For most of human history, agriculture has been widely practiced for individual sustenance as well as the preservation of human communities. Over time, we learnt to adopt a more nomadic lifestyle, moving with the changing seasons to adapt quicker to various factors in our surrounding environment. Back in the day, some of the biggest influences on agriculture were geography, nature of land and water, weather conditions and climate amongst others. These factors decided what could be grown, by whom and where. With the advancement in science and technology though, mankind has come to overcome many of these influences by practicing industrial or mechanized agriculture. Innovations such as irrigation right through to hydroponics means that today, farmers can now grow food in places that weren’t before. All in all, never in human history has man produced as much food as we do today; roughly 40% of the Earth’s land is used for agriculture.
The downside of course is that our reliance on industrial agriculture has given rise to a new concern about the environment itself. Agriculture currently accounts for nearly a quarter of global greenhouse emissions. Machinery-driven farming (with such attendant ills as land clearing, soil compaction and erosion) releases carbon into the atmosphere and leaves lands severely degraded for sustainable agriculture. About 37% of methane emissions result from industrial farming practices (raising livestock) and methane has a global warming potential 20 times higher than carbon dioxide. As if this isn’t enough, the fossil fuels used in energy, transportation, and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers emit about 90 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year along with harmful compounds like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia that can cause negative human health effects.
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From start to finish, industrial farming is responsible for the abuse of land, animals, and natural resources all in a bid to provide as much food as possible to very large numbers of people. Replacing small-scale farms, where a variety of crops and animals were raised in congruence with single-crop farms and “animal production facilities,” industrial farming to date continues to work untold hardship and amass a huge carbon debt on the global food system. Now given that more land is not being created, it is important that we find ways to ensure that agricultural land remains viable for future generations.
Last year, I wrote an article in which I explained that regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems that focuses primarily on us doing our best to improve, naturally enhance and strengthen the vitality of our farm soils. It is a concept that encourages us to leave farm lands better than we found it, so as to improve its health which will in turn also positively influence the wellbeing of our environment. Before I wrote this article, I hadn’t been familiar with this agricultural principle myself. In the course of my research though, I realised that since I periodically come up with ways to improve the health of my Nigerian farmland, I already practice ‘regenerative’ farming, without fully grasping what it was.
I also found it interesting to learn that while the concept of regenerative agriculture has been practiced in various forms for quite some time, it seems to have only gone mainstream in recent years. So last month, on assignment, I decided to explore local agricultural practices. My goal was to see how regenerative agriculture was practiced by Nigerian farmers with little and minimal resources and if possible to find other practices that may be introduced to the rest of the world. To answer these and other questions, I visited Ebonyi State, a largely agrarian state in South-Eastern Nigeria. This state is known for its agricultural prowess and traditional methods some of which date back centuries.
You see, in many parts of our world today farming has changed. Farming for many is really not about land anymore since with the introduction of genetically modified seeds, your plants can grow well with or without soil nutrients. And if you do use some soil, synthetic fertilizers are more commonly introduced to achieve nutrient goals for crops. The result is that in reality, the well-being of the land no longer counts for much in many parts of the modern world. What seems to matter a lot more is that we are able to produce food pretty enough to sell, and make more money to buy all the synthetic inputs you need to produce even more.
In Ebonyi, I found that things are vastly different from what now seems to be the norm. The wonders of modern agriculture have not yet arrived here and at best, farming is done semi-manually. That means that in this region, a farmer’s agricultural yields depend almost entirely on the health of his or her farm land. A direct consequence of this is that the farmers understand that they have to treat their lands lovingly for them to yield good products. For the people of Ebonyi, there is a constant effort to ensure that the land is left better off than it was found. There is no sophisticated machinery here, no complicated methodology; all that is healthy is directed to the land. And this too all with resources created within the context of the farm.
This farming method or practice has no name but has been practiced for so long that the farmers tell me that it’s just the way things are. For instance, Ebonyi State is known for rice farming. When rice is harvested, cows are released into the rice farms to feed on the stalks and in turn manure the soil with their dung. When the rice is milled, the husks are dried and used as flooring for poultry houses. Periodically, this flooring is removed along with the rich manure of poultry droppings and is spread in the farm. This makes the farm rich enough for another round of rice cultivation. The cycle continues.
Now for the kicker – and this is the most important lesson from my trip – while it is important to prepare the farmland for another farming season, that is not the goal here. The aim, as the farmers insisted, is for their farm lands to be well. Even if they don’t get to farm it for some time, it really matters to them to ensure that whoever does will meet a land as generous as it has always been.
After many conversations, I realised that the word to describe this relationship is one not associated with agriculture; love. These farmers quite simply love their lands. They know firsthand that the survival of their parents and family were tied closely to the lands they now farm and they do not take this lightly. Even today, their farmlands continue to help them put their children through school and lead happy lives. This experience is rare, but everyone has them I think, where you momentarily feel that being human does not make you a higher being of sorts, and you experience your interconnectedness with a facet of Mother Nature.
There isn’t a better way to explain this but I learnt that these farmers experience this interconnectivity through their histories they share with their lands. Everyone who has ever owned a farm or worked in one would recognize this relationship in some way. Watching my founding editor Jennifer Nini’s reels on Instagram, you can’t help but recognize that this is a labor of love. That same love is what I witnessed in Ebonyi and I came away humbled.
Sadly, this may not be enough. 90% of the world’s agricultural goods are cultivated by smallholder farms and while this is good, the bad news is that these farmers control almost nothing else in the value chain. For instance, in the United States, seeds are controlled by a few huge multinational corporations while the quality of produce is determined by yet another multinational corporation that will buy them. So, the smallholder farmer has limited choice than to play by the rules of these corporations who we know from experience couldn’t care any less about the land itself.
If we are ever going to recover our lands, make them better, then we have to go back to the times when what was good for the land was decided by people who actually care about the land. If we are going to save the lands for future generations, then agricultural practices would have to do a little less with figures and profits and a little more with care and love for the land.
This love, I think, is something that multinational corporations cannot understand. No matter how much greenery and sustainable buzzwords they put on their brochures or on their Instagram feeds.
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Cover image of women harvesting wheat in Kano, Nigeria via Flickr.