Although our bountiful planet produces enough food for every man, woman, and child on earth—due to imbalances in our global food production systems—one in seven people do not get the food they need to live a healthy, active life. This paradox of want in a world of abundance has perplexed me throughout my academic career, and is what motivated me to study abroad in Senegal, a West African country, where a quarter of the population suffers from hunger or malnutrition. By spending a semester in Senegal, I hoped to develop a deeper understanding of the obstacles related to achieving domestic food security, and learn how the government, international organizations, and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are working to overcome these challenges.
My passion led me to the rural community of Sessène, Senegal where I worked with an NGO called Agrécol Afrique (African Agriculture), whose mission is to address food security and poverty issues through the promotion of organic agriculture.
As a method of farming, organic agriculture boosts productivity and enhances sustainability of food production systems. By harnessing the natural processes of ecosystems and the beneficial interactions among plants, animals, and humans it strives to maintain ecological balance. Organic farmers engage in practices that incorporate natural, rather than synthetic additives (such as fertilizers and pesticides) in order to avoid pollution and degradation of natural resources.
My role at Agrécol Afrique was to assist the technical specialists in collaborating with local farmers to help them integrate organic farming practices into their production systems. The work we did concentrated on identifying solutions to the local realities of seasonal hunger in Sessène.
Every year, following the wet, harvest season (from mid-June to mid-September) farmers in Sessène enjoy a period of abundance. They eat three meals a day from their newly harvested crops, and purchase household necessities using the revenues from the harvest. As the year progresses, however, their food supplies, financial savings, and capacity to produce food diminishes because of the region’s lack of rain during the nine month dry season. Therefore, the programs that Agrécol Afriqueimplemented, including water retention and drip irrigation practices, were aimed at producing food and generating revenues throughout the entire year— especially during the dry season.
Studies indicate that a transition from traditional rain-fed agriculture to organic agriculture yields more fertile soils that are richer in nutrients and organic matter, making them better able to retain water, less susceptible to erosion, less polluting of groundwater and air, and more resistant to shocks such as floods and droughts. A popular organic farming technique is to combine crop waste from the fields, manure from cows, horses, or goats, and other household waste into a compost pile that yields a completely natural (and completely free!) organic fertilizer. Furthermore, this natural concoction eliminates the health risks posed to farmers who regularly handle chemical fertilizers.
A particularly important component of our work involved retaining and economizing the community’s limited water supply. To achieve this end, we set up plots called “JTAs” (Jardin Tropical Amelioré in French or “Improved Tropical Garden” in English) which contained drainage trenches to preserve water in the soil. We would then spread peanut shells on the surfaces of the plots, or cover them with light, transparent veils to create a microclimate that would prevent the hot winds from quickly evaporating water from the earth. Considering the sandy composition of the soil and the hot, dry climate of Sessène, retaining water was essential to producing a successful crop.
To economize water we utilized a drip irrigation system consisting of a storage tank and piping. The method allowed water to be applied directly to the roots of the plants and therefore not wasted on segments of the field where no crops were planted. Instead of spending countless hours transporting water from wells (sometimes more than a quarter mile from the field!) and watering the entire field by hand, drip irrigation requires farmers to fill the tank only once or twice a day. While the water slowly drips through the pipes to the roots of the plants, farmers are simultaneously saving valuable time and energy.
Through Agrécol Afrique, I was able to meet many amazing people whose stories gave me a holistic view of the long-term human impact of organic farming. One family recounted how after several successful organically-based harvests throughout the year, they were not only able to take one of their children to receive treatment for an eye problem at a local clinic, but were also able to invest in a poultry den, which they now use to sell chickens and generate additional income. Through their vegetable and poultry farming, the family has been able to finish putting a weatherproof roof on their house (making the rainy season more bearable), and buy new clothes (providing them with a greater sense of dignity). They have even been able to open a bank account to save for their children’s education, giving them great optimism for the future. To this family, organic agriculture represented not only a way of earning a living, but also a means of overcoming poverty and improving their standing within the community.
This capacity to empower families and communities has the potential to change the face of poverty and food insecurity in Sessène, which conventional agriculture has failed to do. While multinational corporations, government policies, and international organizations play a large role in determining the accessibility and availability of food throughout the world, small, independent farmers can also influence the food security landscape within their own communities by the way they choose to produce and grow food. In this respect, a large-scale grassroots movement led by groups of organized farmers could potentially begin to rehabilitate the region’s hunger issues.
My experiences in Sessène have provided me with valuable insight into the environmental and societal significance of organic farming, and have affirmed my belief that the best way to take part in international development initiatives is to understand where you are working and the people you are working with—their culture, daily realities, and way of life. Gauging a cultural context and developing knowledge of local resources is key when creating programs that are meant to empower communities. In this respect, I hope to spend more time abroad working for an NGO that works directly with local populations to develop sustainable programs dedicated to reducing hunger, poverty, and conserving the environment.
In the years to come, increasing food production to meet the needs of our rapidly growing global population will become increasingly dependent on how we produce our food. The environment—while flexible and resilient—might not be able to support modern agriculture systems, if they continue to pollute and over-exploit natural resources. Organic agriculture presents a sustainable alternative to conventional farming that promotes food security in the regions most urgently in need of food supplies, while simultaneously preserving the integrity of the environment. To the region of Sessène, organic agriculture represents the most economically practical, socially beneficial, and ecologically friendly way of farming, and is making immeasurable contributions toward the development of the community. ■