Instead of One Size Fits All, Many Innovations for Improving Small-Scale Agriculture

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By Matt Styslinger

In the past, a one-size fits all approach to agricultural production has crippled attempts to encourage long-term sustainability. Many approaches have emphasized chemical and other high-tech and expensive inputs, in favor of short-term gains. Our attention has been focused on a narrow range of crops, while only a few technologies, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, get funding. But many less well known—and less well funded— approaches, such as those that consider regional and ecosystem-specific nuances, have the potential to reduce negative impacts of agriculture and increase production over the long-term.

The National Research Council’s Committee on Twenty-first Century Systems Agriculture has published a new report, Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century, which examines different approaches in “sustainable agriculture.” The report highlights strengths and weaknesses of these approaches for improving agricultural sustainability and reducing the costs and unintended consequences of agricultural production. It also evaluates how some of these approaches could improve the sustainability of small-scale agricultural systems in less developed countries.

Innovations outlined in the report which are gaining notoriety through scientific evidence include:

  • Soil management Conservation tillage and cover cropping help maintain soil integrity.
  • Crop and vegetation diversity management– Crop rotation, intercropping, cultivar mixtures, and management of non-crop vegetation improve biodiversity and reduce the risk of crop loss.
  • Water-use management – Irrigation alternatives, water reuse, and small dams cut costs and environmental impact.
  • Water quality management – Wetlands and buffers reduce the negative impacts of agricultural runoff.
  • Nutrient management – Legumes, animal manure, and compost can improve soil quality and crop performance.

Some of these practices are already well-established on small-scale farms and in various parts of the developing world.  In Durban, South Africa, for example, Enaleni Farm uses alternating intercropping of plants for pest control and animal manure and composting for fertilizer (see For Pest Control, Following Nature’s Lead). In the Mokolodi Wildlife Preserve in Botswana, farmers are using the principles of permaculture — by growing indigenous vegetables, recycling water for irrigation, and using organic fertilizers — to raise food while simultaneously restoring the natural surroundings for animal conservation (see In Botswana, Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Conservation). In many cases, these approaches require farmers to have an enhanced knowledge of local ecosystems, watersheds, and crop species.

Stay tuned for more about some of the innovations outlined in the NRC report.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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