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Small Scale Farming: Simple, Successful, Sustainable

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On a recent visit to Japan, I was struck by the remarkable success of smallholder farming. I left the country convinced that subsistence farming can eradicate Africa's hunger crisis.
I wade into the paddy fields, nestled in the gentle mountains, hugged by the forests, along with Seiji Sugeno-san and his family. Rice occupies a historical place in Japanese history, society, and political economy. But for me it was my first experience of planting. The earth feels warm and the soft clay soils wrap around the feet in a tender clasp.

Sugeno-san is the president of the Fukushima Organic Farmers' network. His rugged frame advertises his dedication, hard work and love of the land. He embraces me like an old friend. I am from the country of Mandela, who is an icon in his community, admired for his integrity, sacrifice and compassion for the oppressed of the world.

We are barely 50 kilometers from the epicentre of the Fukushima meltdown. I am here to pay my respects to a community that has suffered the traumatic hardships of nuclear conflagration. Across the region, farmers dumped millions of gallons of milk and tons of ripe vegetables, unable to sell their products legally on the open market. Fukushima's 70,000 commercial farmers lost billions of dollars in income.

But Sugeno-san does not dwell on the past. He talks matter-of-factly about how the community is pulling itself up.

Yet all around us is the evidence of the radiation threat. A Geiger meter to measure radioactive levels is an ever-present companion. He waves it around ceaselessly. The levels fluctuate wildly as we encounter 'hotspots' higher up in the mountains and forests that surround this region, where they are more concentrated.

Sugeno-san is a philosopher. His love affair with the land is poetry. "These trees are planted by our ancestors. These 'tambos' -- the orderly descending terraces of rice paddy fields -- are blessings from our communal mountains and forests. We smallholder farmers are the guardians of this Earth. It is our ancestral connection with their spirits. We pay our respects by respecting the land." I realise that this deep and profound link between our planet and our humanity is being shattered by our human greed and ever-rising consumption.

Here, even in these mountainous areas, his fields are organized and more productive than any agro-industrial farm I have seen. His four hectares gives the highest yields, and all of it is based on a sustainable organic farming model. A motley bunch of urban students and activists have arrived to help him. I am not sure whether we are a hindrance or help, but his humour is infectious. I think he knows that he is educating us on what is important in life. He is a born teacher.

It feels so good to connect back to nature. The waters are abuzz with life, insects and sparkling green fluorescent frogs. The government has recommended that farming be suspended. But Sugeno-san is a farmer, the land is his canvas and planting his paintbrush that brings life. I sense he would die if he did not touch the earth with his hands each day. "The farmer is the bridge between humankind and nature. Disrupt that bond and the balance of our world is destroyed," he reflects quietly, almost to himself.

As we spread through the paddy fields I see a box with technical measurement devices connected to the ground. "What is this?" I ask.

"It is a university experiment that measures the levels of radioactivity in the water and eventually in the food. We can be contaminated through the air or the food we eat or water we drink. But we must fix our soils: only working it will help it to heal," he says.

I see why smallholder farmers like him are the true guardians of our planet. They breathe and feel the land. They are the extension of nature. But they have perfected productivity. A simple, inexpensive mechanical machine plants a hectare of rice seedlings in a few hours. He teaches me to use it in a few minutes. I wonder why we have not prioritised linking farmers with his expertise to farmers in Africa. Unlike a consultant or expert, he has learnt his skills in the fields, not a classroom.

Seeing my interest, he herds us into his farm truck and we go to the local organic composting facility.

"We do not use chemical fertilisers here. We have aggregated cattle-rearing in our community and use the cow dung as the base of our organic fertilisers. Linking to local businesses, they collect natural vegetable waste and produce several tons a day. It helps the soils recover their strength, and we build social solidarity as the foundation of our community."

I visit a local co-operative centre the community has established, and witness the social solidarity they have built at a grassroots level. I recognise the human values that Nelson Mandela represents in their actions. I wonder why we have not done more to build human dignity. No-one is left behind. I reflect on the influence Mandela had on my life, when he powerfully said, "Fighting poverty is not an act of charity. It is an act of justice."

Why have our leaders forgotten this most profound wisdom? Why have we not planted the seeds of social solidarity, human dignity and compassion that are the legacy of Nelson Mandela?

That evening we gather to hear the tales of a village elder recounting cultural stories of the ancestors. It reminds me of my time spent with Mandela - the simplicity of village life in India and Africa. The stories are expressive and traditional, but with the underlying morality we have forgotten.

As we share a supper, I understand how deeply entrenched nutrition is in Japan. I did not see a single obese person around the table or in my journey here. The meal has an astonishing variety of delicious vegetable dishes that have been planted locally, with the appropriate carbohydrate mix, usually rice, and fish or animal protein. Culture has developed a tradition of balanced nutritious diets that has ensured that Japan has largely resisted the western junk food invasion.

I think about what we need back home. We need farmers like Sugeno-san to connect to farmers in Africa. He demonstrates that organic farming can be done at scale and be productive. Smallholder farmers, especially women, who produce 80 percent of our food, do not need charity. They need legal land ownership, the support to build their own seed banks and finance for power, irrigation and water in the first few years. Smallholder farmers are the most valuable part of the market, of the entrepreneurial value chain.

Yet they are largely excluded. They are the unrecognized foundation of the market system. Many have said to me, "Help us improve their productivity through provision of extension support, and ensure that we are able to connect to the market and keep the major part of the value -- then we will feed Africa and the world."

The next day in a GAIN-hosted workshop on agriculture and nutrition, President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete of Tanzania says in his keynote speech:

I know that my ancestors who lie in the ground will not allow me to take the land that belongs to my people and give it away. We need smart partnerships that ensure that value goes to the smallholder farmer also. We also need to change our eating habits, even if it goes against what our tradition teaches us. Science has shown us that it is not just the amount of food we eat but the quality of the food that is important. Our mothers and children must get the right nutrients to be healthy and productive.

Professor Ruth Obiang, speaking on a panel, remarks,

You look good, Mr. President, because your mother and your wife feed you. Talk to your counterparts in Africa that nutrition and food security are two sides of one coin. Make them understand that women smallholder farmers are the centre of the agriculture value chain. If they go on strike, Africa will starve.

I return from Japan convinced that we can make malnutrition history. As Obiang said, "I hate to see an African child starving on our TV screens. African children are beautiful when they have the right nutrition. Let us work together to eradicate stunting as the poster child of Africa."

I completely concur.

This opinion piece was originally posted by The Daily Maverick.