Indigenous Cultures Rediscover Sustainable Farming Practices


In writing “Hope’s Edge“, Frances Moore Lappé and Anne Lappé traveled to India, Bangladesh, Brasil, Poland, England, France, and the California Bay Area to look at the different ways food is grown and distributed. What they discovered about the systems of food production in places like Belo Horizonte, Brasil and Andhra Pradesh, India are inspiring and surprising.

“Hunger is caused by a scarcity of democracy, not a scarcity of food.”

– Diet For A Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé

What is Belo Horizonte doing that every city in the world should do? They took the challenge of poverty and hunger that was afflicting their city head on.

Belo Horizonte, Brasil - Population 5.4 million

In so doing, they realized that access to nutritious, healthy food was a basic right and, as a group of elected officials, they had a responsibility to the people of Belo Horizonte to make sure the market worked for them, in providing access to healthy, local and organic food. Out of this realization, a strong social movement to transform their food system took hold.

Seven years after this shift in consciousness, dozens of innovative projects emerged.  They looked at where government money was being spent and where new initiatives could better serve the people.

One of the projects that came out of this initiative was a fresh look at how the school food program was being run.

Belo Horizonte’s School Lunch Program Goes Sustainable

The City realized that they were spending significant amounts of money to purchase government processed food that was not very nutritious and needed to be trucked in from long distances. They said why don’t we support our local farms and in doing so, provide local, organic produce that is nutritious and supports local, organic farmers. The goals were to;

  • Supply healthier food to children
  • Support local organic farmers
  • Support regional economy
  • Become more self-reliant

Fast food companies were advertising in schools in an effort to influence the buying habits of young children. So, they launched a public education program to inform and educate children on what foods are healthy and nutritious.

The Results Speak For Themselves

After 7 years and spending 1% of the city’s budget (equivalent to 1 penny per person per day), they have dramatically improved basic childhood health indicators. The result has been decreased hunger overall and has lowered child mortality rates by 60% in the span of only 10 years.

Deccan Plateau, in Andhra Pradesh, India

Even in New York, food deserts do exist. New York City has just launched ‘Green Carts‘ to mitigate this urban phenomena. Small carts are filled with fresh produce and delivered into areas where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is non-existent.

The Thinking Around ‘Food Scarcity’ Needs To Change

People often cite that those most in need cannot concern themselves with eating local organic foods when they are faced with just putting food on the table. The claim has been that the organic food movement has been elitist and ruled by the ‘global north’.

Ms. Lappé counters by saying that what is elitist, is the current food production model because it excludes the many to favor the few. The global north is not where the only shifts are taking place in the effort to regain our agricultural heritage. Some of the poorest regions in the world are showing that a return to indigenous farming practices are yielding impressive results.

Leaders in Global Sustainable Farming Movement

The women living in villages of the Deccan Plateau, in Andhra Pradesh, India are becoming leaders in the “global movement” toward sustainable agricultural practices. They have rejected the disaster resulting from local farmers growing GM (genetically modified) seeds supplied to them from Monsanto. GM seeds need to be purchased from Monsanto after each harvest often causing the farmers to go in debt. Using non-regenerative seeds them has only brought devastating crop failures, resulting in farmers that are committing suicide at an alarming rate.

The local farmers are now going back to the indigenous practices of their ancestors, by teaching each other the ritual of seed sharing, diverse cropping methods and creating their own safety nets for their village in times of drought. They are even filming this whole process and sharing it with the world.

Balwadi grain contribution

One village seed-keeper showed samples of the 25-30 varieties of seeds (no wheat or rice) that she cares for and grows on about one hectare of land. The basic staple crops are a diversity of millets and sorghums. Millet seeds are tiny, but they do well in the dry Deccan plateau.  All had their value for both food and cattle fodder and together provided a balanced diet. As a seed-keeper, she does not own the seeds, and others in the village ‘borrow’ seeds from her, returning 1.5 to 2 times the quantity of seeds borrowed after harvest. Thus, the village stock of seeds grows and diversifies.

People in this region are some of the poorest in the world and they are in leadership roles within the sustainable food movement. The key is rebuilding food production systems that are not reliant upon synthetic fertilizers, which use huge amounts of fossil fuels and natural gas to produce. Changing to a more sustainable system of growing crops will reduce the impact to the poorest regions of the world, that are most affected by climate change.

Farming in Ethiopia Undergoes Ground Breaking Shift

Women of the Deccan Plateau, India filming indigenous seed-saving practices

Small-scale farmers in Ethiopia are also turning back to the native crops that are indigenous to the region. Historically, these indigenous plants have survived countless droughts while providing subsistence farmers a reliable livelihood.

The sustainable practices in the most drought prone regions in Ethiopia are having dramatic increases on crop yields using techniques that are affordable and safe. These farmers can’t afford to buy seeds that will put them in debt. Organic and sustainable farming practices mean the farmers are not reliant on chemical fertilizers, which are costly and deplete the soil of their organic matter over time.

Plant Resilience Means Human Resilience

When people begin to have the capacity to feed themselves from the land, to not be in debt to the corporations and to do it in a sustainable way, they build confidence in themselves.  Then, with this new-found self-reliance, they begin to experiment with crops, well-suited to their particular soil and weather pattern. They begin to break away from the dogma of conventional agriculture sold to them by the Monsantos and DuPonts of the world.

To survive in the 21st century, these farming communities need to adapt to a constantly changing climate pattern due to global warming. They can do this without GMOs and interference from agribusiness. Farmers that grow drought resilient crops native to their land, are themselves, becoming more resilient to an ever changing and unpredictable climate future.

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