Food Tank received the opportunity to interview Steve Brescia, Executive Director of Groundswell International. Groundswell International has promoted sustainable agriculture worldwide since it was founded in 2009. The organization is a global partnership between NGOs, local civil society organizations, and communities that aims to strengthen rural communities and promote healthy food systems in Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mali, Nepal, Senegal, and Western North Carolina. Groundswell International has developed methods to spread agroecological farming practices, as well as promote farm innovation and community health, which is exemplified in their project, Grow Food Where People Live. Steve took some time to share his insight on international farming with us.
Food Tank (FT): What kind of skills are farmers in Bukina Faso, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mali, and Nepal using? How are these techniques making more taught to make sustainable and healthful communities?
Steve Brescia (SB): Some of the key skills and strategies farmers are using are on-farm experimentation to improve agroecological strategies, farmer-to-farmer extension of successful practices, and strengthening of farmers’ and women’s organizations. Farmers are using, and constantly innovating, agroecological techniques to improve their farms, lives, and communities. The specific techniques, of course, are always developed locally, based on local conditions, but share basic agroecological principles. Conserving and improving soil are foundational, so many farmers are using contour barriers of various kinds, and improving their soil with cover crops and green manures, composting, and mulching. In West Africa’s Sahel region, in particular, natural regeneration of trees and agroforestry are helping to regenerate soils. Many farmers are seeing the benefits of these kinds of strategies and moving away from slash and burn practices, which are still common in many countries. They are harvesting rainwater in various ways and improving soil organic matter to hold water. Farmers are improving their local seed systems by improving selection, storage, and distribution strategies, and recovering and reproducing traditional varieties. Many families are diversifying their farms with multiple grains, legumes, tubers and root crops, and trees for multiple purposes such as fruit and fodder for animals. The benefits are clear. Families have access to more food and income. They can send their children to school, access medical care, or improve the houses and land. They have more diverse food and are better nourished. They are more resilient in the face of climate change. Stronger community organizations are allowing them to carry out community-led development and better engage as citizens in shaping supportive policies.
FT: Do these farmers recognize the impact has climate change has in their communities? What sorts of innovations have they developed to help adapt to the impacts of climate change?
SB: Yes, the impacts of climate change are clear. I was in Haiti a few weeks ago, where some farmers commented that they now have two seasons, drought and hurricane. Honduras and Guatemala are being terribly affected by drought. In West Africa, a series of factors from drought to soil fertility collapse are leaving more than 20 million people per year facing hunger. Nearly all of the agroecological strategies mentioned above are helping families to improve resilience to climate change and create virtuous cycles in developing alternatives. These approaches allow farmers to capture and take advantage of the rains that do fall on their plots; avoid damaging erosion of their land; and be able to respond and plant with quality local seeds for planting or replanting if rains come later or early. Farmers are extending the growing season and developing strategies to harvest different food crops from their plots through more months of the year. Community-managed grain banks allow farmers to manage food reserves and keep more income in their communities. And when disasters strike, we’ve seen repeatedly that organized communities are the first, best responders in their local areas.
FT: After working in all of these different countries with a multitude of challenges, is there any advice you have for farmers in rich countries?
SB: Groundswell International’s strength is working with small-scale farmers and their organizations, primarily in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. We are also developing strategies to work with rural, food-insecure communities in North Carolina. Rather than advice, I think it is the recognition that we are all part of and affected by the same global agricultural and food system. We all share the same planet. It is now clear that agroeocological farming and sustainable local food systems are key to creating a healthy future together. IPES recently released a great report on that. We know that farmers everywhere need to start where they are, address realities and challenges in their own contexts, and create pathways towards this transition. There are many farmers organizations in the global north and south who are doing that. We have seen repeatedly that key ingredients of positive change are the harnessing the innovative capacity of farmers, working with nature, and organizing to spread knowledge and engage in the democratic process to create supportive policies.
FT: How do you work to connect farmers to other famers in the countries you work in?
SB: We work with our partners around the world to support and strengthen farmers’ and women’s organizations that link people within and between communities on common agendas, doing what they feel is important to improve their own lives. Farmers organize around experimenting with and spreading agroecological practices farmer-to-farmer; creating seed banks, grain banks, and savings and credit cooperatives; accessing water; and accessing local markets. They have their own priorities. We foster wider networks that link rural and urban people around healthy local food systems, or creating supportive policies. We support cross visits between organizations so that farmers can learn from each other about what is working and strengthen networks. We facilitate gatherings of organizations between countries to analyze and share what is working, jointly develop strategies to accelerate the transition to agroecological farming, and document lessons to share with others.
FT: Have you noticed an impact on food and nutrition security within these countries in the time you have worked with them?
SB: Yes, we see that families and communities are increasing production, have more diverse food for more months of the year from their plots, are increasing income, and have more diversified diets leading to better nutrition. For example, agroecological farmers in Haiti are now become food secure for the entire year. In Burkina Faso, farmers adopting more agroecological strategies are improving their production by more than 100 percent. Of course, the wider trends in many countries remain negative, which is why it is so essential to accelerate the scaling of farmer-led agroecological strategies that work.
FT: Can you provide examples of successful experiments that have been put into practice following the research?
SB: As mentioned, farmers are the main experimenters themselves, working systematically to test and spread what works. In West Africa, techniques such as zai holes (micro-basins for planting that capture rainwater) and farmer managed natural regeneration of trees (FMNR, a type of agroforestry) are working and spreading. In Ecuador and Guatemala, farmers are recovering, reproducing, and distributing quality, native seed varieties. In Haiti, farmers have developed a “rooted” farming strategy—diversified with grains, beans, root crops, and trees—that is ensuring food security. There are also “social” experiments: farmers in Haiti are working to create a network of cooperative small business to process and sell foods locally, and a network of organizations in Ecuador is promoting a campaign to shift national consumer habits towards healthy, agroecological production.
FT: What are some of the environmental challenges you have faced when working with farmers? How are they facing them?
SB: Most of the communities we are working with live in fragile and degraded ecosystems. They face challenges from deforestation and soil erosion on mountainsides to soil fertility collapse in Africa’s Sahel region. As mentioned above, climate change is a growing challenge, contributing to increased droughts or heavy rain storms. The need for agroecological alternatives—for farming with nature instead of against it—often becomes extremely clear under such conditions. In working to reverse cycles of degradation, regenerate farms and landscapes, and build resilience, farmers are innovating agroecological solutions that provide insights to other communities, as well as to all of us in sustaining the planet we live on.