Agroecology: The Solution to the Food Price Crisis? Ft. Luwayo Biswick, Malawian Permaculture Farmer
For Land & Life
Andy Currier (AC): Hello and welcome back to the Oakland Institute Podcast. My name is Andy Currier and I am your host.
The world is currently in the midst of a food price crisis. While there is no food shortage, prices of staple foods, inputs such as fertilizers and seeds are skyrocketing around the world. As usual, the most vulnerable are being hit the hardest by these rising prices.
The southeastern African nation of Malawi is a country all too familiar with hunger. Between 2019 and 2021 a staggering 51 percent of the population suffered from “severe” food insecurity, one of the highest rates in the world. This is sadly not an aberration, as Malawi has experienced several periods of severe hunger in the past two decades alone. Since independence from Great Britain in 1964, Malawian presidents have all pursued a form of agricultural subsidies. Despite the long history of these input subsidies, food security remains a pressing issue in Malawi as it consistently ranks near the bottom of the world in terms of affordability, availability, and access to food.
Since 2005, with support from international donors, the dominant strategy to ensure food security has been the Farm Input Subsidy Program, known as FISP. The limitations of addressing hunger by subsidizing chemical fertilizer and “improved” seeds are obvious after 15 years of the program, as it has failed to meaningfully reduce food insecurity. While maize production has increased over the lifespan of FISP, it remains volatile and highly dependent on precipitation. The continued volatility in maize prices harms farmers primarily reliant on mono-cropping. Years with bad harvests leave farmers without enough surplus maize to sell to ensure a healthy diet and even in times of good harvests prices generally fall and stunt incomes. Either way, volatile prices within a maize dominant system keep Malawian farmers from climbing out of poverty.
Major donors, working hand in hand with agribusiness, push governments towards input heavy approaches that, while profitable for corporations, have been ineffective in reducing hunger in Africa. The stranglehold that the Gates Foundation and other development players behind the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) have over debt riddled African governments will not be easily broken. Politicians and farmers are trapped in a vicious cycle that is both financially and environmentally untenable. For politicians, ending FISP would be politically disastrous without offering a viable alternative to pervasive hunger. Heavily reliant on donor support, governments struggle to independently change course. For farmers, the use of chemical fertilizer depletes the land’s nutrients– requiring more fertilizer each year to produce at the same level. This creates a dead-end: Farmers’ incomes and food security don’t improve while their soil loses fertility overtime, requiring higher expenses on fertilizers every year.
In response to the current food price crisis, international finance institutions such as the African Development Bank and World Bank continue to double down on an approach focused on increasing access to inputs such as chemical fertilizers.
While this can sound hopeless, fortunately there are farmers who have found a way to break free from this vicious cycle and it is these solutions we are going to hear more about today. Luwayo and his wife Grace Biswick have fully adopted an agroecological approach on the Permaculture Paradise Institute, their farm in Malawi. We will hear how their practices insulate them from the food price crisis and the inherent flaws in a mono-cropped system reliant on corporations for inputs as well as how they are helping scale agroecology in a country in true need of a new path forward.
Thank you Luwayo for joining me today. I wanted to start by learning how the experiences in your childhood and early life demonstrated to you that an alternative to the typical farming practices in Malawi was necessary?
“And I've seen how hard it was for my parents to grow food using the conventional way, because that required a lot of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers, which were way out of their reach. So it was very hard for them to access inputs in order to grow food, and feed us.”
Luwayo Biswick (LB): Well, thank you so much for hosting me. Well, I was born into a family of 12 — a very poor family. And I've gone through a very hard experience in life. And I've seen how hard it was for my parents to grow food using the conventional way, because that required a lot of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers, which were way out of their reach. So it was very hard for them to access inputs in order to grow food, and feed us. So that affected us a lot - our education and our health and our future, everything. So, up until I discovered permaculture, that's when I realized that, you know, there is another alternative, there's an alternative to the food system and how we can grow food apart from the conventional way. And that alternative is the natural way. And that's easier, and it uses local available resources. So up until then well, life was really hard for me and my family, not just me but also my wife, because we share the same background.
AC: So you started to describe some of the principles of permaculture but how do you explain it to someone that you meet who may not be familiar with it, what's kind of the summary that you give?
LB: Permaculture is a combination of two words, permanent and agriculture. Agriculture is apart of culture, the way we live, the way we eat and the like. So permaculture, you know, trying to make agriculture permanent, because in Malawi, where I come from, crops are grown in a few months of the year, mostly from November, December, January, February, up until April, and in all these months after maize harvest, after seasonal rain-fed crops are harvested, the fields are left bare, there's no permanency, there's no transition, there's no evolution. You know farmers are dependent on the very same crops harvested from the previous year, unfortunately, because they do not have enough income, they sell part of produce, in order to raise money for other things like school fees, shoes, whatever. And then, because they can also not afford to buy fertilizer, they have to sell part of the produce in order to access farm inputs for the next growing season. And then you have issues to deal with, weevils and rats and the like. So there's in the process, the farmers lose a lot of what they harvested in the previous year, but there's nothing being grown in the field because they only grew seasonal short-term crops. In permaculture we are trying to diversify so that the farmer is able to have a diverse range of produce for good nutrition.
“ In permaculture we are trying to diversify so that the farmer is able to have a diverse range of produce for good nutrition.”
And then there's succession, you know, one crop succeeding the other after harvesting. There's never a time of the year where a farmer in permaculture stays idle because there's nothing to harvest in the field. There's always something to be harvested because of the diversity. So there's genetic diversity, whereby a farmer is able to access multiple produce from even the same crop of different types. And then a temporal diversity of farmers able to rotate the crops to avoid issues to deal with pests and diseases but also be able to access different types of crops at the same time, helping rejuvenating and insulating the fertility of the land. And there is functional diversity, whereby a farmer is able to replenish some of the nutrients Though used by the plants planted because of the biomass produced from their crops and the animals, and then the nitrogen fixed from the some of the crops which are planted together with these other seasonal crops.
So there are multiple benefits in permaculture as per se, not just that one time of the year, but in phases throughout the year as compared to conventional farming, of which farmers just able to harvest crops within a single time of the year. And then he's done. She's done. They're done for that time. That's how I would describe what Permaculture is.
AC: And that seems to be a really effective way to avoid what I've heard called the hunger season in Malawi and many other countries, sadly. So looking at the Permaculture Paradise Institute — where is this land? Could you just explain how it looked when you first started there and what you're working with now?
LB: So Permaculture Paradise Institute is located in central Malawi in Mchinji district in particular, next to the Zambian border. So when we bought this piece of land in 2017, it was seasonal rain-fed farmland, and the previous owner was practicing conventional farming, and they were only growing ground nuts and cassava. Most of the trees were cut down to create room for these short-term crops. And then most of the grasses were burned, there those no biomass. The soils were sandy and there was plenty of illusion. But since 2017, ever since we started implementing permaculture, we've been able to bring back thousands of different types of species, and getting over 200 foods from these forests.
We now have over 11,000 trees on the farm, which we've managed to regenerate, so we get plenty of fruits. Throughout the year we've got enough firewood, we've got enough biomass dropped from the trees, enough habitat for most of the creatures — birds, caterpillars that come at different times of the year and they live in symbiosis with specific tree species. So by protecting the trees, we've attracted caterpillars, which are a dependable, great source of protein. And by protecting some specific tree species, we have managed to control erosion, we've managed to bring back at bee species, birds and the like, which were not even here before. So that's why we call it Permaculture Paradise, because it is a paradise.
AC: While there is a lot of media coverage on a food price crisis — driven by rising gas prices and the war in Ukraine — how have PPI and the farmers you work with been impacted? Do you know farmers who rely on chemical fertilizers and “improved” seeds — how has their experience differed?
LB: Yeah, that has greatly affected conventional farmers because right now the prices of fertilizer, synthetic fertilizers, doubled, even tripled. And most of the farmers, not just smallholder farmers, not just the villagers, but all the farmers are affected and they cannot manage access farm inputs in terms of fertilizers, seeds, and chemicals. In 2020, we started focusing capacity building for smallholder farmers in order to help them address the challenges that they face in terms of food, nutrition, climate change, farm inputs and the like. So these farmers are trained for five days and they're provided with tools like wheelbarrow, shovels, and panga knives as startup tools. And we also give them free seeds and seedlings to start with to establish the gardens and then we provide on site technical support on how they implement these approaches. And so far we are working with 1,000 farmers. And you know, on average, in Malawi family size is five to seven. So we are supporting thousands of individuals by supporting these 1,000 farmers.
“When we did the first survey, we realized that they could only grow not more than five different types of crops using the conventional way. But after receiving our training, farmers are able to grow over 50 different types of crops on their farm.”
In terms of the trees, we help the farmers plant more trees - 1,000 each. And we have seen that their diets have changed. They used to grow less than five different crops on their fields, including around their homestays in their seasonal farmland and in the wetland. When we did the first survey, we realized that they could only grow not more than five different types of crops using the conventional way. But after receiving our training, farmers are able to grow over 50 different types of crops on their farm. We've helped farmers establish hot gardens and they're able to access different types of crops, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts.
In Malawi, if you're talking about a staple meal, it is Nsima, which is maize-based. And now our farmers who are practicing permaculture as compared to conventional farmers, these farmers are able to access different types of foods from different sources and their meals are diversified. They've got plenty of options instead of just maize. And it's just unfortunate that in Malawi, most of farmers go to bed on an empty stomach in January and February where we get the most of our food. But then because the maize is not yet matured, conventional farmers cannot benefit from that but permaculture farmers, that's when they get plenty of passion foods, avocados, papayas and mangoes. So every time of the year, in every season, these permaculture farmers are able to access different types of foods, the variety, a diverse range of foods from different sources, different crops, as compared to conventional farmers, who are at that particular time waiting for the rains to grow food, and then thinking of how they will find or access income to purchase farm inputs of which is a nightmare right now with a rising prices, depreciation of our currency, and inflation.
AC: The Malawian government currently spends a large proportion of its agriculture budget on subsidizing chemical fertilizers. At its peak in 2009, FISP received 74 percent of the Ministry of Agriculture budget and 16 percent of the entire Malawian government budget. While spending on the program has fallen, the program was still allocated over US$ 48.5 million (K 35.5 billion) — 20 percent of the Agriculture budget — to target 900,000 farmers in 2019/20. Three quarters of this sum subsidized chemical fertilizer for the 2019/20 season. Can you explain what it is like for farmers who rely on these subsidies?
“Because, you know, everything has gone up, you know, they cannot manage to access enough revenue, enough funds or resources to subsidize the inputs. So even the subsidized inputs are at a cost that local farmers cannot achieve.”
LB: So the government subsidizes synthetic fertilizer, chemicals and maize seeds and encourages farmers to grow maize. The government now has failed and is failing. Because, you know, everything has gone up, you know, they cannot manage to access enough revenue, enough funds or resources to subsidize the inputs. So even the subsidized inputs are at a cost that local farmers cannot achieve. So this has greatly affected conventional farmers, but not much with the permaculture farmers.
AC: Right, even with that subsidy, it's still out of reach for so many farmers. So, you know, in your opinion, instead of subsidizing inputs, what how could the government better be spending this money?
LB: Yeah, the government, including donors, could be funding sustainable projects, promoting sustainable ways of farming and providing sustainable inputs. Inputs, like the ones that we give our farmers. If we give farmers inputs, we don't come back and give them extra inputs, because these are open pollinated seeds, which the farmers are able to multiply on their own, as compared to hybrid GMO seeds, which are subsidized by the government of which a farmer is supposed to buy the seed every year. Or for fertilizer which a farmer is supposed to buy every year.
“…even after the project is phased out, the farmers will be able to make compost on their own because they're using resources next to their door step as compared to the government.”
In permaculture we are teaching our farmers sustainable ways and how to heal the soil, how to make compost, of which even after the project is phased out, the farmers will be able to make compost on their own because they're using resources next to their door step as compared to the government. So I would say the government, including the donors could be supporting sustainable projects like our project, which if they've sponsored the project once they can move on to sponsor other projects instead of continuing to sponsor the same project, the same things every year. So the subsidy program, they just focus on the very same things every year and the worst part of it is that the price of the farm inputs is getting out of hand every year.
AC: With prices going even higher now seems really like the time for the government to try to break away from that failed system that they've kept pouring money into, which really seems to be benefiting the input supplying corporations far more than the farmers. Thank you again Luwayo for your time.
For listeners who want to learn more about PPI including taking a look at some of the amazing photos, check out their Facebook page. There's a link provided in the episode description. We've got some great guests coming up in the weeks to come so be sure that you are subscribed wherever you listen to your podcasts.
As always, to learn more, you can visit the Oakland Institute website. Thank you as always for listening until next time.