Small-scale gardening to combat desertification (Willem Van Cotthem)

Small-scale gardening to combat desertification and alleviate hunger and poverty

For years we have been promoting family gardens (kitchen gardens) and school gardens in the debate on combating desertification, alleviation of hunger and poverty.  We have always insisted on the fact that development aid should concentrate on initiatives to boost food security through small-scale family gardens instead of international food aid on which the most of the recipients remain totally dependent. Since the early nineties it was shown that developing countries with community gardens in rural villages, family gardens and school gardens, where people and children are able to grow their own produce, are better off than those who received food from aid organizations at regular intervals.

Locally produced fresh vegetables and fruits play an important role in the daily diet of all those hungry people in the drylands.  Take for instance the possibility of having a daily portion of vitamins and mineral elements within hand reach.  Imagine the direct effect of fresh food on child malnutrition.  Think at the feelings of all those women having their own kitchen garden close to the house, growing some classical vegetables and a couple of fruit trees.

No wonder that hundreds of publications on all continents indicate the success of allotment gardens in periods of food crisis.  See what happened during World War I and II, when so many families were obliged to produce some food on a small piece of land to stay alive.  In those difficult days allotment gardens were THE solution.  Today, they still exist in many developed countries and become more and more appealing in times of economical crisis.

There was no surprise at all to read about a new movement in the cities: guerilla gardening. Sure, different factors intervene in these urban initiatives, be it environmental factors (embellishing open spaces full of weeds in town) or social ones (poor people growing vegetables on small pieces of barren land in the cities).

Let us not underestimate the role container gardening can play in food production (see <;) and the pleasure children can find in growing fruit trees and vegetables in plastic bottles and pots of all kinds.  Pure educational reality!

We count on FAO and WFP to take the lead: instead of spending billions on “permanent” food aid, year after year, it would be an unlimited return on investment if only a smaller part would be reserved to emergency needs in times of hunger catastrophes, but the major part spent at the world-wide creation of urban and rural family gardens or allotment gardens.

We are convinced that the battle against global hunger can be won by using small-scale farming as the most effective “war strategy”.  Offering smallholder farmers, in particular the women, the necessary minimal means (e.g. tools and seeds as microloans) to grow their own fresh food, is our everlasting “credo” and conviction.  It is based on the results of uncountable success stories with family gardens on different continents, where repeatedly was shown that families owing a small kitchen garden are always in a position to cope with the most adverse situations of drought and poverty.

Smallholder farming is the best protection against all kinds of climatic and economic misfortunes, for within the small gardens people will always have something to eat within reach.  For mothers, it is the most practical and direct way of providing vitamins and mineral elements for the children, totally independent of the food prizes at the local market.  Farmers having a family garden are not totally handicapped by poverty, excluding them from access to costly fresh food at the market.

Finally, if in better seasons production level in the small-scale garden is high enough, there will also be a possibility to sell some of the vegetables or fruits at the local market place, thus enhancing a bit the annual income.

On August 3, 2009 the WFP announced the “EU Food Facility Grant to Increase Farmers’ Productivity “:

“Small-scale farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America are set to receive a productivity boost through new United Nations-led agricultural projects funded by a donation of more than €34 million from the European Union’s (EU) Food Facility.

The European Union has recognized that one of the best ways to make sure people have access to food is to help small farmers increase production. That way, they can feed their families and increase availability of food on their local markets,” said Gemmo Lodesani, Director of the WFP liaison office in Brussels, adding that more than “2 million people, many of them children and vulnerable adults, will benefit from food generated by five WFP programmes.”

These WFP projects, such as collective farming, crop diversification, and food-for-work programmes aimed at improving irrigation and flood resistance, will be coordinated with the Food and Agriculture Organization (<””>FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (<””>IFAD).”

Hear the bells ringing:

1. WFP schemes helping mostly female small-scale farmers grow food more efficiently!

2. One of the best ways to make sure people have access to food is to help small farmers increase production!

3. That way, they can feed their families and increase availability of food on their local markets.

4. Collective farming, crop diversification, and food-for-work programmes aimed at improving irrigation and flood resistance.

May Bolivia, Guatemala, Senegal, Nepal and the Philippines be the successful demonstration projects to be followed by a universal application at the broadest scale: small-scale farming, family gardens, school gardens and allotment gardens are the gate to combat desertification, to alleviate hunger and poverty.

It is fine to know that in the UNNews this was called: One of the best ways to make sure poor people have access to food.


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.