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Poor Cambodians make big gains with organic farming

Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun
…a sizable number of small-scale farmers in the Kingdom of Cambodia are not leaping into today’s chemically dependent monocultures. Rather, they’re using intelligent low-tech to take them straight to what many believe should become the norm of the future — modern, high-yield, organic farming.

About 50,000 farm families in 15 of Cambodia’s 20 provinces are learning to double and triple their yields and diversify their harvests without the high-cost, high-risk chemical and mechanical inputs found on most modern farms almost everywhere else.

The 10-year-old project is the brainchild of Prak Sereyvath, a 35-year-old agrologist and the managing director of CEDAC (Centre d’Etude et de Developpement Agricole Cambogien).

Ironically, CEDAC’s success is possible thanks in part to Cambodia’s tragic recent past — an internal five-year genocide that began, after five years of fighting, in 1975 under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and was followed by an invasion from neighbouring Vietnam and still more civil war.

These terrible times, Prak says, destroyed the agricultural infrastructure of the country. And they caused it to miss out on the fruits of Asia’s Green Revolution which, beginning in the 1960s, provided the essential under-pinning for the spectacular economic performance of so many other southeast Asian countries.

Thus, Prak was able to begin his work with a more or less clean slate when he helped to found CEDAC in 1997, just four years after the country’s return to a semblance of normalcy and two years before the first full year of peace in almost three decades.

CEDAC started out in just three villages. Today, it spends $1 million US a year to work in 1,500 rural locations, thanks to grants from a dozen countries. (CIDA, Canada’s federal aid agency, is involved in only one of its hundreds of projects.)

It teaches a wide range of organic techniques as well as farm organization and marketing. A key tool is a huge assortment of simple, well-illustrated publications in the Khmer language. They include a highly subsidized monthly magazine that sells for less than three cents a copy.
(28 Feb 2007)

Food of the Future, and the Future of Food

Alex Steffen, WorldChanging
Perhaps because it is such a commonplace, defining the rhythms of our daily lives, many people who think seriously about the future have a tendency to dismiss food and food culture as a serious issue. That’s too bad, not only because food is life, and questions of hunger and food supply still loom large on our planet (800 million people currently suffer from malnutrition, according to the FAO), but also because the growing, catching, selling and preparing of food creates some of our largest impacts on the planet and some of the largest conflicts between peoples.

The future of food is a gigantic issue, and that future is changing quickly.

That’s why this week Worldchanging is focusing on the future of food. Sarah and I are at John Thackara’s Doors of Perception conference in Delhi, India, which this year takes up questions of food and food culture and where they’re headed: we’ll be bringing you updates all week. But that’s not all, because we will also have posts about new ideas and solutions and debates from a number of our regular contributors, and updates from some of our allies around the world, including Anna LappĂ© reporting from the first international Forum on Food Sovereignty in Mali.

How can we design food systems which are fair, sustainable and both efficient and holistic? How can we fill our plates without eating up our future?

Below is a round-up of many of the food-related posts from the Worldchanging archive. You may find it interesting to peruse as we add more to this section of our library in the coming days.
(26 Feb 2007)

Lunch at the Langar: Exploring a Free Kitchen in Delhi

Sarah Rich, WorldChanging
Free-for-all is a term generally used to describe chaos. And chaos is a word one could use to describe much of Delhi. But at the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib kitchen, a Sikh temple which serves meals to around 10,000 people every single day, there’s not a trace of chaos. And the food is free. For all.

This week, Alex and I are at the Doors of Perception conference in India, where the theme is “Food and Juice.” It’s an exploration of food systems worldwide, and the energy required to make them go.

…The Gurwara Bangla Sahib langara has been feeding Delhi residents since 1935. Day in and day out a factory of human hands churns out what one member of our group observed as a day’s peace of mind for hungry members of the community. “If you get your day’s meal,” he said, “you can relax. You can survive.” It’s not a matter of survival for everyone who eats there — in fact, most people with whom we shared lunch looked happy and healthy, and had probably come as members of the spiritual community. But it’s there for anyone who needs it, and in a city of 13 million (and rapidly growing), an open, organized, clean, reliable, and free food source couldn’t be more valuable. It’s a great testament to the stability of a well-organized grassroots effort. While countless hours pass in board rooms and over policy debates to establish government-subsidized and NGO programs for feeding the hungry, a crew of volunteers at Gurwara Bangla Sahib feeds thousands upon thousands of their neighbors with no intervention, no fuss, and no strings attached.
(28 Feb 2007)
A strikingly different vision of food than that of most Westerners. Attractive photographs of meal preparation, such as using a shovel to stir vegetables in the humongous wok. -BA

Appreciation: The Soil and Health by Sir Albert Howard

Tom Philpott, Gristmill
Reviving a much-cited, little-read sustainable-ag masterpiece

The real Arsenal of Democracy is a fertile soil, the fresh produce of which is the birthright of nations.
— Sir Albert Howard, The Soil and Health

Around 1900, a 27-year-old British scientist named Albert Howard, a specialist in plant diseases, arrived in Barbados, then a province of the British Empire. His charge was to find cutting-edge cures for diseases that attacked tropical crops like sugar cane, cocoa, bananas, and limes.

To use the terms of the day, his task was to teach natives of the tropics how to grow cash crops for the Mother Country. The method was to be rigorously scientific. He was a “laboratory hermit,” he would later write, “intent on learning more and more about less and less.”

But the “natives,” in turn, had something to teach him. On tours through Barbados and neighboring islands, through “contact with the land itself and the practical men working on it,” a new idea dawned on Howard: that “the most promising method for dealing with plant diseases lay in prevention,” not in after-the-fact treatments.

The insight was radical. Then, as now, conventional science tended to view plant diseases as isolated phenomena in need of a cure. But Howard began to see diseases as part of a broader whole. As quickly as he could, he fled the controlled environment of the lab and concerned himself with how plants thrive or wither in their own context — outside in the dirt, tended by farmers.

Sir Albert Howard would eventually transform the insights he gained from farmers in Barbados and later colonial India into the founding texts of the modern organic-agriculture movement: An Agricultural Testament, published in 1940, and The Soil and Health, which came out five years later. Inflamed by his readings of Howard, a young American named J.I. Rodale launched his seminal Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in the early 1940s. That publication popularized Howard’s ideas in the United States, galvanizing the first generation of organic farmers here.
(1 March 2007)