BY Gary Kenny
Like so many small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, where climate change is compounding chronic poverty and the challenges of growing enough food for daily sustenance, farmer Asnakech Zema has struggled to feed her family. Far too often hunger has knocked on the door of her modest mud and wattle bungalow in Ethiopia’s southern highlands.
One day, when Zema noticed that a neighbouring farmer working the same soil as hers was realizing greater yields, she had to know why. The neighbour, she learned, had been trained in something called “conservation agriculture” (CA), and there was a Canadian connection.
When she told her husband of her plan to be trained in CA, he chided her. Having grown cynical after years of working the farm with dwindling harvests, he wasn’t keen on his wife’s proposed “experiment” and thought the training a waste. But Zema stood her ground – and was rewarded for her resolve.
After just one year of practicing CA her yields of corn, wheat, beans, millet, taro root and other food crops the Zema family relies upon had increased. In time, not only was there a continuous supply of nutritious food for the family table, there was also surplus – produce Zema could share with community members or sell on local markets.
As part of her CA training Zema also learned marketing skills and joined a local savings and loans group. Its women members saved money together to acquire and raise goats and sell them for profit.
“Life was very stressful for me,” Zema said of pre-CA years. Her 10 children would sometimes go to bed hungry, and the costs of paying taxes and school fees, buying better clothes for her kids, and making improvements to the family’s house were a continuous burden.
“Thanks be to God, (with CA) we have gained surplus agriculture products year after year that sustain us,” she said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zema’s once-doubting husband is now a believer.
Zema’s is a good news story replicated elsewhere in Africa and the developing world where humanitarian organizations are working with local partners to sow seeds for a food-secure future. One of them is the Winnipeg-based Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB).
A household name in many of Canada’s farming communities, CFGB is a partnership of 15 Canadian churches and church-based agencies with a mission to “work together to end global hunger.” It partners with organizations in developing countries to help meet emergency food needs and achieve long-term solutions to hunger. In Ethiopia, it works with Terepeza Development Association which trained Zema and other Ethiopian smallholders in CA. It also fosters action by Canadians and governments in support of its objectives.
Appropriate, locally-sourced emergency food assistance is one of two main ways the Foodgrains Bank addresses global food insecurity. The other is its Agriculture and Livelihoods program where CA and other long-term development initiatives are situated.
The mainstay of the Foodgrains Bank’s capacity to raise funds for its overseas programming is the literally hundreds of registered local community growing projects across Canada. They vary in size from a few acres to hundreds. Typically, farmers plant, tend and harvest a crop, sell it on the Canadian market, and then donate the earnings to the Foodgrains Bank.
For many years the Canadian government has matched public donations further incentivizing fundraising at community levels.
Local businesses also donate inputs such as seed and fertilizer along with services including trucking, insurance or promotion. Their contributions help keep costs down and build local community by bringing people together in support of the CFGB’s humanitarian efforts.
For 20 years, farmer Larry Dyck has been involved in or hosted local growing projects on his family’s 2,400-acre farm in Vineland, Ontario. Under the banner “Grow Hope” the projects, which are supported by several denominations and vary in design, have grown an array of carefully rotated crops including wheat, sunflowers, corn, canola, an oat-pea mix, and more.
For Dyck, a Mennonite, the Foodgrains Bank’s global humanitarian mission work fits nicely with his family’s lifelong commitment to use their resources to help people and communities in need. “We’ve been privileged to have been born in one of the wealthiest countries on our planet,” Dyck said. “Yes, we’re in business to make money, [but] we’re also in business to give.”
Dyck is especially impressed with how CA is positively impacting the lives of farmers in the Global South, women especially. According to the UN, on average women comprise 47 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries where gender relations are traditional and in some countries the number is much higher.
“The lives of women farmers [in the Global South] are very busy,” Dyck says. “They have to walk sometimes long distances to fetch water, do the planting, tending and harvesting, and on top of that look after children and prepare daily meals,” he adds.
Simcoe County farmer Keven Eisses chairs the Loaves and Fishes growing project in Simcoe County. Sale of crops from the project’s 90-plus acres as well as donations from area churches and others raised $135,000 for the Foodgrains Bank in 2022. Eisses especially appreciates the CFGB’s ecumenical nature which he says is reflected in Loaves and Fishes.
In 2015 Eisses participated in a CFGB study tour to Ethiopia where he witnessed how CA provides “hope to struggling families who can’t produce enough food to feed themselves (through no fault of their own),” owing to the many challenges, global warming among them, that farmers face.
The core principles of CA are designed to agroecologically harmonize farming patterns with the rhythms of nature on smallholder farms that average one to four acres in size. They include building the soil and improving its fertility, carefully rotating crops to prevent soil-borne diseases and pestilence, mulching crops to suppress weeds, and planting cover crops to fortify the soil and prevent erosion. All are measures farmers can apply by using resources available locally, thus sparing the cost of fertilizers, pesticides and other expensive agricultural inputs.
The CFGB has been supporting CA projects since 2004, and according to executive director Andy Harrington, they’ve been “terrifically successful.”
A recent five-year project demonstrated that success writ large. From 2015-2020 the Foodgrains Bank worked with African partners in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania to scale up CA in the east African region. The project was a collaborative effort by CFGB members Mennonite Central Committee Canada, World Renew and Tearfund Canada. Its goal was to improve food security and sustainable livelihoods across the region. Canadians donated $4.67 million to the project and the Government of Canada $14 million.
The hope was to benefit 18,000 households across 241 communities. End-of-project results far exceeded expectations: over 51,000 households improved their food security and increased the quantity and quality of their foods.
Considering the extent of food insecurity in the world and its intersecting causes, ending global hunger might seem a tall order for humanitarian organizations like CFGB, and the more so at present. According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), “The world is (currently) facing a food crisis of unprecedented proportions, the largest in modern history.”
As of the end of 2022, WFP reports, 828 million people are experiencing persistent hunger, a number that’s expected to grow. A total of 49 million people in 49 countries are teetering on the edge of famine. In Zema’s country of Ethiopia alone, more than seven million people are acutely food insecure due to the cascading crises of conflict, economic disruptions and climate change – all have conspired to cause a three-year drought, unprecedented in length.
“Five years ago, we were seeing global hunger decreasing. It was wonderful news, and even if the decrease was modest, it was something to celebrate,” says Harrington. “The upward trend toward greater hunger in the world we’re seeing now – it’s alarming.”
Conflict, climate shocks, the economic fallout of COVID-19, the threat of global recession and more are the drivers behind what WFP calls a “seismic” food security crisis. The interplay of these drivers, WFP adds, “is making life harder each day for the world’s most vulnerable people and reversing recent development gains.”
Protracted poverty underlies and compounds the current crisis, says the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD). According to the most recent (2015) UN estimates, 10 percent of the world’s population, or 734 million people, lived on less than $1.90 a day. Those numbers will increase significantly with the socio-economic effects of the pandemic, the UN adds.
The poverty and food insecurity experienced by small-scale farmers like Zema are not of their own immediate making, CAFOD says. They are the consequence not only of recent droughts and other shocks, but of hundreds of years of colonialism – political, social, cultural and economic domination and control.
For the early colonizing European states, colonialism was primarily economic in motive. It served to supplement European profits and markets through the extraction of natural resources including food, rubber, ivory, minerals, lumber – and of course people through slavery and indentured servitude.
Before colonialism, small-scale farmers grew a diverse range of local food crops, CAFOD says. That diversity ensured balanced diets and enabled farmers to feed their families and manage risks. Surplus was used for trade and investment to cover other needs. Hunger and malnutrition did not stalk farmers the way they do now.
Under colonial rule in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, CAFOD adds, many farmers were coerced into growing a few crops for export – cotton, wheat, sugar, tobacco and groundnuts among them. Roads, railways and other infrastructure were built to facilitate the export of these products to European countries, bringing economic benefits to the colonial powers but little gain to the producing countries, especially farmers who were paid low prices for their crops.
The focus on a limited number of export crops resulted in serious food shortages as agricultural efforts were redirected away from sustainable diversified crop production and meeting local food security needs. In Ghana, Kenya and Senegal, for example, export crops are now grown on more than 50 percent of arable land, while at the same time food to feed local people is imported.
Many of the underlying causes of hunger in the world “can be directly linked, in part, to the colonial legacy of focusing on exports of a few staple crops, while importing food to feed local people,” says Graham Gordon, CAFOD’s head of public policy.
Harrington recognizes the complex interplay of factors that perpetuate global hunger today. “We are trying to think more on a systems level and become more aware of some of the global context of hunger,” he says. CA, for example, is almost always now combined with other relevant project elements including gender empowerment, policy work, marketing strategies and livestock production – measures to promote local, diverse, resilient systems especially important during this time of climate change. “It’s a journey we’re on,” Harrington added. “It’s about more than what comes from the earth.”
CFGB’s humanitarian sojourn also includes holding itself accountable for the ways its aid practices might be contributing to contemporary colonialism. In its new strategic plan, “Until All Are Fed” (2022-2026), it pledges to work “with our members, their international partners and the wider church community in Canada to enhance understanding around the decolonization of aid practices.”
We look forward to leadership from our global partners on these issues, Harrington said. Consultation must be meaningful, “not top down from rich countries.”
Added Harrington, “We’re not sitting here saying we have all the answers. We’re saying…we acknowledge these problems exist and we’re going to do all we can to enter the conversation with humility and with inspiration to be part of the solution.” ◊