Twenty years ago, frustrated by the assertion that 'organic is all very well for the rich, but it will never feed the world', I took a two-month sabbatical to Sub-Saharan Africa to see for myself. I visited one-acre subsistence farms, where 70 per cent of the food grown was consumed by the family, and large-scale export farms, one of which had its own fleet of DC-10s flying beans, mangetout and flowers back to Europe.
Mostly it was a depressing catalogue of deforestation, corruption, charity dependence and pesticide poisoning; the best land and water were used to grow for export, while climate change and conflict increased food insecurity at home.
I struggled to find encouragement, until my Ugandan friend Timothy Njakasi took me on the back of his motorbike to what turned out to be the most inspiring and hope-giving farm I have ever seen. Two acres of forest garden fed a family, two cows, several pigs and chickens, while providing a good surplus for sale, timber and fuel, without the ecological devastation that is modern agriculture.
With no monocultures (large areas of one crop) and almost no bare ground, it was like a more open version of the surrounding forest. In multi-layered cropping, mature forest trees covered a second canopy of jackfruit, banana and papaya, over coffee, cacao and vanilla, with small areas of annual (needing replanting every year) veg on the ground.
There were no artificial pesticides or fertilisers, and very little of the back-breaking cultivation needed to sow and maintain monocultures of annual crops. Through his knowledge of the subtle interactions of plants, soil and animals, Timothy’s farm was many times more productive, with less work, while creating biodiversity and fighting climate change.
Ever since, we have supported this sort of farming: first by helping Timothy’s farm become the Kasenge-Riverford Organic Training Centre, and then through the charity Send a Cow, which trains families in sustainable farming. Our next three-year Send a Cow project will support 'Push-Pull': a technique to grow naturally pest-repellent plants alongside maize, to combat the pests that are reducing maize yields by up to 80 per cent.
I will be participating in an online discussion about Push-Pull with Send a Cow on Wednesday 4 Nov at 6pm, via Zoom; if you’re interested in watching, you can book your free place at Sendacow.org/riverford-send-a-cow or call 01225 874 222.