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Ending the hunger season

Fred Bahnson, co-founder of Anathoth Community Garden in North Carolina, is working on a book, Soil & Sacrament: Four Seasons Among the Keepers of the Earth, forthcoming from Free Press. This article first appeared in the August 2011 issue of Sojourners magazine.

It’s eight o’clock in the morning and I am standing at the base of perhaps the only mountain in southwest Florida. Actually, it’s more of a hill. According to the plaque in front of me, this 50-foot-high, bulldozer-built mound is called the Tropical Highlands. The plaque’s description reads: “Steep land subject to severe eroding.”

Photo credit: www.fredbahnson.comPhoto credit: www.fredbahnson.comJoel Wildasin is the intern in charge of this part of the Global Farm, part of the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, or ECHO. He points uphill to the right to several terraces, a good method to slow erosion, but on the hill’s left side is a better system. It’s called SALT: Sloping Agricultural Land Technology, an intercropping pattern that alternates perennial hedgerows with annual cash crops. According to the folks here at ECHO, the SALT system outperforms terraces when growing crops on steep tropical hillsides.

I carefully study the left-hand slope. At first the overall effect is one of contained chaos; there are just too many different kinds of plants here to make sense of. Then I begin to see. There are three hedgerows roughly 75 feet long and spaced at intervals of 12 feet, each hugging the slope’s contour. Within the hedgerows are at least four or five species of shrubs and trees. As perennial polycultures the hedgerows serve many purposes. They keep soil and water on the slope. They attract insect-eating birds. Some of the hedgerow plants fix nitrogen. Others, such as fish-poison bean (tephrosia) and neem tree, have insecticidal uses. With these hedgerows you’re growing both your own fertilizer and your own insecticides, cash crops in between. Wildasin points out the demonstration plots of strawberries nestled comfortably among the hedgerows on the 20-degree slope. This SALT plot is a carefully designed system, one that mimics a natural ecosystem’s polyculture, where each interlinking part supports and enhances its neighbor.

This kind of agricultural clear-headedness has gained ECHO the respect of development organizations around the world. Here nature is not a series of problems that stand in the way of human agriculture, but a model — a standard — on which to base that agriculture. Places like this will become tiny arks to which people will turn when the waters of trouble — climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and the resulting food shortages — start to rise. For that reason ECHO’s Global Farm is much more than just a place to teach food-growing techniques for the tropics. It is a model for how humans can not only survive coming catastrophes, but flourish.

Wildasin and the others at ECHO are hopeful because they know what bounty the land can produce, even in places as desolate as Keefa, Mauritania, where ECHO’s CEO Stan Doerr and his wife, Beth, helped plant 200 tire gardens in what was once a desert. “Redemption doesn’t just start after we die,” said ECHO’s agriculture research director Dr. Tim Motis. “We can begin to experience life in all its abundance right here on earth.”

“Abundance” is a word I heard often on the lips of ECHO workers. They aren’t just trying to end hunger; they want to help people tap into creation’s fecundity, an abundance in nature that was there all along, waiting to be discovered and shared.

When BBC America aired its story on the global food crisis of 2008, it wasn’t the UN Food and Agriculture Organization or the World Food Program they profiled; it was ECHO. “As many countries face the increasing struggle to feed their people,” the anchor said, “one organization based here in the U.S. is trying to lend a helping hand.”

ECHO’s 50-acre campus lies just north of the Caloosahatchee River. An interdenominational Christian organization, ECHO was founded in 1981 and now serves as a tropical agricultural training center for development workers in 180 countries. With the global food crisis continuing to worsen, ECHO is increasingly looked to as an organization with answers. Its mission is “to network with community leaders in developing countries to seek hunger solutions for families growing food under difficult conditions.” That last part about “difficult conditions” is where the group really shines; staff members here have become experts at growing crops in the harsh environments — deserts, eroded hillsides, slum roof-tops — in which the very poor often live. They describe their organization as “an extension agent to the world,” especially to developing countries that don’t have resources such as land grant universities and extension agents. Considering that 75 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas with limited communication, that’s a big gap to fill for an organization based in southwest Florida. Yet with nearly 40 staff — a fourth of whom are scientists — and 400 volunteers, ECHO essentially is a land grant university, albeit one that doesn’t take federal money.

In addition to research, ECHO provides free consulting for development workers. If you’re stumped with an irrigation problem in Zambia and need some advice, you can email an ECHO staff member, who will usually respond within a day or two. The group posts free documents on its website, which averages 180 downloads a day. Also, any organization or individual working to help the exceptionally poor in a developing country can register with ECHO and request trial packets of seeds from its extensive tropical seed bank. If the crop does well, they can save their seed and are expected to report back on the plant’s performance.

The most impressive place on ECHO’s 50-acre campus is the Global Farm. On 10 acres of what was originally beach sand, ECHO’s staff have mimicked six thriving tropical ecosystems, each demonstrating a host of sustainable agriculture practices appropriate to that region. I was unprepared for just how Edenic, how ecologically exuberant this place would be. Browsing my way through these ecosystems, where nearly every one of the 580 varieties of vegetables, trees, and shrubs is edible, I experienced a feeling of limitless bounty. Over the course of my three-day visit, I ate my way across 12 acres and six ecosystems; each zone was a new restaurant.

For the poor in tropical regions there comes a time each year toward the end of the dry season when food is scarce, when eating next year’s seed becomes a tempting thought — the hunger season. During this difficult time, hardy plants such as chaya and moringa quickly take on a special significance. Depending on when the rains come, the hunger season is measured in weeks or months. Sometimes, during drought or war or times of political corruption, the hunger season is measured in years. Or lifetimes.

Before coming to ECHO I had the vague and mistaken notion that world hunger was simply about a lack of food. After all, wasn’t that the aim of the Green Revolution, to increase yields so that there would be more food all around?

In his groundbreaking 1981 book Poverty and Famines, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen demonstrated that starvation resulted not from a lack of food but from its unfair distribution. “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat,” he wrote, “not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.” Given that assessment, I wondered, why does ECHO focus on teaching small-scale farming skills that boost production? Why not focus their efforts on changing bad policies?

“I didn’t want to become God’s ‘angry young man,’” said Dr. Martin Price, ECHO’s co-founder. Price is a small, unassuming man in his 60s whose quiet demeanor seems more fitted to the staid life of the biochem lab than to directing a thriving nonprofit organization. Since turning over the reins to ECHO’s current CEO, Stan Doerr, five years ago, Price now volunteers at ECHO refining the rooftop gardening techniques he has worked on for almost half his adult life.

Early on Price decided that he wanted to come out with solutions. He agreed with Sen’s assessment that anybody with money can get food. “You can have an oil kingdom in the desert where nothing grows and you can purchase all the food you want,” Price said, “but if you’re poor, you need either a source of income or you need to grow that food yourself.”

The only time it doesn’t make sense to focus on food production is in totally imploded societies — refugee situations, for instance, or civil war, in which people have no control over their lives. But for the most part the politics of a country aren’t connecting with impoverished farmers. “You can talk about corrupt governance in Zimbabwe,” said Doerr, an avuncular, bearded man in his 50s, “but if people can maximize productivity on their piece of land, they will have more say in their future.” By helping the small farmer, Doerr and Price and others at ECHO believe, you increase food security for the whole country.

“The big picture in fighting hunger,” Price said, “is that somebody needs to come along and tackle the really tough problem of making marginal land more productive in a sustainable way. It’s not as glamorous as, say, treating 200 kids for worms or starting a micro-lending program. But it’s the bottom-line solution to poverty.”

To that end ECHO focuses on under-exploited food plants. Of all the food eaten in the world, 95 percent of it comes from only 30 species. “And yet God has created many, many kinds of food plants,” Price said. Maybe corn isn’t the best thing for your region; maybe the grain amaranth is better. Or for someone in a semi-arid part of Brazil, the egusi melon, whose seed contains 50 percent oil and 35 percent protein, might be a better choice.

Price is careful to point out that ECHO isn’t promoting an ideology or program. I was surprised to learn that, though ECHO practices what I would consider “organic” agriculture, they still occasionally use fertilizers and pesticides, albeit in limited amounts. They simply want to present options, believing that the farmers themselves should be given all the available knowledge and then consider what works best for them. There’s a big difference between a bottlecap of fertilizer in the bottom of a hole you’ve dug for your corn, Price reminded me, and spraying a whole field with it.

ECHO is a repository of innovative ideas which, for the most part, Doerr and his co-workers have learned from small farmers, development workers, and other agricultural researchers. Many of the techniques produce high yields, but not due to increased fertilizer or hybrid seeds as was the case with the Green Revolution. They are the result of discovering how nature creates abundance and mimicking it.

Such horticultural plentitude doesn’t just happen, of course. It takes patience and skill. And the human temptation since Adam has been to reach beyond our limits.

It was through an effort to bypass nature and create abundance from scratch that the first Green Revolution began. Coined in a 1968 speech by USAID administrator William Gaud, the phrase “Green Revolution” came to signify a major shift toward industrial agriculture that began in the Yaqui Valley in Mexico during WWII and culminated in India and other parts of Asia in the ’60s and ’70s. Funded by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, the Green Revolution was perhaps the largest project aimed at ending global hunger the world has ever seen; it was also humanity’s biggest attempt thus far to create the illusion of abundance through chemistry.

To create this biological slight-of-hand, the Green Revolution’s magicians, notably plant breeder Norman Borlaug, developed hybrid varieties of wheat and rice. These super-plants produced abundantly, but sucked massive amounts of nutrients from the soil and required equally massive amounts of irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides. As its promoters and detractors alike acknowledge, the Green Revolution did boost short-term yields and feed millions of people. But every revolution must eventually take stock of its successes and failures, and the bills on the Green Revolution’s account are now coming due. The world is in the red: dead zones in our oceans, poisoned groundwater, salinized soils.

Punjab, the breadbasket of India and former crown jewel of the Green Revolution, is now a wasteland. It’s true that Borlaug’s “miracle seeds,” under the right circumstances, could provide “an abundance that was almost certain,” Raj Patel wrote in Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. “The problem lay in the fact that the circumstances were almost never right.” The new seeds required excessive irrigation, which caused water tables to drop more than a foot a year; such irrigation also caused salts to build up in the soils, turning them lifeless; the turn toward monoculture eradicated indigenous biodiversity; the repeated use of petrochemicals led to not only poor soil health, but poisoned wells and high cancer rates. Patel summarized the Green Revolution as “basically the use of industrial technology to avoid dealing with tough social questions. It removed the sting from land reform and represents the triumph of technological thinking versus more sustainable ways of addressing the hunger crisis.”

In the 2008 report from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a landmark four-year study undertaken by the World Bank, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and multiple stakeholders in the private and nonprofit sectors across the globe, called for a complete overhaul of the world’s food and farming systems. A collaboration of more than 400 scientists and development specialists, IAASTD found that industrial agricultural practices, including genetically modified crops, do not address the complex challenges of local agriculture and often produce environmental harm. The answer they propose is agroecology: a blend of scientific inquiry and indigenous knowledge that cultivates resilience and healthy ecosystems. Rather than depend on genetically modified seeds or agro-chemicals, which carry high environmental and health costs, agroecological farming looks to nature’s abundance as a model for how to grow food.

Which is exactly the kind of work that, without much fanfare or recognition, ECHO has been quietly doing for the past 30 years.

On my last day at ECHO, I paid a visit to the Urban Rooftop Garden to see firsthand what has become a major focus of the group’s work in the poorest cities of the world. This demonstration area mimics the kind of flat concrete rooftops and tin shacks you might find in the slums of Nairobi, Mexico City, or, before the earthquake, Port-au-Prince. Price looks at the roofs above peoples’ heads as huge untapped “fields” on which food can be grown. Rooftop gardening was in fact part of Price’s original vision for ECHO. On a trip to Port-au-Prince in the early ’80s, Price looked out over acres of flat concrete roofs. Here, he realized, was agriculture’s final frontier.

On top of the concrete pad in front of me were more than 50 demonstration garden beds made out of various recycled items: old tires, carpet, bamboo. The car tires, filled with compost and sitting on top of concrete blocks, were placed at waist-level for easy access and contained everything from eggplant to strawberries. To my left a plastic kids’ pool, filled to the brim with lightweight mulch and compost, grew a healthy crop of sweet peppers. Price’s criteria are that the beds must be low weight, inexpensive, give satisfactory production with minimal inputs, contain no moving parts, and be made from local, preferably recycled, materials, i.e. trash.

Price’s dream is to one day go to Port-au-Prince or Mumbai and see acres and acres of rooftop gardens. But that would be only the beginning. “Even if there were no more hunger, I’d still be doing what I’m doing. I’d like to see small rural farms become so productive that people leave the slums and return to the countryside. Eliminating hunger and malnutrition is just the first step. There is just so much more to life than not being hungry.”

Most of us accept perpetual hunger for some as a sad but unavoidable reality. But as much as we, the amply fed, accept the myth that the hunger season will never end for those Haitians, those Sudanese, that homeless guy at the stoplight, we starve our imaginations. Maybe the very word “hunger” has lost its linguistic currency. We need new words, new stories, because the old ones raise too many hackles, induce too much crippling guilt, distract us finally from the important work ahead.

What we need are stories about how people are not only avoiding hunger but are living well. Such stories are myriad. Physically joining our own lives to such stories can help us see the abundant way of living we’re each called to embody. I think of the perennial hedgerows on that hillside, how they worked in tandem to create a beautiful and teeming symmetry.

The word hunger is a negation; it represents a deviation from the norm. And what is the norm? In a word — abundance.

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