THE BLOG

Could African Farmers Teach Us How to Stop the UK Floods Returning?

19/03/2014 15:14 GMT | Updated 18/05/2014 10:59 BST

I first visited east Africa in 2001, seeking an answer to the challenge often levelled at organic farming: 'It's all very well for middle class westerners, but it will never feed the world'. I thought sub-Saharan Africa would be a good place to see for myself. After a month in Kenya visiting farms, exporters, charities, aid organisations and training institutes I was close to despair; it seemed to me that at best, aid was focused largely on dragging farmers into the world market, while at worst it fostered dependency. Deforestation was rife with no will to challenge it, and soils were abused with little attention to building fertility or sustainability. Overall my impression was that the large, western-owned exporters were simply exploiting resources for short term gain and leaving no basis for an economy or agricultural development.

Crossing into Uganda my faith was restored. I found a small nucleus of very practical, largely subsistence farmers working with the charities Kulika Trust and Send a Cow, in particular Timothy Njakasi, who had worked at Riverford during his training. By combining livestock husbandry with the careful use of manure and composting, complex, multi-canopy cropping involving many perennial crops and water conservation, these farmers were achieving phenomenal levels of output using almost entirely local materials. Few used the 'O' word, but for me this was the ultimate in organic production. The systems required high levels of skill but relatively little physical work compared to the surrounding fields of hand-tilled maize and cassava. While sharing lunch under a jackfruit tree, Timothy and I added up the output compared to monoculture cropping, and concluded it was more than five times as productive.

Since 2001 Riverford has supported Timothy as he turned his small farm into a training institute, and more recently the work of Send a Cow in northern Uganda. For 20 years these farms were in a war zone, with many farmers forced to live in refugee camps. I have spent the last ten days visiting them and now this is being written in the Budongo forest, central Uganda. We are on our way south through a parched landscape, scarred by bush fires and deforestation. It has not rained for three months yet last night I fell asleep to the sound of rain on the tin roof. The forest is green and lush even at this, the driest time of year. There is such a profusion of leaf litter, which, with the canopy protects the soil and provides the organic matter to create a well structured, permeable soil, which can absorb and hold even the most intense rain. Acting as a sponge the soil provides constant water to the trees above; creating a micro-climate and feeding the rain that fell on my roof while the drought continues in the surrounding land. Farmers and hunters have, to a considerable extent, created the drought by their bush burning and bad farming.

I may be thousands of miles from home but I can't help but draw parallels with British farming as the debate on how we live with the weather we have created is starting. Our farmers did not make the rain but we caused some of the run-off and erosion that contributed to the floods this winter, mainly through poor agricultural practice. While many British farmers respect and indeed treasure their soil, the recent trend towards autumn sown cereals leaves it exposed to run-off at the wettest time of the year. Meanwhile the general degradation of soil structure that accompanies intensive cultivation of maize (up 24% in 2013, boosted by a relaxation in government regulations) and the widespread abandonment of traditional rotations also reduce percolation of rain.

So how do we improve agricultural practice? In war-torn Uganda I have more sympathy with the farmers, especially those working with the charity Send a Cow, who, armed only with a mattock and machete, are turning their back on burning to plant trees, mulch, control run-off and improve soils through composting and livestock management. The areas are small but the techniques are so evidently successful that neighbours are copying them, no thanks to their government. Far from being the net food importer it currently is, with these techniques I have no doubt Uganda could export large quantities of food without a grain of fertiliser, drop of pesticide or single GM seed.

Back in the UK one could blame the farmers but the real culprit is our government and their ideology of scrapping environmental regulations in the absurd belief that a free market will hold back the waters. Whether through corruption, ideological dogma or an obsession with self-serving headlines rather than finding lasting solutions, both governments fail their people.