By John Leary
Farmers feed the world. But they're doing it wrong – rather, big agribusiness is conditioning them to do it wrong. Farming methods are destroying the planet and leaving most smallholder farmers destitute.
On the deteriorating farmlands of Sub-Saharan Africa, I've seen mothers, fathers, and children work long, back-breaking hours on their small plots of maize, soy, cotton, rice and peanuts. And it pains me to know their hard work will ultimately prove futile.
The widespread use of monocrop agriculture is obliterating the potential of farmlands around the globe and leaving a wake of environmental, social and economic ruin in its path. Deforestation done in the name of "feeding the world" is causing a breakdown in biodiversity and carbon stores, making it harder to grow food and contributing to a warming planet.
I am not surprised by the findings of several major reports from the scientific community this past year. The UN has warned that immediate change is necessary to avoid more catastrophes; the UN-backed report in May announced that one million species are at risk of extinction because of land degradation; and last week the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change reported exactly what I wrote in One Shot: Trees as our last chance for survival two and a half years ago, that we must change the way we grow food. We must replace chemical fertilizers and processed animal feeds with trees that fertilize and grow food. We must diversify, not intensify. This way, we can bring agriculture closer to sustainability.
These reports come from accredited institutions and offer real, scientific proof that our planet is in trouble and much of the problem is directly tied to farming and deforestation. While I am not surprised by what these scientists are saying, I am amazed at how the headlines convey this as a new realization, and that the fleeting concern they create still does not inspire people to action.
Throughout the world, more and more monocropped fields are grown mostly for livestock feed. We're mowing down trees to grow food for our food, and both the fertilizers for the feed and the manure from the livestock are having negative effects on soil, water, and the climate.
For thirty years, Trees for the Future has championed the power of trees, agroforestry, and crop diversity. And for three decades, we've acted on that knowledge. We've transformed smallholder farming with the Forest Garden Approach – a methodology that guides farmers in strategically planting thousands of trees, shrubs, fruits, and vegetables. We're combining our agroforestry and permaculture expertise with farmers' knowledge and experience, and we have created a new form of agriculture that meets humanity's needs now and into the future.
In 30 years we've planted more than 160 million trees and we expect to add over 20 million more trees this year alone. We have proven that maintaining tree cover around our planet and across our agricultural lands is absolutely essential for our long term survival.
When trees flourish, so do communities. Farmers can feed their families healthy produce, send their children to school, and live fulfilling lives. All the while, these trees are sequestering carbon and revitalizing ecosystems.
So let me ask, how many more reports do you need to see before you act?
Trees for the Future has the solution and we are actively working with passionate and dedicated farmers to make the changes we need to see in our food system.
It's time to start changing at every level. I challenge you to grow your own food, eat locally, reduce your meat consumption, and support organizations that aren't just talking about the problem, but that are doing something that affects sustainable change.
Our community of individual donors, business partners, and collaborating organizations has made the last 30 years possible. Their confidence in us has been a never-ending source of inspiration for our team to dig deeper and work harder, just like the farmers we serve. I thank each and every one of you.
Together, we enter the UN Decade of Landscape Restoration with all the right knowledge to make the meaningful global change we know is possible. Our sustainable and regenerative Forest Garden Approach is attracting more partners every day.
As we work closely with farmers on their land, we also share our Forest Garden Approach with the public, giving anyone with the will to learn the ability to plant their own Forest Gardens.
Unfortunately, we still have to turn away farmers interested in our program because we don't have the resources to take them on. But you can change that. You can make it possible for us to say "Yes, let's get planting!"
John Leary is the Executive Director of Trees for the Future