Wanted: another revolution

2011-12-09 00:00

THE word “revolution” is often misused. It tends to be confused with insurrections against … well anything. But there have been revolutions that have marked significant turning points in the history of humankind — the Industrial Revolution is an example and another is one that erupted millennia ago. An agrarian revolution radically altered the survival ability of populations. Nomadic humans grouped into settlements and with this came the domestication of animals, planting of crops and the need for storage of food. Millennia later, a second agrarian revolution came along with the development of market towns and cities and the need for large-scale food production. Today, a proposed third revolution is being mooted to address the constraints of large-scale food production and food security.

Changing climate and the destructive forces that have been unleashed on vulnerable communities are concerns driving debate at COP17 in Durban this week. For some it is regarded as a talk shop of the powerful, where outcomes are uncertain, and probably more so as the world struggles with an economic depression. In counterpoint to this therefore, it is encouraging to know that ordinary people around the globe continue to look for local solutions to the changing global environment in their own communities. One such is South African Antony Trowbridge who for many years has been advocating the need for a third agricultural revolution.

The next agricultural revolution as understood by Trowbridge would return farming to the individual, to provide food security for people whom large-scale food production cannot reach.

Support for this approach to food production is supported by a wide range of sustainable development theorists, institutions and governments, albeit indirectly. Our government’s own White Paper on Climate Change states: “Globally agriculture is a key contributor to climate change, being responsible for about 14% of all green-house gas emissions. Agriculture is the largest consumer of water (through irrigation) and is vulnerable to changes in water availability, increased pollution, soil erosion and to increased evapotranspiration.”

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global partnership for sustainable development, echoes these statements adding that agriculture in its current form uses up to 70% of developed water resources. As the world’s population continues to grow, many of the have nots will only have access to unsafe water for growing food and for household use.

More concerning is a statement from the Third Water Forum in Kyoto in 2003 which noted that water had become the source of “dangerous friction” between developing nations and that water, not oil would be the “greatest potential cause for future conflict”.

Professors Julian Cribb, Australian science writer, and Mohammed Karaan, dean of sciences at Stellenbosch University, both strongly support the development of the small-scale farmer to boost food security in the country and thereby multiply food supply using less water and less land.

The simple technology of growing in circles may provide the answer. Circle growing was first presented by Dr Derald Langham (1913 – 1991), founder of the Genesa Foundation, at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002. The logic of circle cultivation incorporates all the principles of natural cultivation with a permanent root irrigation system.

The method of cultivating in circles uses minimal water, as the soil is watered and not the plant. Plants are fed by nutrients from below not above which keeps the roots shallow.

In the years leading on from the World Summit, Trowbridge and his associates have further developed circle cultivation and are now collaborating in a programme titled “Working with Water in KwaZulu-Natal” that has adopted the technology for the programme’s Rural Renewal Strategy. The circle project has started in a village called Mziki which lacks adequate water and has poor soils. As cultivation has taken off, 30 smallholders in the remote rural village are involved in the co-operative venture. They are creating a profitable, highly nutritional growing programme while at the same time home dwellers are being amply supplied with nutritional food. On a human capital scale, employment is being generated and training (Learning-by-Doing) is assisting retrenched or returning workers from the cities. A key factor is that input costs are minimal.

Fundamental to the programme is the learning-by-doing and applying knowledge provided in modules of self-instruction. It promotes a community collaborative structure which creates the missing link between a community and the external environment.

In the year of COP17, these initiatives to reduce water usage and the carbon footprint, introduce food security as well as the efforts to promote wide-scale sustainable agricultural techniques, would appear to speak to the government’s White Paper on National Climate Change. It would also appear to address the National Planning Commission’s Vision 2030 rural focus that speaks of the need to stimulate small-scale agriculture and raise employment in rural areas, through a rural development strategy by raising agricultural output, and supporting small farmers.

• Rachel Browne is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute. She writes in her personal capacity.

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