Small farmers feed the world

From organic farms feeding Cuba's capital to a unique partnership between Bhutan and Austria, small farmers play a diverse and vital role in feeding the world.

Small-scale farmers produce over 70 per cent of the world’s food on a quarter of the world’s farmland. That was one of the central messages of the We Feed the World exhibition, a pioneering global photography initiative that celebrated the diversity and expertise in small farming communities around the world.

Organic revolution feeds Cuba’s capital

Organic revolution feeds Cuba's capital

Can you feed an entire city through organic urban farms? Yes, if necessity calls, and that’s exactly what happened in Havana, capital of Cuba. Overnight, the city was faced with the challenge of growing enough food to feed itself after imports were banned following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent US sanctions. But it wasn’t just food that was banned, agrochemicals and fertilisers, as well as oil, were also on the list, meaning Cuba’s new food system had to be primarily organic. Urban farms called ‘organaponicos’ appeared across the city and offered training and jobs to those who were now out of work. One of the largest, Vivero Alamar, was set up in 1997 and now harvests 300 tonnes of vegetables, including lettuces, herbs, beans, tomatoes, mangoes, bananas and guavas, produced using agroecological methods. Most of this is eaten within the Alamar district, an area that previously had no fresh produce. Among its 150 workers are former sailor Jose Manuel, Fradel Martinez, an ex-tobacco worker, Juan Portal, worked in the petrol industry, and Juan Ramon, who used to be a fisherman. Today, almost 90 per cent of Havana, a city of two million people, is fed on organic food produced by 4,000 or so organoponicos within the city limits.

Michel Pou is a Cuban photographer from Havana.


Sourdough links mountain communities in Asia and Europe

Sourdough links mountain communities in Asia and Europe

Bhutan and Austria may not be the obvious countries to forge a connection but a pioneering partnership between an artisan sourdough baker and an organic farming community has done exactly that. Roswitha Huber makes her own sourdough bread from alpine rye, grown by her husband and his family, high up in the Austrian alps where it has a long tradition, and is passionate about passing on her skills. “I am convinced that for the self-confidence of a child, it is essential they have the feeling I can feed myself,” she says. News of Roswitha’s ‘school in the mountains’ spread as far as Asia, and it has now become part of a far-reaching exchange programme with Bhutanese farmers. Despite living seven thousand miles away, these farmers work on similarly small-scale farms in a similar mountain landscape. Tshering Wangmo wanted to learn how she could make use of buckwheat for bread baking, but after spending two weeks with Roswitha she learnt many other skills relevant for a profitable small-scale mountain farm, such as milk processing to make cottage cheese, herb cultivation and jam making.

Zalmaï works as a freelance photographer and has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine, The New Yorker Magazine and Harper’s Magazine.

Tackling climate change one grain of rice at a time

Tackling climate change one grain of rice at a time

Climate change and food security can seem overwhelming, but for one man in India they have become his life’s work. On a small farm in the eastern state of Odisha, Dr Debal Deb is singlehandedly preserving some of the most resilient rice varieties in the world, a process he sees as vital to the future of food and farming in an increasingly unstable climate. Incredibly, he receives no financial support and stands alone in trying to protect India’s genetic diversity in rice. It is estimated that the country has lost up to 110,000 local varieties since farmers started using commercial hybrid varieties, sold by seed companies with promises of higher yields and disease resistance. To date, Debal has cultivated 1,420 rice varieties on just two acres of forested land, some of which have the ability to grow for months under 12 feet of water, whilst others can tolerate high salinity. He says: “After 60 years and billions spent on gene mining, the GM industry still doesn’t have a single variety which can withstand a drought or seasonal flood or sea water incursion. But all of these characteristics are available in many of our farmers’ varieties.”

Jason Taylor is a photographer and filmmaker who met and became friends with Debal while he was living in India.

Haymaking preserves ecosystem and family traditions

Haymaking preserves ecosystem and family traditions

The Borca family’s 40 haystacks high up in the Carpathian Mountains of northern Romania will feed their animals during the hard winter months to come, but that is not their only benefit. The ancient haymaking ritual, which is celebrated as an annual event that brings the whole family together, also preserves a rich ecosystem with more than 50 species of flowers and grass attracting huge numbers of pollinators. It’s a little-known fact that Romania has the highest levels of self-sufficiency in Europe, and its millions of small-scale farms are some of the last remaining areas practising traditional agriculture in the continent. Over 60 per cent of the countries’ milk is produced by families with just two or three cows and used by local people within the same village. But this traditional way of life is under threat as multinational corporations, agribusiness groups and banks see it as a good investment. Small farmers in Romania face having their homes, culture and livelihoods taken away as common land is sold off to foreign companies, left with the option of becoming landless labourers for big agribusiness companies. It is estimated that already around one million hectares (ten per cent of Romanian farmland) is controlled by foreign capital. Anuța Borca sums up the close connection that her family feels to their land: “It is our land. We have to take care of it. We have to teach the children the traditions,” she says. “It’s important because the tradition is a treasure. If they learn it, they will be richer.”

Rena Effendi is a social documentary photographer, whose early work focused on people’s lives in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. She has worked with the National Geographic, The New Yorker, Marie Claire and more.


Leave a Reply

  1. What a great article. We discussed this today on our breakfast show. City Farms can provide an incredible link to the reality of food production and they can produce a lot of food. Some of our team worked on City farms after training in Agriculture. Great work Riverford.

    Stephen @waterwavesdevon


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