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Informing modern agriculture with traditional wisdom
Climate change, the central antagonist of our century, poses significant challenges to food production, which underscores the urgent need to address the issues of agriculture and our environment.
In this battle of mitigating and adapting to climate change, we often rely on appointed policymakers, often educated abroad, to venture back into developing countries without understanding the local terrain. They often bring with them innovative ideas and projects that worked in theory or elsewhere, but may not fit the unique circumstances of the lands they intend to cultivate.
In the heart of this puzzle lies a simple truth we often overlook: Smallholder farmers are the unsung heroes of global agriculture. These dedicated individuals till less than two hectares of land, yet they play a vital role in feeding the world. It is estimated that 500 million smallholder farms in the developing world are supporting almost 2 billion people, and in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa these small farms produce about 80 percent of the food consumed.
Their contributions and their production scale vary from country to country, with smallholders accounting for up to a staggering 80% of agricultural production in places like China. If you take a closer look, you’ll find that around 70% of all farms cover only 7% of the agricultural land. This majority of small holder farms are smaller than one hectare (2.471 acres or 10,000 square meters).
The definition of a smallholder depends on the standards set by each country. It’s important to note that farm size tends to increase with a nation’s average income levels. In high-income countries, a whopping 99% of farms are larger than five hectares, while in low-income countries, only 28% meet that criterion.
Many of these farms have been passed down by families, maintaining Indigenous practices such as intercropping, crop rotation, and mulching, which conserve soil and can easily be managed by low income farmers. This agricultural knowledge often runs in their families for generations. Some might not be experts in scientific theories or applied sciences, but they live and breathe their land, season after season, with a sense of purpose that modern techniques alone cannot match. Communities should share knowledge, lessons and experiences in the sowing, pest management, cultivation of neglected and underutilized crops, seed multiplication, and storage.
As we are stepping into an era of conservation, precision, organic, and smart agriculture, bringing together the wisdom of our smallholder farmers and modern agricultural techniques will aid in reducing methane emissions and increase agriculture sustainability. If their knowledge is integrated into industrial processes, their ideas, experiences and creativity will provide adaptations to local conditions where simple and accessible resources are available.
It is about embracing local knowledge and empowering communities. Our smallholder farmers continue to thrive and, in doing so, nourish our world.