Grow Asia’s second Digital Learning Series session of 2022 focused on unpacking sustainable agriculture terms such as regenerative agriculture, climate-smart agriculture, agroecology, and nature-based solutions. The discussion kicked off with a presentation on the World Economic Forum’s recently released report on ‘Transforming Food Systems with Farmers’ and was followed by a lively discussion between Alexia Semov from the World Economic Forum, Dimas Fauzi from Stockholm Environment Institute, Erika Balzarelli from The Sustainable Smallholder, and Patti Chu from Mana Impact Partners, moderated by Shivin Kohli from AlphaBeta. Watch the session recording above.
To dive deeper into some of the themes mentioned during the panel discussion, Grow Asia invited Erika Balzarelli, Founder of The Sustainable Smallholder, to share her perspective on how to kickstart smallholders’ transition to more sustainable agriculture practices.
Our Presenters and Speakers
Kickstarting Action: Enabling the Transition to Sustainable Smallholder Farming
By Erika Balzarelli, Founder, The Sustainable Smallholder
Impact and Innovation studio, specialized in working with smallholder farmers
What is the common thread between regenerative agriculture, climate-smart agriculture, agroecology, and nature-based solutions?
All these concepts involve sustainable agriculture practices that are geared towards giving back to nature, removing carbon from the atmosphere, and putting it back in the soil. These practices follow principles designed to more closely mimic native ecosystems. My experience has shown me that there are three key areas that serve as guiding principles when designing protocols and programs to gradually transition smallholder farmers towards sustainability:
1. Soil Management
Globally, approximately 75% of land is degraded whilst in ASEAN different sources state between 50% and 75%. There is an urgent need to restore soil health. Healthy soil is full of organic matter; it retains water, recycles nutrients, and plays a pivotal role in storing carbon to help mitigate climate change.
Smallholder farmers are usually aware when there is something “off” with their soils, through observation of decreased yields, changes in texture and decreasing pest resistance, but they are not sure exactly what this means and how they can increase the quality of their soils. The most effective and accessible practices for smallholder farmers include (i) minimizing tilling, (ii) cover cropping, (iii) intercropping, and (iv) composting.
2. Water Management
Over 70% of the global freshwater supply is used for agriculture. Since healthier soils improve water filtration, soil health is directly linked to water health. Regenerative agriculture and permaculture principles are also key to increasing the supply of clean water. By rehabilitating the soil, more water can be stored, more carbon can be sequestered and pests can be managed naturally. With many smallholder farmers relying on groundwater for irrigation, restoring soil health can help retain water in the soil without the need to keep pumping water (which can require expensive equipment for drilling deeper wells or other complex technologies), and depleting already low groundwater levels.
Solar panels to power water pumps and subsequently other modes of irrigation (e.g. drip irrigation or canal irrigation) are simple, but very effective solutions in helping smallholder farmers irrigate their fields, increasing yield and quality. Once the capital investment has been made, it is also a powerful tool for sustainable agriculture.
3. Plant and Nutrition Management
After the Green Revolution, seeds and synthetic fertilizers became the cornerstone for yield improvements and, to a certain degree, what we know as modern, intensive agriculture. With the prices of fertilizers currently skyrocketing, many organisations working with smallholder farmers are trying to increase the use of more natural/organic fertilizers to maintain plant health and productivity.
Techniques such as adding manure and compost to soils, growing nitrogen-fixing plants between crops, and crop rotation, can all increase yields while protecting and improving the soil’s natural ecosystems. Adopting these practices could reduce reliance on commercial fertilisers, helping to buffer smallholders (and consumers) against economic shocks, such as the current spike in fertiliser costs and the resulting increase in food prices. Some of the alternative practices smallholder farmers could adopt to reduce their dependence on commercial fertilizers include: (i) mulching, (ii) manure and livestock integration, (iii) biochar, (iv) effective microorganisms, (v) biostimulants.
There is a growing consensus among scientists that regenerative and sustainable agriculture could deliver a huge win for the climate. What does ‘regenerative and sustainable agriculture’ look like in practice?
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet in a system as complex as smallholder agriculture. Every sustainable or conventional agriculture practice has to be adapted to the crop, soil type, ecosystem and community and farmer contexts. Water conservation practices and livestock rotational grazing that work in rice do not apply to vegetable farming. It is tricky to minimize tilling without using chemical herbicides. Cover cropping with nitrogen-fixing plants is proven to increase soil fertility, but smallholders often lack access to suitable seeds. If we want to kickstart action, we need to find practical ways to transition the smallholder farmers to sustainability, with an explicit focus on ‘transition’, which does not mean moving from black to white overnight but gradually upgrading season after season.
Why is enabling a transition - a gradual shift - towards sustainable smallholder farming so critical?
1. Smallholders cannot afford to be big risk-takers and need to have confidence in changing practices. A gradual approach allows for smallholders to take their own journey, and gradually pick up the application of different products and practices.
2. Shifting to regenerative practices and biological products will often result in an initial yield decline. For example, if a smallholder needs to learn how to make their own compost, it will take a minimum of two to three seasons to develop an effective compost mix. For a farmer, the risk would be too high to immediately substitute synthetic fertilizer with their own compost; only a small part should be substituted initially to test the approach. The most effective approach to not lose yield but to actually increase it, and increase savings, is a mix of composting and other regenerative practices, combined with application of synthetic fertilizer.
3. A gradual transition is also important because it allows for time and space to co-create with smallholder farmer communities. Co-creation allows for ‘last-mile finetuning’ of new agronomy concepts and business models to fit each field and farmer community. Co-creation also enables local knowledge to be integrated into the protocols, which encourages smallholders to take the lead and feel more empowered to allocate their funds and farm their fields, regeneratively.
To an outsider it can feel like innovation is happening to, rather than with, smallholders. How can or should smallholder farmers be involved in designing and leading this transition?
Sustainable farming depends on context-specific knowledge. As we touched on during the Digital Learning Series session, sustainable farming does not offer fixed prescriptions. Smallholder farmer co-creation fosters participatory learning and development, which differs from the current, often passive (from the farmer’s side), knowledge-sharing systems. A co-creation approach can bridge the real and perceived gaps across diverse forms of knowledge, including what is often seen as farmers’ traditional, indigenous, tacit, or local knowledge and experts’ scientific, western, or generalizable knowledge. The FAO, amongst others, has started to highlight the importance of co-creation when it comes to scaling up agroecology.
The co-creation process I advocate for aims to reinstate and professionalize the invaluable role of farmer co-creation, including farmer-centered inquiry, understanding and application, which offer benefits to individual farmers and their extended communities. Another aspect to co-creation is the deeper understanding of what farmers do, how they behave, and why they act in those ways, which could give clues to researchers and innovators and help to produce relevant and new insights.
Can you highlight a real-world example of how co-creation has led to innovation and transformation?
In Indonesia, through field visits and observation studies on rice farmers’ practices, conversation with farmers’ wives, and meetings with community leaders, we gathered indigenous, ancestral and local knowledge on soil, local water management practices, biological pest control and farming techniques. By combining this with proprietary academic and company knowledge, we designed local protocols (seeds + products + practices) per crop stage which we validated in farmers’ fields. Results were astonishing, increasing yield by up to 30%. The farmer community felt empowered to keep refining and evolving the protocols, and to scale them up to other farmer communities.
I believe in a journey towards sustainability where so-called ‘conventional’ products and practices are integrated smartly with regenerative and other sustainable farming practices. A black and white mindset is not helpful – regenerative vs. conventional; good vs. bad; ‘synthetic’ vs. ‘organic’. It is not about completely replacing existing farming methods. Rather, finding the sweet spot between new and conventional concepts, new and ancestral knowledge, increasing yields as well as farmers’ profits, the inclusion of women and youth, all while improving soil health, fertility, and responsible water use. These concepts have to be fine-tuned in co-creation with smallholder farmer communities and tested in their fields, allowing smallholders to take the lead on the development of tailored sustainable solutions and to feel more empowered in how they spend their money and farm their fields, regeneratively.
The graphic below from ‘Transforming Food Systems with Farmers’ provides context for how the practices mentioned above relate to digital services and precision farming techniques, which can achieve positive outcomes for the climate, nature, and farmer economics:
1 Please note that this list of sustainable agriculture practices is not intended to be exhaustive.
2 75% of Earth's Land Areas Are Degraded article
3 Analysis done by the Sustainable Smallholder: expert interviews, analysis done by start-up clients.
4 FAO article