Chandrima Chatterjee

Re-imagining Farmers as Knowledge Entrepreneurs: Three thought leaders in agricultural innovation on how to reverse harmful trends in food production

“Unsustainable agricultural practices and poor land management around the world are decreasing the nutritional content of crops and threatening our ability to produce food,” writes Kristie Wang. Given the current status quo, we need to use smarter agricultural practices that not only feed the growing population but can cycle nutrients back into soil. Naturally, we should to turn our focus back to those who are closest to the soil – the farmers.

Marzena Zukowska, Media Manager and Strategist at Ashoka Changemakers, sat down with three thought leaders working in the realm of environmental and agricultural innovation to dig deeper into how we can reverse current trends in food production.

David Strelneck, Senior Advisor, Rural Innovations, Farming and Ecosystems

Brendan Dunford, Ashoka Fellow Founder of BurrenLife

Bill Carter, Diamond Leader for Africa at Ashoka

How can we re-imagine the role of the farmer within the current food system?

David Strelneck: For the past three years we’ve been working with Ashoka Fellows to identify leading global innovators at the intersection of farming, agriculture, environment and human health. What we have found is that the role of nature and soil intersects everything. Nutrients flow and find their way into the food supply via vibrant, rich, organic soil. Who is it that works with the soil? Who works the land? Who has the potential and perspective to cultivate living soils to enrich the food supply, people’s health, watershed protection and more? The farmers.

Brendan Dunford: I work on a field level with farmers in Western Ireland where, because of climactic and geographical factors, it’s difficult to make a living from farming. The result is that many farmers abandon their lands, furthering the problems. We work at a practical level to re-envision farming as a way of producing food and producing ecosystem services, like biodiversity, fire prevention, and carbon sequestration. Nutrients have become a core competency for us, because farming is about food production and food production itself relies heavily on the efficient use of nutrients. Over the past 15 years, we’ve worked carefully with farmers to use their knowledge of the land, coming up with simple interventions to utilize nutrients more efficiently and generate outputs important for the public and the marketplace.

Bill Carter: The farmer is now a knowledgeable entrepreneur. The work in biodiversity offers potential for other people looking at the biosphere to come up with solutions that go beyond the purview of the farmer, i.e. medicine. Another venture that incorporates new business models for sustainable farmers has been pioneered by Ashoka Fellow Dale Lewis. Lewis has been helping former poachers in Zambia become sustainable farmers and environmental stewards. He has introduced sustainable farming practices that promote the co-existence of humans and wildlife, while increasing food stocks all year round for families that face food shortages. Connected to this is the first community-based decentralized food processing infrastructure in Zambia that guarantees new incomes for households. Thus, Dale has created new roles for former poachers. He uses his successful farming and economic program to mobilize and make them the drivers of this new social and economic architecture.

How does the shifting role of farmers relate to the idea of “nutrient banking?”

Bill Carter: Both Brendan Dunford and Dale Lewis have created a process of banking nutrients in ways that can then effectively serve as platforms for many different activities. It provides the foundation for a vision that provides a full spectrum of nourishment for people, plants and animals, recognizing that wellness and farming have to be linked. The total value is in the integrity of the nutrient value chain. The appreciation of that can be monetized in a way that reinforces the types of ecosystems and farming values that we need for everyone to be a changemaker.

David Strelneck: This underlines another principle: with farmers as knowledge entrepreneurs and nutrient entrepreneurs, we begin to see regenerative (not extractive) agriculture. The agricultural process creates increasing levels of resources in society, rather than sucking limited natural resources. Sasha Kramer’s work with SOIL, Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods, which originated in post-earthquake Haiti, takes a process of composting organic material, including human waste, carefully, so diseases are not spread, turning it into a nutrient-rich fertilizer that can then be used in the land. She’s taken this procedure to an industrial scale: harvesting the waste of tens of thousands of people and out of that, converting it into a rich additive for the land that is now being purchased back from her by the government and large companies. This is also reducing disease and other poorly managed sanitation problems. It is a powerful business model that is very exciting and it feeds into the nutrient cycle as an actionable and commercial activity.

Brendan Dunford: Nutrient banking might sound aspirational, but we have actually done something similar by coming up with a scoring system through which farmers can have a biodiversity rating for every field on their farms. It is a simple and effective stimulant and incentive. Likewise, creating a value system for nutrients to get farmers to respond would be equally feasible.

David Strelneck: If we can pull together some standardization of the language we use, and how we value a couple of the basics we can quickly envision transactions from different sites to actualize the nutrient economy.

Do you want to learn more? Check out the Ashoka’s Nutrients for All Initiative. Keep the conversation going on Twitter with #nutrients4all, and join the community on our Facebook page.

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