Many small-holder farmers in developing countries grow crops in very degraded soils which seriously affects their ability to grow nutrient rich produce and make a living. Soil degradation means that the quality of the soil has declined, often due to improper use. Soil degradation involves deterioration in the physical properties of the soil, these include chemical and biological changes. Soil degradation poses a worldwide problem.
An alternative has been identified in Ashoka’s three-year initiative on rural innovation and farming and focuses on techniques that enable farmers to create nutrient-rich landscapes, crops and people. These agricultural models enable farmers to decide for themselves what to grow and how to grow it. This initiative aims to break the cycle of dependency on ‘external direction’ and external markets; to gain the knowledge to improve the well-being of their families and communities whilst also restoring the capacity of soils and local environments to serve as nutrient banks.
The new approaches
To improve the nutrient content and yield of their crops, whilst protecting the environment, farmers need to have both knowledge and choice. The farmers need to be educated about agriculture, the market place and the products that they might like to cultivate. Subjects included in this much needed education are cropping techniques, trends and threats in the ecosystem including watershed and weather issues, nutrient capacity, choice of equipment, financing and resources and much more.
Some regenerative farming models also employ farmer-to-farmer learning systems, new appropriate-scale supply shops and advanced fertilizer and land management techniques. The most powerful initiatives go even further, adding unconventional business and organizational models that combine market, cropping and ecosystem intelligence and unconventional financing for the farmers themselves.
Innovations in farming
The Nutrient Economy
Ashoka’s work with leading social entrepreneurs has led to keen insights and massive opportunities.
Being fully nourished as a person and increasing your likelihood of being physically and cognitively healthy, requires that you consume a diverse mix of nutrients in forms that your body can absorb. If you are not fully nourished, your body and brain cannot develop at a high or even sufficient capacity. That is to say, that you will not be as productive as you could be in the home, school or workplace. Furthermore your immune system will not be working at full speed which will affect your body’s ability to fight against sickness and disease effectively.
Emerging business models and technologies show the incredible potential of reorienting health care, food systems and agriculture around full nourishment. We think a focus on bio-available nutrients wellness outcomes in people, food, and land, in place of the more typical focus on food input and sickness, can produce remarkable results within and across sectors of society.
We see improvements in:-
- infant health and capacity that set the stage for lifelong success.
- The body’s ability to fight disease
- Increases in individual and workforce ability to learn and improvements in productivity
- A shift towards regenerative rather than extra-active agriculture
- Expansion rather than depletion of the natural ecosystems that enable much of the nutrient creation and maintenance.
Additional layers of benefits should also begin to accrue, such as local community and regional resilience in the face of economic and environmental risks, increased carbon sequestration and retention in soils and much more.
This is what we mean by the nutrient economy:
In one form, a nutrient economy suggests a new framework for understanding the driving forces within and between food, health, agriculture and the environment. It also serves as a driver of success in the workforce and community employment systems. Focusing foremost on full nourishment of people, food and land reveals clear and distinct priorities for action.
In another form, it suggests a specific and powerful value chain built around bio-available nutrients, threading from environment through agriculture and food to human health, which provides an explosion of opportunities for economic and social transactions.
Ideas now being explored by Ashoka teams include nutrient banking in landscapes, approaches to bio-available nutrient measurement as a basis for valuing and transacting in the economy and emerging, exciting technologies for measuring and computing pathways to full nourishment in people, food, agriculture and land.
A Healthy Environment
What if we could tap the immense potential of natural ecosystems as factories of essential nutrients for agriculture, food and human health? This idea has sparked creative innovations which exploit the budding ‘nutrient value chain‘ to the collective benefit of people, economy and the environment.
Nature’s ability to generate and cycle nutrients, largely through biologically rich soils and watersheds, presents practical opportunities for the environmental, agricultural, food and health sectors to boost each other and grow collectively or systemically not just incrementally.
Ashoka Fellows are demonstrating that opportunity, showing that increasing the health and economic value of farms and foods systems and the wellness of people who depend upon them along a clear nutrient value chain ultimately helps fuel demand for the conservation and expansion of forests, grasslands, wetlands and watersheds.
From an environmental perspective
Strengthening the nutrient value chain not only supports and strengthens traditional ecosystem services such as clean air, clean water, and biodiversity, but also expands carbon sequestration substantially by increasing the quantity and quality of soils. In addition, it helps to reduce watershed pollution from agricultural run off. The Nutrient Economy approach also aligns the science, as well as the economics of nutrient cycles.
The connective power of the Nutrient Economy
This is strongest when the nutrient vitality of an entire region or landscape is managed: When farms, other economic activities in a community and ecosystems like forests, grasslands, and wetlands are all seen as part of a single landscape that can grow and steward it’s own resources.
“A Nutrient Economy provides powerful opportunities through reforestation and agro-ecology to spread living soils that make minerals, vitamins and other nutrients readily available (and store large amounts of carbon)”