How Farmers are Creating Resilient Local Food Systems

The food system depends on a healthy environment, but poor agricultural practices are responsible for environmental degradation. Beekeepers continue to lose 30 percent of honeybee colonies during an average winter—likely due to pesticides and other agrochemicals. Soil degradation is occurring at staggering rates, with soils being depleted 10 to 40 times faster than they are being replenished. And up to 100,000 plant varieties are currently endangered worldwide.

The increase in food prices in 2008, Russian wildfires brought on by excessive heat and drought in 2010, and, most recently, the worst drought in more than 100 years in California—all are warning signs that farmers and farmers’ groups, global food producers, industry leaders, researchers, and scientists must address the planet’s food security in the face of weather volatility and climate change.

This week, Food Tank and The Lexicon of Sustainability are spotlighting farming and resilience through The Food List, a cross-media messaging campaign that provides the vital tools needed for fixing the food system.

Farmers depend on just a handful of crop varieties: according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), approximately half of farmland—more than 60 million hectares, or 150 million acres—in the U.S. is planted with corn or soy. This lack of diversity limits farmers’ ability to adapt to varying weather patterns and climate change.

“The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word,” wrote food author and activist Michael Pollan.

A more resilient agricultural system is needed, especially in the face of climate change. “With 80 million more mouths to feed each year and with increasing demand for grain-intensive livestock products, the rise in temperature only adds to the stress. If we continue with business as usual on the climate front, it is only a matter of time before what we [saw] in Russia becomes commonplace,” said Lester Brown, U.S. environmental analyst, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute.

Family farmers and food revolutionaries are working to create this paradigm shift by restoring ecological resilience in their local communities. Many farmers are diversifying their cropping systems and working together on projects to preserve biodiversity in fields and on plates.

According to Dr. Bianca Moebius-Clune, Soil Health Division director for the U.S. National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), farmers are improving soil’s “ability to take in and hold ‘water in the bank.’ They’re even creating wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while decreasing risks from extreme weather and harvesting better profits and often better yields.”

Here’s how family farmers, food heroes, and organizations around the world are working to create resilient local food systems that are immune to the shocks of climate change and ecological disturbance.

Adapt-N is an interactive tool developed by researchers at Cornell University, designed to help corn growers reduce nitrogen applications based on site-specific recommendations. The website is part of a suite of decision-support tools from Cornell to help farmers mitigate and adapt to climate change in the U.S.

DivSeek, an international partnership launched in January 2015, use big data to catalog the physical and genetic information held within international gene banks, and to make it available online. The initiative, involving 69 organizations from 30 countries, enhances the productivity and resilience of global crops by giving breeders and researchers access to information through an online portal.

In the Philippines, Dr. Wilson Cerbito, Assistant Regional Director of the Department of Agriculture, addressed the First Agriculture Summit on May 7, 2015, noting the Philippines is the third most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. The event outlined strategies for improving productivity of rice and root crops through technologies and practices that promote ecological resilience.

Full Belly Farm received the California Leopold Conservation Award for its land stewardship and conservation efforts. Judith Redmond, a manager of the farm, demonstrated resilience in the face of extreme drought by changing her crop choices, implementing drip irrigation, and reducing her reliance on groundwater. The creek that usually irrigates her crops ran completely dry last year, but Redmond was still able to water her land using micro-irrigation.

La Red de Guardianes de Semillas (The Network of Seed Guardians) is preserving rare plant varieties and culturally important seeds in Tumbaco, Ecuador. The community model for seed-saving fosters the exchange of cultural knowledge between small farmers, trains growers on permaculture techniques, and works to preserve biodiversity throughout Ecuador. The coupling of cultural heritage and biological heredity in something so small as a seed gets at the heart of the resilience concept: the more biologically and culturally varied a system, the more buffered it is against disturbance.

The Lexicon of Sustainability is spreading the word about agricultural resilience through information artworks and inventive media campaigns. Douglas Gayeton, multimedia artist and the organization’s founder, emphasizes that “there are farmers who believe in biodiversity instead of monoculture. Farmers who build soil fertility without depending on chemicals. Farmers who go beyond organic.” By defining terms such as true cost accounting, The Lexicon of Sustainability seeks to describe a vision for resilience through engaging stories.

Who do you know about that is creating a resilient local food system? We want to know! Share them with me at


How rice farmers in Africa can point us out of California’s water crisis

Food Tank – Friday 17th April

Rice farmers in Asia and Africa could teach the developed world a great deal about how to manage the water it uses for agriculture much better.

Devon Jenkins, technical specialist in sustainable rice intensification (SRI) at Cornell University, invites us to think about how techniques used by (mostly) small-scale farmers to increase yields while cutting water use might give us some ideas for saving California’s drought-stung agriculture industry. SRI focuses on improving both soil and individual plant health without the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides – the soil’s humus is key. This decomposing organic matter is rich in microbial life, which breaks it down and makes the nutrients available to plants.

The focus on the individual plant means that much less water is used. These farmers don’t flood rice fields as has long been traditional practice: they water plants individually. The two principles combined result in healthy productive plants with strong yields and dramatically reduced water usage. And SRI isn’t just for rice – its techniques can be applied to a wide array of crops, and used in horticulture as well as agriculture. When you think about it, its ethos is one of giving the plant just what it needs, nurturing the health that will help it thrive.

Aligned with SRI is permaculture, another agro-ecological approach described by Jenkins as “… smart design, based on observation of nature and combined with an ecological and humanistic ethic … permaculture allows us to create functional, resilient, and abundant spaces for water in harmony with natural systems”. It provides a blueprint for thinking differently about agriculture’s relationship to nature. No longer adversarial but rather symbiotic, it seeks a consonance with it.

The shift in thinking is what points a way out of California’s water crisis. Jenkins highlights a systemic change that fundamentally alters our approach to the problems at hand, “showing us that a life lived in greater harmony with natural systems isn’t one of scarcity, but of abundance”.

Making hunger disappear is not about higher productivity’

re-blogged from

By André de Vos

Less intensive farming in the West and more intensive farming in developing countries can solve the world’s food problem. That is, if the farming is done on an ecological basis. ‘Farming methods in both developed and developing countries need to be updated,’ says Pablo Tittonell, professor in Farming Systems Ecology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, associate professor at the University of Montpelier and the National University of Lomas de Zamora in Buenos Aires.

Modern technology can drastically improve farming methods in developing countries. However, the highly industrialised and large-scale farming of the West is not a model of sustainability, requiring large amounts of energy, water, pesticides and artificial fertilisers. When talking about intensifying farming, Pablo Tittonell means something completely different. Using better logistics, education, mobile phones, and new ecological insights. ‘It is about using nature in a smart way.’ 

‘’It means western farmers need to rethink their way of farming, together with scientists and the government ‘’

‘Making hunger disappear is not about higher productivity’, Tittonell claims. ‘A higher yield per acre is not the start but the result of a combination of several mechanisms. Better organisation of food production, better roads, better education of farmers, making sure that farmers have access to credit. Put the right infrastructure and institutions in place and the result will be that farmers produce more.’

Take the smart phone, for example. A wonderful way to bring people and food together. Tittonell: ‘I recently met Jamila Abass, a woman from Kenya who is bringing consumers and farmers together by using mobile technology. By now, ten thousand small farmers have joined the programme. If they can reach their customers in this way, they have a big incentive to improve their production.’

Sustainable farming
Pablo Tittonell is a strong advocate of agro-ecological farming. He sees it as the solution to the unbalanced food production worldwide, with the almost industrial large-scale approach in the West versus the traditional smallholders farming in developing countries. Both no longer suffice. Tittonell’s solution: ‘extensify’ Western agriculture, intensify agriculture in developing countries. ‘The Western approach to farming uses a lot of energy and water, causes pollution, and depletes the soil. The negative side effects do not show in the price of the products, being subsidised by the government. Which once made sense. Faced with a growing population in the cities, the system was aimed at feeding as many mouths as possible by as little farmers as possible, in the cheapest possible way. But it is not a sustainable model. It is delivering cheap produce because the external costs are not charged to the consumer.’

Small-scale farmers in developing countries originally produced mainly for self-consumption. And even though in most developing countries the majority of people still live in the countryside, this way of farming is no longer working. A surplus is needed to feed the growing population in the city.

Disruptive change
A great deal of food research goes into raising production of farming in developed countries even further. But trying to get greater yields of already intensively used acreage is expensive and will make Western farming even less sustainable. Instead, Europe and the US should change their farming systems into a less destructive, more organic way of farming that will produce less at the beginning. The initial lower food production itself will not be a problem. There is no food shortage in the West. Financially however there will be a big problem, Tittonell explains. ‘The whole farming system is based on large-scale production. Even if a farmer wants to start farming on an organic basis, he will not succeed easily. He is part of a system. He needs the bank for finance, and the bank will not be enthusiastic about changes that cost money and possibly bring less yield. We are talking about a completely different way of producing that will take time and investment. It means Western farmers need to rethink their way of farming, together with scientists and the government. It is a disruptive change that will cost money.’

Yield-raising strategies
In developing countries new nature-smart technologies, better organisation and the latest organic insights can easily improve agricultural production. Even now it is already feeding half the world population. ‘It is easier to bring the yield from 1 to 3 tonnes per hectare in developing countries than it is to go from 12 to 14 tonnes in developed countries. The main advantage of course is that the extra food will be available where it is most needed.’

Tittonell is no opponent of yield-raising inputs such as fertiliser, as long as they are used judiciously, at strategic times, and in a way the soil can handle it. But the agro-ecological approach is showing the same results in a more sustainable way. ‘Ten years ago an article in Nature claimed that organically managed soil has more biodiversity, which you need for a higher production. It was received with scepticism. Now these results are accepted. The science of soil biology is going forward at a high pace. We find that clever combinations of crops in space and time can bring better yields than the mere use of fertilisers and pesticides.’

The problem is that in the West most investments and scientific research still go into the industrialised, large-scale farming, while in developing countries small-scale farmers have no access to modern technology and the latest scientific knowledge. Furthermore they lack the right infrastructure to optimise their food production. India wastes 21 million tonnes of wheat every year through poor storage and distribution: 18 times the total wheat production of the Netherlands.

Consumers’ impact
In developed countries an elite of consumers is getting more interested in organically produced food. ‘Mainly because the industrial farming methods are heavily subsidised, organic products are more expensive. Additionally, there is a yield gap between traditional and organic production. If more research money went into agro-ecological production, that gap would disappear altogether.’

Consumers play a major role in changing the agricultural production methods. But Tittonell does not think that the market by itself can cause a major shift towards ecological farming, as governments make the present production methods viable. In developing countries intensifying agriculture in a sustainable way is even more reliant on the government. And there is no simple approach. Brazil, the first country to put agro-ecological policy into practice (France will perhaps be the second), deployed about sixty different mechanisms to eliminate hunger, none of them directly aimed at increasing production. One of the instruments was to pay more for ecological products in school catering. ‘If you can stimulate industrial agricultural production by subsidising it, as has been the case in most Western countries, why not do the same with organic production? Can you even begin to imagine what the impact would be if the European Union gave ecological farming the same financial and academic support as traditional farming? In the long run it will be the only way to feed the growing world population.’


Prof. dr. Ir. Pablo Tittonell is head of the Farming Systems Ecology group of Wageningen University. He is also associate professor at the University of Montpelier and the National University of Lomas de Zamora in Buenos Aires. Furthermore, he is board member of the Africa Conservation Tillage Network, a pan-African not-for-profit organisation who aims at bringing together different stakeholders and players to improve agricultural productivity through sustainable utilisation of natural resources of land and water in Africa. In his oration prof. Tittonell stated that the contemporary intense agriculture won’t be able to feed the world population in the future. Radical changes are necessary. The world food production has to be increased, and we have to make use of the possibilities of the natural functions of the ecosystem, in a clever way.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION: How sustainable is your food supply chain?

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Consumers around the world are expressing high expectations for the quality of products they consume. More than at any other point in history, we prefer goods produced in an ethical and environmentally-friendly fashion.

Young people are increasingly likely to consider the “social and environmental ethics of brands”.  While consumers demand these standards, actual implementation of environmentally and socially ethical practices in remains obscured to the lack of transparency and accountability in supply chains.

One great example of this is food. We all need it, we eat it, and some of us instagram it. Food comes from the earth, from plants and animals, then we harvest it.  Agriculture supply chains have a huge impact on landscapes, from the sourcing of plants and animals to the communities who directly rely on them.  How did your breakfast get to your plate?  And how do you know if your breakfast helped or hindered the people who harvested it? .

Our names are Benjamin, Hannah and Wen-Yu and at the Global Landscapes Forum youth session, we will run a workshop to discuss various aspects of green economy while sharing our different backgrounds and experiences. We want you to start the conversation with us by commenting at the end of the blogpost on a number of questions focusing on global supply chains, and the impacts of supply chains on landscapes around the world.

Supply chains have a great role to play in establishing a more sustainable global economy, and we hope our discussion will recognize the various opportunities to adapt supply chain management practices. We will consider and explore how supply chains can become more responsible, transparent and sustainable, as well as how supply chains shape global landscapes.

Despite the demand for ethically sourced food, foreign aid, or non-profit support, for agricultural producers is dwindling, leaving producers and exports searching for funding. In some nations, agriculture supply chains drive deforestation and create “environmental refugees”.  In 1995, for example, Bhola Island in Bangladesh was submerged in water, leaving 500,000 people homeless.

Agricultural technologies and innovation could be at the forefront to sustainable economic improvements; the World Bank confirms this vision through its estimate that economic growth in the agricultural sector is likely to be twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors of the economy. How the global community goes about strengthening agricultural value chains, is therefore a crucial question in the campaign against global poverty. We look to the private sector for support.

The global agri-food industry is truly connected. In a recent study published by the OECD, authors used the example of Nutella to highlight a truly sophisticated picture of global supply chains in the agri-food industry. Although headquartered in Italy, Ferrero International’s (Nutella’s) choice of key ingredients in the beloved hazelnut spread is sourced from all around the world: “while certain inputs are supplied locally—like, say, the plastic for the bottles or milk—many others are shipped from all over the world. The hazelnuts are from Turkey; the palm oil is from Malaysia; the cocoa is from Nigeria; the sugar is from either Brazil or Europe; and the vanilla flavoring is from France.”

Companies have a tremendously wide range of choices when it comes to suppliers. So why choose a social and environmentally responsible supplier? Ethical supply chains can be efficient and cost effective, and we believe businesses should not take advantage of these responsible practices for their marketing appeal.

PUMA, for example, has created its own accountability reporting system, called the Environmental Profit and Loss Account.  This push to sourcing transparency has allowed PUMA to examine their supply chain and eliminate waste while promoting biodiversity, saving roughly €145 million in 2010.  This suggests that corporate practices are trending toward ethical sourcing, but the key to creating sustainable supply chains remains with the consumer.

At the Global Landscapes Forum, Wen-Yu will pitch an idea to a panel of policy makers, scientists, and private sector representatives that will consist of realistic recommendations for different actors involved in global supply chain management – governments, corporations (whether it be local companies or multi-national corporations) and individual consumers. She will focus on how to nurture the positive attributes of supply chains, while mitigating impacts on the landscape level.

As a global citizen, we need to recognize the importance of our own choices.  We can change the way products are sourced by starting a conversation about supply chains, sourcing, and responsible business practices. We want to hear what you think about the future of our globalized economy. Answer one of these questions by commenting at the bottom of this article:

  1. How can an individual take steps to consume products that are socially and ethically responsible? What do you perceive are the benefits to choosing ethically sourced products?
  2. “Can you describe any resource sourcing or supply chain issues in your community?  How would you address those issues if you were responsible for landscape management?”
  3. What projects or campaigns have you heard of or participated in that have seen a positive outcome in the theme of a) green supply chains or b) sustainable agriculture? How did the campaigns achieve this outcome?



Free public debate event taking place in Amsterdam on the topic of – Closing the gap on the CAP: young citizens and young farmers discuss the future of farming in the context of the new Common Agricultural Policy.

Publiek debat: Closing the gap on the CAP, learning and discussing the common agricultural policy

ORGANISED BY: Groupe de Bruges – an independent network with a critical but in the end positive outlook on Europe, through which we feed the debate and develop solutions to come to more effective and integrated European policies, aimed at achieving sustainable agriculture, food production and consumption; sustainable management of natural resources and durable vitality of rural areas and communities in conjunction with urban development and communities.


When: Donderdag 27 november 2014 van 15:00 tot 17:30 (CET)

where: Amsterdam, Netherlands

More info and registration here:


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