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Doug Saunders

In farming, small is deadly Add to ...

This year has been a bad one for food. A drought wiped out a quarter of the grain crop east of the Black Sea, outrageous amounts of rain have hit the Canadian and U.S. prairies hard, and sub-Saharan Africa has suffered sporadic rainfalls that have often cut crops in half.

The result has been food shortages, fast-rising bread prices for those who can least afford it, food riots in Mozambique and elsewhere, and more malnourishment.

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For those farmers who are hooked up to news wires and futures markets, this news was predictable. The Pacific Ocean currents along the equator are in the midst of switching from an unusually warm El Nino pattern, which caused excessive rain in the world's northern half, to its cold-current counterpart, the La Nina system - which is making things very dry in Africa and, soon, elsewhere.

But a great many of the world's farmers know nothing of this, as they have no connection to market information, news, futures contracts or marketing and distribution networks. They're the small-hold family farmers who do most of the growing in Asia and Africa. They are traditional, hard-working peasants who have been on the land for generations. That they remain on the land is disastrous for them, and perilous for the world's food supply. When things get dry again in Asia and Africa, these millions of farmers will be devastated by soil exhaustion and erosion caused by the previous bad drought and exacerbated by their old-style tilling practices, in a cycle they have no idea how to prevent.

Countries like Kenya and India, which should be among the world's largest exporters of grain, will desperately search for imports at escalating prices. Reliant on small family farms with no outside investment, a change in weather (or wider climate) can cause years of damage. We can ill afford to let this cycle continue.

When things get dry again in Canada, it will be a different story. Our grain farms - which tend to be small businesses, family-owned but employing a few dozen to several hundred people on mid-sized plots of land - may suffer bad seasons, but drought will not devastate them. Winds will whip across the Prairie, but the soil will stay in place, and yields are likely to increase rather than fall.

At the centre is the now widespread practice of no-till agriculture, in which the soil is left undisturbed, crop stubble is left in place and mulch is spread on the surface during seeding - a complete reversal of the 20th-century practice, which killed soil and created dust storms. Combined with the introduction of winter wheat and continuous cropping, crop diversity, advanced herbicides, novel drainage design and nitrogen management, this has produced a revolution in Canadian grain farming.

It has been a sudden revolution: In the 1990s, only a tenth of Canadian farms had abandoned tilling; by 2006, it had risen to half, and now no-till is by far the most common practice. Teams of our grain farmers have gone to Brazil and Russia to share the knowledge.

But it is lost on most of the world's farmers, who continue to till and fertilize their soil into sterile dust. Their farms are too small, disconnected and lacking in investment to take advantage of these high-yield, highly sustainable practices, which require proper equipment and relatively sophisticated knowledge - they require the farmer to be a manager as much as a land worker.

The root problem is this: The world's poorest countries remain attached to the small, subsistence-level family farm. At a moment when African and Asian countries should be consolidating their land holdings into sustainable, high-yield agricultural businesses, there is a persistent hold on the least effective form of farming. Governments, such as India's Congress Party, are devoted to keeping people on the land. A wide range of misguided aid organizations and ecological groups sustains the myth that small is good. It isn't: In farming, small is deadly.

There are good reasons for this attachment. These countries are only a couple generations removed from colonialism, when larger farms usually meant foreign-owned plantations with near-slave-labour conditions. Huge agro-empires with tens of thousands of employees will never sell, but peasant farming is a lethal alternative.

What the world needs now is the medium-sized farm. My just-published book, Arrival City, chronicles some of the larger demographic reasons for this. But more immediately, it is the path that will lead the rest of the world to develop the vast levels of food production that Canada enjoys. Far fewer, better-funded farmers on larger plots will provide sustainable food for a larger world.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

 

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