Food Security in Developing Countries:
The advantages of stock-free farming and plant based diets
Stockfree farming (plant agriculture, without captive animals) and plant-based diets offer many advantages to citizens of developing countries in terms of their food security, should they wish to choose these options. Reasons why stockfree farming and plant-based diets may be desirable choices include:
- humans can be fed more efficiently on plant-based diets as these require less water, land and crops to produce than a meat-based diet. This leads to less strain on natural resources and more food for everyone worldwide;
- they reduce the risk of conflict over scarce water and grazing land;
- they avoid zoonotic diseases which can spread to humans such as Bird Flu and Swine Flu;
- they do not require human reliance on domestic animals for food when the survival of the animals can be uncertain, for example in times of drought.
The best crops to grow in any given location will depend on environmental factors such as climate and soil and also the food preferences of the population1. As such the best approach to providing a balanced diet will vary between regions – there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Below is an overview of good plant sources of the main nutrients required for health.1 2 The main plants grown in a given area will vary between regions.
Carbohydrates - Rice, wheat, maize, potatoes, yams, cassava, sorghum, millet, plantain, teff, manioc, oats, quinoa and buckwheat.
Protein - Legumes: chickpea, cowpea, pigeon pea, peanut, soya bean
Nuts and seeds: pumpkin seeds, melon seeds, cashew nuts, sesame seeds
Dietary fats - Oils, such as sunflower, sesame and palm oil
Oil-rich legumes: peanut, soya bean
Oil-rich seeds and nuts: pumpkin seeds, melon seeds, cashew nuts, coconut, sesame
Vitamin A - Carrots, mangoes, papaya, melon, red palm oil, yellow sweet potato, dark green leafy vegetables
Vitamin C - Sweet potato, mango, orange, yam, plantain, cassava, peppers, potatoes
Folate - Green leafy vegetables
Legumes: mung bean, chickpea, cowpea, pigeon pea, soya bean, peanut
Iron - Lentils, soya beans, cashew nuts, pumpkin or squash seeds, kale, amaranth grain and leaves, quinoa, chickpea flour, potatoes, sorghum, peanuts, chickpeas, Native African leafy vegetables (such as baobab, dika, moringa and yambean)
Calcium - Amaranth leaves and grain, figs, oranges, apricots, sesame seeds, green leafy vegetables, moringa, chickpea flour
Zinc - Wheat, peanuts, pumpkin and squash seeds, cowpea, soya beans, maize
In Africa there are many native species of nutrient-rich plants, in particular iron-rich green leafy vegetables, some of which are not widely used. Making more widespread use of these plants would be one way of increasing the nutrient intake of populations.3 Green leafy vegetables can also be ground and added to other foods to boost nutrient intake. 4
Other nutritional considerations
Vitamin B12 would need to be added to the diet through fortification or supplementation, such as by fortification of regularly consumed foods such as flour.5 Small mills can use premixes to ensure accurate addition.
Three of the most common micronutrient deficiencies are iron deficiency anaemia, vitamin A deficiency and iodine deficiency, so ensuring adequate intake of these nutrients is particularly important to consider. Ideally nutrients should be supplied through adequate food sources, or if this is not possible then through fortification or supplementation such as already takes place in many countries.6 Training in plant-based nutrition and which plants can provide these nutrients would help citizens to ensure a balanced diet for themselves and their families.
Stockfree farming is suitable for small-scale, low income farming, which is often the nature of much farming in developing countries. It is also compatible with environmentally and socially sustainable approaches to developing agriculture and increasing food output such as:
- researching, developing and implementing low-tech, small scale farming techniques;7
- working with farmers to reinforce their knowledge and skills and establish their particular needs; 8
- being affordable for low income farmers by not requiring expensive inputs;8
- not requiring extensive physical labour or use of machinery.
Sustainable approaches provide food security of families and communities,
Adapting to the effects of climate change is also an urgent priority for farmers in many developing countries,9 so this consideration must be taken into account in any type of agricultural development in these areas.
A key aspect of successful and productive crop farming is fertile soil. Loss of soil fertility is a major problem in some areas, particularly in Africa.
Green manures are plants which are grown specifically to benefit soil fertility. These can have a significant effect on restoring soil fertility, without the use of animal manure or chemical fertilizers. 10 Green manures have been proven to greatly improve the fertility of low-to-medium potential soils (more so than in high potential soils), land which is usually worked by poor farmers unable to afford fertilizer.10
Green manure crops can be planted on the land during fallow periods or in some cases undersown (planted together with the farmed crop). 11 Residues from previous crops can be left on the soil to increase fertility and protect the soil from erosion. Plant-based compost can also be added to soil to improve its fertility. Crop rotation of both farmed crops and green manure crops is also an important tool in maintaining soil fertility.11
Products from compost toilets can be used as soil fertiliser. Use of compost toilets has the additional advantage of reducing water use requirements and preventing water supplies becoming contaminated with human waste.12
Low till is the practice of planting crops with minimal disturbance of the soil, for instance with the use of tools such as seed planters. The soil is not ploughed before each planting of new crops, as is usually the case in conventional farming. It typically involves maintaining a cover layer of either live crops or harvested crops used as mulch, which protects the soil and leads to soil micro-organisms and fauna taking on the task of ‘tilling’ the soil. 13 This has many advantages, including:
- soil erosion is reduced
- nutrients and water are more effectively kept in the soil, increasing soil fertility
- less carbon is released from the soil
- fewer weeds (as their seeds are not exposed to the surface) 12
Low till techniques provide an alternative to using intensive human or animal labour to plough the soil. This can be a significant advantage for farmers, especially in areas where farm labour is in short supply due to migration and disease.14 Adopting low till farming also frees up time for farmers as they are not spending large amounts of time ploughing, which they could use for other income generating activities.15
Low till methods have been shown to provide yields similar to or higher than conventional farming at lower cost. 13 Using low tillage and related conservation agriculture techniques leads to lower costs due to the reduced need for labour, fuel and machinery.16
Farmers using conventional tillage methods would need support to switch to low till methods. This can be achieved by processes such as learning from other farmers who already use these methods or through ‘farmer field schools’ which are used successfully in many countries.16
Efficient use of water
Stockfree farming has the advantage of using water much more efficiently than farming animals. As increasing water shortages are one of the key threats to food security and a significant cause of conflict, it is crucial to use what water is available for food production as efficiently as possible. Stockfree farming can also make use of low-tech irrigation technology such as drip irrigation systems which collect rainwater and direct it to the roots of plants, or foot-driven treadle pumps which retrieve water from wells to be used on fields.17
Incorporating trees into farming systems can provide many benefits. Trees can often provide food in situations where other crops fail as they are more resilient to drought and can sustain communities during times of famine. Trees can also improve soil fertility, reduce soil erosion and provide a renewable source of fuel and building materials.18 Agroforestry also has the potential to play a major role in sequestering carbon, as agroforestry systems have greater potential for soil carbon sequestration than conventional systems and store more carbon as biomass due to the use of trees.19 The UN has calculated that the agricultural sector has the potential to sequester 6 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year by 2030 – a similar amount to current agricultural emissions – 90% of which could be achieved through carbon sink enhancement. 70% of the total sequestration could be realised in developing countries, with agroforestry accounting for a large proportion of this.19 Smallholder farmers could receive payment for incorporating agroforestry into their farmland.20
There are other ways of contributing to food security which are compatible with stockfree farming and plant based diets, these include:
- selecting crops which are naturally more resilient to harsh weather conditions;
- creation and use of community or home fruit and vegetable gardens;21
- reducing losses of micronutrients in fruits and vegetables through cooking and storage
- initiatives such as World Food Programme’s ‘Purchase for Progress’ programme, where WFP buys crops from smallholder farmers for use in its operations, providing a secure market and a fair price for farmers.22
1. Burgess A. Maina G. et al. How to grow a balanced diet: a handbook for community workers. London; VSO Books, 2000.
2. Using data from www.nutritiondata.com (accessed 11 August 2009)
3. National Research Council. Lost crops of Africa: Volume 2: vegetables. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2006. http://www7.nationalacademies.org/dsc/Lost_Crops_of_Africa.html (accessed 13 July 2009)
4. Practical Action. Weaning foods http://practicalaction.org/docs/agroprocessing/food_chain_22.pdf (accessed 13 July 2009)
5. Fortifying Africa’s Future (FORTAF). Introduction to fortification in Africa http://fortaf.org/introfort.htm (accessed 13 July 2009)
6. World Health Organization (WHO). Micronutrient deficiencies http://www.wpro.who.int/health_topics/micronutrient_deficiencies/general_info.htm (accessed 13 July 2009)
7. Nwanze K. Statement by the IFAD President at a panel discussion "Africa: its opportunities for growth, problems and challenges". 2009. http://www.ifad.org/events/op/2009/africa.htm (accessed 13 July 2009)
8. Alpert E. Smale M. et al. Investing in poor farmers pays. Oxford: Oxfam International; 2009 http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/policy/trade/downloads/bp_129_investing_in_poor_farmers.pdf (accessed 14 August 2009)
9. Renton A. Suffering the science: climate change, people and poverty. Oxfam International; 2009 http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/policy/climate_change/downloads/bp130_suffering_science.pdf (accessed 13 July 2009)
10. Sileshi G. Ajayi O. et al. Green fertilizers can boost food security in Africa. Nairobi, Kenya: World Agroforestry Centre; 2009. http://www.worldagroforestrycentre.org/downloads/publications/PDFs/BR09042.PDF (accessed 13 August 2009)
11. Hall J. and Tolhurst I. Growing green: organic techniques for a sustainable future. The Vegan Organic Network: Altrincham; 2006
12. Practical Answers. Technical information online: compost toilets http://practicalaction.org/practicalanswers/product_info.php?products_id=131 (accessed 13 July 2009)
13. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Spotlight: Zero tillage http://www.fao.org/Ag/magazine/0101sp1.htm (accessed 13 July 2009)
14. FAO. Spotlight: Brazilian technology for agriculture in Africa http://www.fao.org/ag/magazine/0703sp1.htm (accessed 14 August 2009)
15. Steiner K. Producing in harmony with nature through conservation tillage. Harare, Zimbabwe: African Conservation Tillage Network; 2002 http://www.act.org.zw/infoseries.html (accessed 14 August 2009)
16. FAO Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department. Advantages and disadvantages of CA http://www.fao.org/ag/ca/1c.html (accessed 14 August 2009)
17. Practical Action. http://practicalaction.org/ (accessed 13 July 2009)
18. TreeAid. Why trees http://www.treeaid.org.uk/page2.asp?pID=2&sID=39 (accessed 14 August 2009)
19. United Nations Environment Programme. The natural fix? The role of ecosystems in climate mitigation. Cambridge, UK: UNEP; 2009
http://www.unep.org/publications/search/pub_details_s.asp?ID=4027 (accessed 14 August 2009)
20. World Agroforestry Centre. Trees on farms key to climate and food-secure future http://www.worldagroforestry.org/af/index.php?q=node/365 (accessed 14 August 2009)
21. WHO and FAO. Vitamin and mineral requirements in human nutrition Bangkok, Thailand: WHO/FAO; 1998 http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2004/9241546123 (accessed 13 July 2009)
22. World Food Programme. Purchase for Progress http://www.wfp.org/purchaseprogress (accessed 13 July 2009)