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Making friends with climate change

15th August 2012
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Khamis Issa Mohamed, a Board Member of Tanzania Organic Agriculture Movement (TOAM), shows journalists equipment used to treat soil using steam

About 80 percent of Tanzanians are farmers most of whom are small-scale, who struggle to meet their basic needs and are thus likely not happy with their trade.

Even when the weather is kind enough to provide them with the amount of rainfall they need to produce food and cash crops, the joy is short-lived because the timing of the following rainy season might be unpredictable, the amount of precipitation might go down and, in any case, the conventional farming method most of them still use does not guarantee them a good crop. The situation is further complicated by emerging challenges such as climate change, which has not only strained agricultural water supply but also reduced soil fertility through prolonged dry seasons and flash floods, among other things.

However, Sharji Shaaban Khamis of Bungo Village in Zanzibar’s Kusini Region is among few small farmers who are generally happy with the fruits of their sweat, thanks to engaging in alternative farming method, organic farming, which has seen him beat the challenges brought about by changing weather patterns and earn enough money to meet the needs of his family.

From his seven-hectare farm, Khamis gets a profit of about 800,000/- per month, which is in excess of vegetables, fruits and other farm products the family consumes from the farm.

“This farm is the lifeline of my family; we get all our needs from here. I have managed to build a good house, I have a car and I meet the needs of all my four children who attend school,” he tells a group of journalists who visited him in order to learn about organic farming activities in the Isles.

Asked about how he is coping up with the effects of climate change which has greatly affected small-scale farmers, Khamis said he has no problem with current climatic changes. “I hear people complaining about climate change but I have no problem with changing weather patterns. I cope very well with these changes and I can say we are friends,” he explains with a chuckle.

He added, ”During the rainy season I collect water in the well and at the same time grow maize, cassava and pumpkins. When the dry season comes I grow vegetables and harvest fruits, and this is actually the time when I make money because the vegetables and fruits command a good market in the local tourist hotels . I have enough water to meet all my needs during the dry season and I am not bothered by climate change,” he says.

His practice of organic farming begins with conserving the fertility of soil on his farm. He told the journalists that he has long abandoned the “slash and burn” type of farming and all crop residues is made into compost and used as manure. He also makes manure from green grass which is also plenty on the farm. This method, he says, preserves soil fertility and allows organism to produce more nutrients needed by crop plants. To treat the soil and make it more porous, Khamis mixes it with “coconut dust” produced by grinding coconut husks into fine particles. This is then mixed with soil where a seedling is planted.

“Experts in organic farming have told us to mix the soil with sand, but experience has shown that sometimes the sand sticks to the soil and doesn’t allow in much air. The coconut dust has produced better results than sand; that is why we have decided to use it. After all it is freely available on the farm and we incur no financial costs in producing it,” he clarifies.

In a bid to balance the consumption of soil nutrients by plants on the farm, Khamis engages in plant rotation whereby an area planted with tomatoes this season will be planted with beans or another crop the next season. This ensures that no single nutrient is exhausted from the soil and it gives such nutrients time to rejuvenate and so balance the availability of nutrients in the soil.

When it comes to planting the seedlings, this farmer ensures that they are planted in rows, keeping the seedlings equidistant from one another. He says that this method ensures that each plant gets the amount of nutrients it requires and there is no “scrambling for food” among the plants as each of them has access to what it needs. “Contrary to the conventional method of planting seedlings haphazardly, this method helps the farmer to attend to the crop more carefully and leads to increased crop productivity,” Khamis said.

Besides harvesting rainwater, Khamis also uses efficiently the water that is available for agriculture. One way of ensuring this is the use of drip irrigation which he says ensures that water is delivered to the plant and not anywhere else where it could be wasted. With most of the soil covered by mulch and plants, it has high capacity to retain moisture and this reduces the amount of water used for irrigation.

Protecting crops from pests is another challenge that both organic and conventional farmers have to face. For those who grow fruits like Khamis, they have to deal with birds which blemish pawpaws, bananas and other fruits and so make them rejected by high-end markets. Here again, a natural way of dealing with the pests is employed.

“Crows are a big menace here because they peck paw paws and bananas just when they start to ripen. Any fruits with blemishes are rejected by tourist hotels which are the main buyers of our products. To deal with the problem, we don’t harvest any fruits on the boundary of the farm and leave these to the birds. By doing so we keep them off the main crop on the farm because they will only attack the fruits on the periphery,” says Khamis’ brother Shabaan, adding that the method is good for both farmers and birds because at the end of the day they both get what they want.

“The important thing here is to maintain and manage soil, water, plants and animals as well as conserve and use water efficiently in order to harvest a good crop. So at the end of the day you deal with climate change and ensure abundant supply of food,” Khamis said.

At a recent discussion with journalists, an expert from Tanzania Organic Agriculture Movement (TOAM) Mike Farrley said that climate change has already severely affected agriculture in Africa and many people who depend on it have their lives in jeopardy. This, he says, calls for urgent need for adaptation in the sector, with organic farming providing one of the options.

“Organic farming preserves and restores soil organic matter, maintains soil structure and improves water holding capacity and thus enabling it to maintain productivity in the event of drought and irregular rainy seasons. This adaptive quality is very important for the agricultural sector in Africa, a continent which is very vulnerable to the effects of climate change,” he explains.

Beyond increased productivity, organic farming increases biodiversity by using trees and diverse crops, intercropping and crop rotations, all of which help to reduce pest outbreaks, severity of plant and animal diseases thereby increasing the production of high quality agricultural produce. It also encourages the use of local and indigenous farmer’s knowledge and blends this with modern science techniques. The use of drip irrigation, planting in rows and various methods of soil treatment are some of the scientific knowledge that blends well indigenous knowledge to make organic farming a success.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), agriculture accounts for about 12 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a figure which is expected to rise given the continued practice or conventional methods of agriculture. The slash-and-burn method, cultivation of peat land and expansion of farms into woodlands and forests all account for increased global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Organic agriculture can significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions and increase the capacity of nature to mitigate climate change and sequestrate significant quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide, especially in the soil. The current estimate is that organic agriculture has potential to sequester up to the equivalent of 32 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions,” says Farrley, adding that in organic agriculture less fossil energy is used since soil fertility is maintained through farm internal inputs such as organic manure, legume production and wide crop rotation while the energy-demanding chemical fertilizers and plant protection agents are prohibited.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) strongly promotes organic farming because organic farming systems have a strong potential for building resilient food systems in the face of uncertainties, through farm diversification and building soil fertility with organic matter.

“In developing countries, organic farming systems achieve equal or even higher yields compared to the current conventional practices, which translate into a potentially important option for food security and sustainable livelihoods for the rural poor in terms of climate change. Certified organic products fetch higher incomes for farmers than other options and can thus promote climate-friendly farming practices. ” says the organizations in one of its statements issued in 2010.

Prof Willy Makundi, Director of the (proposed) Kilimanjaro International Climate Change Centre says that organic farming is one of the adaptation routes that can be used by farmers. This type of agriculture uses organic fertilizers and organic crop and yield protection.” Organic fertilizers such as manure, mulching and compost are good for the soil amendment as well as moisture preservation, while having little or no net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” he notes.

He adds,” Given the fact that key adverse effects of climate change are high temperature and low precipitation, any agricultural amendment that enhances soil moisture retention and moderates soil temperature is good for adaptation. Some organic farming that involves conservation agriculture also reduces soil erosion.”

Prof Makundi who is also a Climate Change Advisor to the Government of Rwanda highlights the contrast to conventional agriculture that uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He says that inorganic fertilizers such as ammonia sulphate emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, especially nitrous oxide and other oxides of nitrogen. “When these are substituted by organic fertilizers the farmer reduces the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. It is however noteworthy that extensive large scale agricultural production is not possible (or not competitive) using organic fertilizers,” he explains.

Speaking about reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector, he says that there are various response measures to reduce emissions from agriculture and animal husbandry depending on the mode of emission. “The two key greenhouse gases from agriculture are methane (CH4) from enteric fermentation in livestock (bovines) such as cattle and from decomposition of animal waste in the form of slurry; and nitrous oxide (N2O) and oxides of nitrogen (NOXs) arising from the use of fertilizers.”

Methane emission can be reduced by applying appropriate animal husbandry techniques including amendment of animal feed, increasing the efficiency of animal products such as meat and milk per animal and capture and utilization of methane from animal waste for energy production (biogas). Other methods are reducing the use of inorganic fertilizers as well as the use of conservation agriculture to reduce carbon emissions from soil erosion. “Conservation agriculture includes practices such as terracing, mulching and minimum tillage,” he says.

Prof Pius Yanda, Chair of the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Professorial Chair In Environment and Climate Change at the University of Dar es Salaam concurs that organic farming is one of the best ways to adapt to climate change. “Here we are talking about small farmers who are most affected by the impacts of climate change. For them, organic farming helps their farms to maintain the capacity to retain water and so become not susceptible to prolonged dry seasons or even drought. And since they use fertilizer made from natural ingredients such as crop residue and compost, soil fertility is maintained and due to intercropping and crop rotation, organic farming promotes sustainable agriculture,” he said.

According to Prof Yanda, chemical fertilizers and pesticides contribute to greenhouse gas emissions “and with expansion of agricultural land that goes with conventional farming methods, the agriculture sector is likely to contribute more to global greenhouse gas emissions. Organic farming cuts down emissions from soil because it uses natural ingredients to make fertilizer, it protects natural vegetation and soil cover and focuses on raising crop production without expansion of land.”

He says that current trends in food markets also promote organic farming because such products fetch very high prices. This encourages more farmers to turn to this alternative farming method and abandon the traditional farming method of using chemical fertilizers and pesticides and expanding farms all of which eventually accelerate climate change.

However, Prof Yanda said that organic farming is not very popular among large scale farmers, particularly in developing countries because of the work involved. “Preparation of compost and soil treatment, for example, are tedious processes for large-scale farming. Some commercial farmers prefer to grow only one crop in an area instead of mixing several crops or engaging in agroforestry and this has made organic farming unpopular among some large-scale commercial farmers,” he said, adding that the intensity of climate change effects and market forces will in the long run force these farmers to undertake organic farming.

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN
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