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Sustainable agriculture: How farmers in Colombia are challenging the status quo

Billy Gómez with his organic tomato crops. (La Tulpa)

A group of farmers in Colombia is leaving behind its old ways and betting on sustainable agriculture. But between consumer mentalities and the need to stay profitable, the shift comes with its fair share of challenges.

Billy Gómez has been a tomato producer for more than a decade. Along with a network of 57 small farmers and their families in the department of Nariño, in southwest Colombia, he decided to ditch agrochemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and start producing organic food.

With the help of Geneva-based non-profit organisation, Lectures Partagées, Gómez launched the project La Tulpa back in 2017, hoping to steer his community away from a path of poverty and health problems carved out by 60 years of intensive agricultural practices in Colombia.

Why it matters. Intensive agricultural practices were massively promoted in the 1960s by the Colombian government as a part of the international green revolution aimed at significantly boosting food production.

“Farmers moved from self-sufficiency based on traditional knowledge to a technology and chemical dependent agriculture, which has impoverished their communities and eroded their social fabric,” Cristina Muñoz, member of Lecture Partagées, a Swiss NGO working with rural communities in Colombia to improve their quality of life, explained to Geneva Solutions.

Using chemical fertilisers to grow time and again the same crop has depleted their soils of essential nutrients, making it harder and more expensive to produce every year. The pesticides used to protect the crops have also polluted the soils, water resources and the air. For the farmers, handling these chemicals comes at a high price.

A huge risk. Like many Colombian farmers, Billy Gómez owns a small piece of land in Matituy in Nariño no bigger than two hectares in which he has always grown tomatoes in a greenhouse. But years of handling agrochemicals started causing him health issues.

Gómez told Geneva Solutions:

“I used to get dizzy, have severe migraines and would even pass out because of the chemicals. I had to give up the shop I owned with my family in order to pay for medical expenses and I still have sequels from the chronic migraines.”

It was around that time that Lecture Partagées showed up in Matituy, with the offer to support farmers who wanted to transition to sustainable agriculture.

“It was a huge risk for us,” says Gomez, who recalls being “sceptical” at first. Like most small farmers in Colombia, he had a loan with the bank that he had to keep up with or else lose his land. But he was concerned  that continuing to use chemicals would end up “killing him”.

Falling in love. “I told Cristina and Nicolas [Muñoz's partner and member of Lecture Partagées] that we could experiment growing two hundred organic tomatoes in a small plot of land in my farm and at the same time I would continue to grow with pesticides, as usual,” Gomez said.

This meant replacing the chemical pesticides needed to prevent crop diseases with organic ones that they had to prepare themselves and experimenting with different methods. “We introduced antagonistic fungi and let them take over the land,” Billy said. These can help manage pests and diseases.

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He instantly fell in love with producing organically and decided to give up chemicals altogether in what he considers a “lifestyle change”. He said:

“I loved working surrounded by flowers, bees and birds, smelling the microorganisms that we would bring from the mountains. My farm was no longer filled with the stench of poison.”

Not all roses. For all its benefits to the environment and to health, sustainable agriculture faces several challenges which prevent it from being more widely spread. Without the help of chemicals, crop yield can be much lower, which means less profit, Gomez explained. It also takes time for the soil to recover from the chemicals and be able to provide a higher yield.

A major threat is also persistent pests which can be hard to handle without pesticides or GMOs. Gomez says there are alternatives. He explained:

“We use our own resistant native seeds that can adapt to the climate conditions and good quality soil containing a great amount of organic matter.”

Crop diversification is also a way to avoid pests. La Tulpa produces dozens of different fruits, roots and vegetables.

Gomez sees it as a long-term investment and one that is worth the wait.

“Three of our family members had a very bad tomato crop yield this year. We covered a part of their losses with the surplus funds of the organisation. We're like a big family that loves and takes care of each other,” Gómez said proudly.

Organic production can also cost more. With prices constantly dropping around the globe, particularly with the economic fallout of the pandemic, getting paid a fair price is a struggle. With the help of Lecture Partagées, La Tulpa has been working to be competitive and sell their produce in local markets in Nariño's capital Pasto. They have also set up workshops to sensitise consumers to their cause and to the health benefits of buying organic products.

Climate change has increasingly become a main issue for these farmers. Mattias Södenberg, co-chair of the climate action group of ACT Alliance, an umbrella network of church-related organisations around the world supporting sustainable development projects and also present in Geneva, told Geneva Solutions:

“Droughts, floods and unsustainable weather patterns are devastating for the agriculture sector. In the coming ten years, we are facing big challenges. The agriculture sector must adapt and increase its resilience accordingly. But it must also drastically reduce its emissions as food production accounts for around 25 per cent of global emissions. It is part of the problem but also part of the solution.”

Projects emerging all over. Initiatives like these are becoming more and more frequent in different parts of the world, particularly in Africa. Södenberg highlighted:

“In Ethiopia, where climate disasters are frequent, our partners have projects to support climate-friendly and drought-resistant agriculture. In Malawi, solar panels are being used to power water irrigation of crops. We also have numerous projects in agroecology and agroforestry since they are good for reducing emissions and increasing resilience.”

Despite this trend, these projects still have a limited impact compared to prevailing industrial agricultural practices. For Södenberg, they can also have other indirect positive consequences.

“There is an important link between these projects and policy. When ACT Alliance advocates for policy change, it is based on experiences from the ground. It is essential that we have an evidence-based approach,” he noted.

For Gómez, the impact he is aiming for is much closer to home. “Farmers are worthless in the eyes of the Colombian government so I don't expect its support. What I would like is for my fellow farmers, who don't believe in what we are doing, to one day recognise us for being tough and courageous.”

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