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Farm Sustainability Corps Can Make Farming More Lucrative, Secure Food Supply

By J.E. Robertson |

Soil erosion is just one of the many factors of sustained entropy undermining the global agricultural capacity, and by extension the global food supply. Desertification affecting sub-Saharan Africa, including the expansion of the indomitable Sahara, and across northwestern China, poses a very real threat to cropland feeding hundreds of millions of people. A farm sustainability corps could help deliver resources, know-how and restorative and sustainable soil conservation practices to the most affected areas.

A coordinated volunteer corps —backed by massive funding from wealthy nations and in association with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP)— bringing together NGOs, engineers, scientists, farming experts, suppliers and policy-makers, would have the ability to help restore sustainable farming methods, including protections against soil degradation and topsoil erosion. It would also help protect against the risks of monoculture, over-pumping of aquifers and deforestation that contributes to the breakdown of key ecosystem services necessary for productive, sustainable agriculture.

The project will require not only soil conservation techniques but also large-scale efforts to restore natural systems that help prevent excessive flooding, runoff, and wind erosion, like mountainside forest cover and healthy river-fed ecosystems. When China saw deforestation contributing to the catastrophic Yangtze River flooding that caused $30 billion worth of damage to an area inhabited by hundreds of millions of people, the government banned tree-cutting throughout the Yangtze River basin, valuing standing trees at 3 times the value of cut trees.

The standing trees, with their collective effect of providing forest cover and the thirsty soil where they are rooted, provide a complex natural “service” that is hugely expensive to replace technologically, and virtually impossible to do in as effective, subtle and flexible a way as nature does it: halting rampant runoff and keeping topsoil more or less in place, even amid heavy flooding. The problem has been seen in various nations where deforestation led to catastrophic flooding.

South Korea has labored seriously to reforest much of its once barren countryside, helping to restore both fertility to its soil and rainwater runoff protection to its hill country and the low-lying areas below. Haiti’s near total deforestation has led to a situation where hurricanes almost automatically cause flooding, mudslides and numerous deaths that could be avoided were there forest cover in the mountains above the floodplains.

The Philippines was forced to grapple with the same problem, when monsoon rains not only flooded dozens of villages, but caused catastrophic landslides, killing hundreds. The president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared an indefinite moratorium on illegal logging, blaming the practice for the landslides and the high number of deaths.

Such indirect relationships between unsustainable resource exploitation and the erosion of arable land are key to assessing and ensuring the sustainability of farming practices. Each of the natural services related to preserving and enriching the depth, stability and fertility of topsoil, must be cultivated and cared for. How best to organize international aid and efforts to spread best-practices is one of the ongoing problems in agricultural stewardship, and a substantial international volunteer corps, with a coordinated strategy for collaboration can help do it.

Further research, and a broad evaluation of the specific fiscal and commercial pitfalls facing the most affected countries. Zimbabwe, for instance, needs to get a hold on rampant monetary inflation, flawed and degraded irrigation, and soil fertility depletion. Nigeria needs aggressive efforts to reforest the north of the country to protect against the advance of the Sahara from the north.

Nearly the entire Nile River basin needs to work against political unrest and the collapse of public services, which are hampering efforts to manage the distribution of the river’s resources, promoting the piracy of agricultural goods and the destabilization of agricultural holdings and distribution systems that guarantee the food supply. Despite the massive volume of the Nile and its tributaries, every nation along its length is experiencing either intermittent or chronic severe drought, and the river itself is in danger of failing to reach the Mediterranean.

An initial proposal for the farm sustainability corps would do well to fit the following criteria:

  • provide funds, knowhow and materials, for diversification of crop varieties — i.e., open seed banks and reduce the leverage of agribusiness over farmers’ ability to cultivate, rotate, plan and repeat their harvest;
  • deploy engineers and farming experts to targeted affected areas, to work on fast-paced restoration and ecological maintenance plans;
  • introduce sustainable, high-productivity irrigation systems that help to prevent aquifer depletion or the degradation of river systems;
  • build resilience into unique local ecosystems and natural supports that provide for agricultural stability and productive capacity;
  • scale back use of chemicals and genetically modified (GM) crops, while introducing new varieties, more efficient crop rotation, better de-pesting practices to increase yields without degrading environment;
  • help to ensure that erosion-inducing practices are minimized or eliminated;
  • institute aggressive restoration practices (like reforestation) in highly eroded areas, to prevent further loss of arable land…

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP), along with governmental agencies like the United States’ Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Peace Corps and USAID, as well as numerous investigatory bodies and NGOs —like the Clinton Global Initiative and Oxfam—, are working to achieve many of these goals in countries across the world. But a specifically chartered farming sustainability corps would be able to focus all its efforts on the complex array of factors that affect agricultural sustainability and the retention or erosion of related resources.


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