exploding populations of London, Manchester and Glasgow carpeted the Russian steppes, the Punjab, Australia, and Kansas. By the late 1880s, 70 percent of US wheat exports went to Britain. By the early twentieth century Britain imported more than two-fifths of all wheat entering world trade.
Sugar, initially grown by enslaved people in the Caribbean, was one of the earliest and one of the most consequential ‘large planet’ foods. Consumption of sugar tripled in Britain between 1750 and 1900. Providing a cheap and efficient source of energy for an increasingly urban working class, sugar was a crucial historical link connecting extreme forms of racialised violence in the empire with the industrial revolution at home.
The mass importation of sugar and the industrialisation of food production more broadly remade British diets and bodies. By the early twentieth century tooth decay was endemic among working-class children, with one 1925 study finding that 13 percent of all children’s teeth were rotten beyond repair. Soft food was thought by contemporaries to be changing the shape of British people’s heads, as sagging jaws produced ‘pinched-in, hatchet-shaped’ faces.
The ‘ghost acres’ laid out to produce food on almost every continent allowed first Britons, and later many other nations in the Global North to, in the words of Otter, indulge in ‘the thermodynamically implausible’ idea that ‘growth could continue without biogeochemical consequences.’ This food system enabled an explosion in Britain’s population. In 1798, when Thomas Malthus argued that Britain’s population had reached the limit of what could be sustained by the country’s food and energy supplies, there were 8 million people living in Britain. A hundred years later there would be more than 30 million.
It’s really...borderline painful to me that so many people who lionize farming, and either do it or dream of doing it, are all about the self reliance and radical independence. Guys...GUYS...farming is literally the foundation of civilization. The whole POINT, culturally, historically, of farming, is that it allows people to produce more food than they need, which allows for specialization. And specialization is GOOD, because it allows people to get better at a thing than a generalist who also has to do ten other things today will likely ever get.
I like to learn to do things. I am often reasonably good at them. I have dabbled in fiber arts, leatherwork, sewing, 2-D art, wood carving, just all sorts of things. We often find that doing something ourselves is adequate and cheaper--or more ethical, the way things are. BUT I just simply do not have the time to be any good at more than a small handful of things.
So I buy my chicken coop from people who are really good at making chicken coops. In fact, so much better at it than I will likely ever be that they can source materials and use tools more efficiently than I ever would. By specializing, they make a better product with fewer resources. This is a feature of specialization! I sell my wool to people who want to put in the time to use it to its potential. I raise lots of chickens because I really like raising chickens and am set up to do it, but I buy half a hog from a local friend who likes raising hogs, because I have enough feeders and waterers to clean out every day, thanks, I do not need more different types of animals.
And of course, farmers help each *other* and probably always have. They share equipment. One guy does small engine repair on the side, the other runs beef cattle on the first guy’s property so he qualifies for ag tax rates. They bring in each other’s hay because that has to happen fast when it happens.
Farming is STILL the foundation of civilization, inherently, inescapably. And right now, most of that foundation is exploitative, extractive, unsustainable, and owned by megacorporations that are straight up cartoonishly evil. If we want a healthier culture, it starts with farms willing to build community, not more Rugged Individualism.
I saw a book on living from nature recommended on youtube, so I dug around to see if I could find a pdf. And I did! The book is called 'Back to Basics'.
I've been gobbling it up and it's incredible. I'm only at the start, but it tells you in detail, all about buying the land, how to tell if the land is what you need, how to build a home from scratch, even to know to cut your own lumber by hand! It's incredibly encouraging, reminding you that people did this for thousands of years, these are timeless skills, and you can do it too. I've only read 60 pages and I already know more about construction than I ever did.
The book also covers getting energy from Wood, Water, Wind and Sun, Growing your own food, Food Preservation, Skills and Crafts for Homestead, Recreation at home and in the Wild. You will likely see me gush about new info I try out from it because I can already tell this will be crazy useful.
Oh and did I mention? It's written by a woman. Here's a pdf and be blessed.
From Seed to Market: How NASA brings food to the table
Did you know we help farmers grow some of your favorite fruits, veggies and grains?
Our Earth-observing satellites track rainfall amounts, soil moisture, crop health, and more. On the ground, we partner with agencies and organizations around the world to help farmers use that data to care for their fields.
Here are a few ways we help put food on the table, from planting to harvest.
Did you plant seeds in science class to watch them sprout and grow? They all needed water, right? Our data helps farmers “see” how moist the soil is across large fields.
“When you’re not sure when to water your flowers or your garden, you can look at the soil or touch it with your hands. We are sort of ‘feeling’ the soil, sensing how much water is in the soil – from a satellite,
685 kilometers (408 miles) above Earth,” said John Bolten, the associate program manager of water resources for NASA’s Applied Sciences Program.
This spring, we worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and George Mason University to release Crop-CASMA, a tool that shows soil moisture and vegetation conditions for the United States. Able to see smaller areas – about the size of a couple of golf courses – the USDA uses Crop-CASMA to help update farmers on their state’s soil moisture, crop health and growing progress.
It’s dangerous being a seedling.
Heavy spring rains or summer storms can flood fields and drown growing plants. Dry spells and droughts can starve them of nutrients. Insects and hail can damage them. Farmers need to keep a close eye on plants during the spring and summer months. Our data and programs help them do that.
For example, in California, irrigation is essential for agriculture. California’s Central Valley annually produces more than 250 types of crops and is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country – but it’s dry. Some parts only get 6 inches of rain per year.
To help, Landsat data powers CropManage – an app that tells farmers how long to irrigate their fields, based on soil conditions and evapotranspiration, or how much water plants are releasing into the atmosphere. The warmer and drier the atmosphere, the more plants “sweat” and lose water that needs to be replenished. Knowing how long to irrigate helps farmers conserve water and be more efficient. In years like 2021, intense droughts can make water management especially critical.
Leading up to harvest, farmers need to know their expected yields – and profits.
GEOGLAM, or the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring Initiative, is a partnership between NASA Harvest, USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and other global agencies to track and report on crop conditions around the world.
USDA FAS is one of the main users of a soil moisture measurement product developed by Bolten and his team at our NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to drive their crop forecasting system.
If you’re interested in more ways we support agriculture, stay tuned over the next few weeks to learn more about how satellites (and scientists) help put snacks on your table!
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