The world's hunger crisis continues to worsen, affecting millions of people globally. Most people refer to this problem as a result of climate change, but the reality is that roughly 80% of the problem is caused by soil, and only about 20% by climate change.
The world's hunger crisis continues to worsen, affecting millions of people globally. Most people refer to this problem as a result of climate change, but the reality is that roughly 80% of the problem is caused by soil, and only about 20% by climate change.
Roland Bunch is one of the most well-respected thought leaders in regenerative land development and management, having studied and been in the field for 55 years. He is a former member of the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger and a Co-founder of Better Soil, Better Lives.
He has published dozens of articles and authored the books "Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement" in 1982, and "Restoring the Soil" in 2012.
Roland's motto is to imitate the forest. He started an organization and worked with small-holder farmers to do everything they could to mimic a forest-like field and use green manure cover crops to generate more biodiversity.
He has worked as a consultant worldwide in over 50 nations on four continents. During his work, Roland recognized the critical issue of hunger for many small-holder farmers, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa. This led to an investigation into the use of plants for regenerating the soil, now called green manure/cover crops.
During the conversation, Cory and Roland talk about the changes in farming practices that affect soil fertilization and cause drought and floods in some countries. Roland explains how the green manure cover crops are used to fight hunger, particularly in African villages, the timeline of using this approach, and how it can impact the benefactors of the soil.
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Cory Ames 0:00
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Roland Bunch 1:01
The average smallholder farmer in Africa now, is 51 years old. That means all the youth, at least the male youth, have gone to the slums or gone to Europe or something else, because they know that their life in the villages is coming to an end. These droughts, you know, they're now in many parts of Africa, they're now every other year. They used to be once every, more or less, once out of every three years. And before that, in the 1990s, it was one out of every five years. But it's now down to one every other year in much of Africa. And if their kids weren't in the, in the cities, sending them food or sending them money for food, they wouldn't be there. They'd be dead or they'd be in the slums too.
Cory Ames 1:44
Hey, y'all, it's Cory here with the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always, so grateful to have you listening in. Today we are talking about how to end the hurricane of hunger in one generation. And to do so I am joined by Roland Bunch. Roland has worked in agricultural development for more than half a century, in more than 50 nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. He's done paid consultancies for the Ford Foundation, Cornell University, CARE, and the top NGO organizations of Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, as well as the national governments of Guatemala, Honduras, Swaziland, and Vietnam.
He has published dozens of articles and book chapters in North America, South America, Europe, and Australia. In 1982, he published the book Two Ears of Corn, a guide to people centered agricultural improvement, which has since been published in 10 languages and is an all time best seller in the field of agricultural development. This book, Two Ears of Corn, pioneered the ideas of teaching smallholder farmers to manage their own experiments and train other farmers. Both of these approaches have now become major movements around the world under the names of Participatory Technology Development and Farmer to Farmer extension.
Back in the 80s, Roland began investigating and disseminating the use of plants that fertilize the soil, now called green manure cover crops. It's this that we talked about today, how cover crops can be used to help combat food insecurity in Sub Saharan Africa for smallholder farmers. It was such a pleasure to speak with Roland, he seriously has such a vast body of experience spanning literally just about the entire globe. And so, really fascinating conversation and important one, especially as we learn more about the cause of droughts, how it is that we can get out of them, both here in the US, and across the globe. And as well how we can address this this very critical issue of hunger for many smallholder farmers all over and specifically in Sub Saharan Africa.
So before we jump into this conversation with Roland, I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter. This is a newsletter I write and publish myself, send out every single Monday. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get that next one in your inbox. That's growensemble.com/newsletter. Alright y'all without further ado, here's Roland Bunch.
Roland Bunch 4:47
Well, basically, I started working in agricultural development in Central America at first. I've been doing it now for 55 years, more or less. During that period, we basically realized that soils were the major issue for smallholder farmers in many, many different ways. And so we started out doing soil conservation on hillsides. And then eventually we realized in about 1976 that chemical fertilizers were going up in price, and were going to continue to go up in price, more or less constantly, throughout the future. There have been blips and better times, but anyway, that's what happened. Probably the other important thing to know is that I've worked in well over 50 nations around the world on 4 continents, always with smallholder farmers. I got a master's degree at one point in International Agriculture from a university in United States, but 90% of what I know and have learned, and that serves me and the work I'm doing, I've learned from smallholder farmers. I think that's the most important thing to know about who I am and what I've done.
Cory Ames 5:56
Thank you so much for the introduction. And as you briefly mentioned before we hopped into this recording, your home base now is in Malawi, right? And that's oriented because of some of your current work that you're doing, correct?
Roland Bunch 6:09
Yes. Well, what happened was, I was offered by one organization-- I was doing consultancies all over the world, and one organization asked me to do a study of the agricultural situation and of their work in six different African countries: two in West Africa, two in East Africa, two in southern Africa. So it gave me a chance to really see what was happening throughout much of the continent. And what I realized at that time was that we were headed for serious problems in terms of hunger. And it wasn't because of global warming, it was because of the changes in farming practices that had been forced on farmers by population growth. Basically, in simple terms, the end of forest fallowing, which was keeping their soils fertile and had done so for over 2000 years.
So, when I realized that, first of all, I wrote a chapter in a book that's widely read, predicting that hunger was become was going to become a greater and greater problem over the next 20, 30, 40 years until we did something about it. And of course, most people-- well, virtually nobody agreed with me because we were working on the Millennium Development Goals, and we were supposed to be solving the problem. But in fact, it was very clear to me after having seen what was going on in the villages, in terms of soil quality and increasing droughts, that the situation was going to get worse and worse. And that's exactly what's happened. Now, almost everybody agrees with me.
Cory Ames 7:42
Sadly, or unfortunately. And so I'm curious, what was the timeline in which you were beginning to do that research specifically to start to assess what would be this trajectory over the next few decades?
Roland Bunch 7:56
Okay, well, we first started looking for alternatives to chemical fertilizer, because we realized it was going to be way too expensive for smallholder farmers to ever use it, not just because it costs a lot, but because the costs were greater than the benefits. The increase in yields of maize, or sorghum, or millet, or the basic grains of most of the developing world, including rice, the increasing costs of the fertilizer was going to be more than the value of the increase in yields they were going to get. So we had to find some alternative. By that time, already a billion smallholder farmers around the world were dependent to some extent on chemical fertilizer.
So we tried, first of all, animal manure as a way of keeping the forest fertile. But the problem is, farmers don't have enough animals to keep their soil fertile. Then we tried-- we looked at composting, which we had been working with working with for many years, but we realized the amount of labor that goes into composting, especially if a whole village is doing it. So you have to go on average of three to four kilometers to collect the plant material you're going to use - is just absolutely impossible. I mean, you know, even today, using compost requires something between three and four months of solid work, just to go and collect all the material and process it and then spread it across your field.
So finally, in 1983, we started working with green manure cover crops, and thank goodness that it kept looking better and better the longer we worked with them. So we've been working on green manure cover crops steadily since 1983. We did some work in '76, but it was a total failure because we were trying to use the wrong species. By 1983, we were on to good species and we were learning. Now, the biggest change after that was that after I did this study I just mentioned in 2010 to 11, I realized that Africa was going to have a much harder problem than Latin America or Asia were going to have in terms of overcoming the problem.
I mean, in Asia, for instance, an awful lot of people were sucked out of the farming system by increasing industrialization that was working very well and creating tremendous numbers of jobs. And so, you know, the problem was not that serious. But in Africa, there is no such thing. I mean, there's been a little bit of industrialization, but it can't soak up even 10% of the people who are no longer able to live on their farms. I mean, the average-- this is a statistic that just blows me away. The average smallholder farmer in Africa now is 51 years old. That means all the youth, at least the male youth, have gone to the slums or gone to Europe or something else, because they know that their life in the village is coming to an end.
These droughts, they're now, in many parts of Africa, they're now every other year. They used to be once every, more or less, one out of every three years. And before that, in the 1990s, it was one out of every five years. But it's now down to one every other year in much of Africa. And if their kids weren't in the cities sending them food, or sending them money for food, they wouldn't be there. They'd be dead, or they'd be in the slums, too. So the situation is very serious. And so I decided to come to Africa. That's why I'm living in Africa now.
In 2011 I didn't hardly have any friends here or anything like that. But I knew that that's where the major problem was going to be. And by that time, I knew that green manure cover crops were really the only solution. We can look at other possibilities, but that's really the only solution. So I came to Africa, and the first six or eight years, 2011 to 2018, or something like that, I was looking at, okay, what are the green manure cover crop systems? And see, there are over 150 different plants and ways of using those plants that are used around the world presently, successfully, by smallholder farmers. You know, it's a huge number. And so I wanted to see which of those would be most useful in the vast majority of Africa, of Sub Saharan Africa. And we've done that now, we know what works.
We started a couple of years ago-- I set up an organization to actually start spreading it. I had hoped that, you know, lots of non governmental organizations would get involved and I wouldn't have to set up an organization myself, but that didn't happen. Actually, right now, it's looking like lots of organizations are interested in getting working in green manure cover crops. In the last six months, we've had seven or eight organizations come to us - we didn't go to them, they came to us, asking to learn about green manure cover crops.
And among them, those organizations, a couple of them are very large, there are over 2 million farmers they're working with. So we now have a very good, large number of farmers who already have learned a few things about soil management. Almost all these organizations have already been working in soil management and improving their crops and stuff. And we're ready to go with over 2 million farmers now.
Cory Ames 13:06
Wow. Is the tipping point on such wider-spread interest, is that just because of, perhaps, the effects and the fears of this crisis are starting to be more acutely felt? Or what's shifted exactly?
Roland Bunch 13:18
I think it's more they've begun hearing that, you know, frankly, it's because of people like you. The word is getting out that green manure cover crops can solve the problem. Sure. There's a tremendous amount of interest this year, because of things like the secretary of the United Nations, Antonio Gutierrez, has said that we've got a hurricane of hunger upon us. And a lot of people realize that. In Africa, people have been realizing it more and more over the last five or six years. And I think, yeah, there's a tremendous groundswell of interest in green manure cover crops, because a lot of people are realizing that's the way to go.
Cory Ames 13:52
You've done it a bit already, but if you wouldn't mind drawing it out for me to paint a picture of, I guess, the scale and scope of this issue, this problem of food security in Sub Saharan Africa, it's predominantly throughout these these rural communities? That's the issue? And I think that, you know, intuitively, we think especially just, you know, with a baseline understanding of what's happening with climate change and global warming, that you think that it would be mostly connected to that in some way. And so please, you know, spell it out a bit more so that we kind of more intricately understand what's happening.
Roland Bunch 14:24
Okay. The common understanding of this, at least until the last few months, certainly over the last 15 years or so, has been that most of the increase in droughts is being caused by climate change. Now, there is some truth to that. Climate change is affecting the frequency of rains and how many light rains you have, which are what agriculture needs, as opposed to storms, occasional storms, and periods of drought in between. That is being caused by climate change.
But the interesting thing we've learned earned over the last 10, 15 years here in Africa, is that while we've worked with groups of-- we've either worked with or the farmers themselves are using green manures because they discovered them on their own, we're working with groups of 1000s of farmers in Mali, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Madagascar. Now, there's a few other countries where we have a few farmers. But in each of those countries, there's well over 1000 farmers, sometimes 10,000 farmers, that have already been using green manures for quite a while, and they no longer have droughts. They no longer have droughts.
They're getting three times-- the normal yield in Africa for maize, which is sort of a general standard, is about one ton per hectare. Now, most people that are listening to this won't understand what that means, but we can just compare that one ton to other figures. The farmers who have been using green manure cover crops for at least five or six years are now harvesting 3 tons, an average of three tons per hectare. That means they've tripled their yields in the good years. But even more interesting is in the bad years, the regular farmers that haven't started using this technology are getting virtually nothing, maybe one month's worth of food for a whole year. That'd be getting 300, 400 kilos of maize per hectare, or say, a third of a ton.
Whereas, the farmers who have been using green manures for at least five or six years are getting two and a half ton. They're getting almost as much as they do in the good years. In other words, that two and a half tons is about 80% of the 3 tons they get in the good years, which means that 80% of the problem is caused by soil, and only 20% by climate change. The fact is that climate change hasn't really reduced how much total water falls in a given year around Africa, the amount of rainfall is pretty much the same as it was maybe 5% less in some areas. But it's about pretty much the same as it has been all along. The impact from climate change is mostly because you're getting the water concentrated in a few storms rather than small amounts of water during the whole growing season. Whereas, the problem of lack of water is totally due to the fact that, as farmers who had to give up using forest fallowing, which like I said, started back in the 1980s, the problem of increased drought started in the 1980s, too.
Cory Ames 17:36
Sorry to interrupt. Forest fallowing, is that agroforestry? Are those interchangeable? Or, I'm just not familiar with that?
Roland Bunch 17:41
Okay, agroforestry can be a substitute to some extent for forest fallowing, but forest fallowing is what, in the United States and other places, we often call slash and burn agriculture. In other words, you leave the forest there for usually 15 years or more, sometimes only 10. And then you may burn it, you slash it and you plant your fields for two or three or four years, until the soil gets really lousy, as it will. And then you let the forest grow again, and you move on somewhere else.
Well, by the 1980s, there wasn't any other place to move on to. So people had to cut the forest fallowing from 10-15 years to 10 years to eight years to four years. Now forest fallowing in Africa today, as we speak, in Sub Saharan Africa, forest fallowing is on its deathbed. It's rare that I find people doing forest fallowing almost anywhere I go. And that's the reason that the organic matter content of the soil has dropped from an average-- in those days when you cut down the forest, the average soil organic matter content was about 4%. Now it's well less than 1%.
And what that means is that the soil gets hard, it gets impenetrable, if it's a clay soil, which most of African soils are now. In a sandy soil, the water just goes right through and goes on down below where the roots can get to. But in a clay soil, what happens when you have no organic matter and it becomes like cement. So neither the water can get into it or nor the roots. In fact, it's an interesting little thing that happens with some farmers. I'll be talking with them and they'll say, "You know, what's going on? Is it raining too much? Is it raining too little? You know, we have we have droughts now every other year or every third year. But almost every year now we also have floods in other parts of the country. What's going on? Is it too much water too little water?"
And I'll say, "Well, you know, after it's rained for four or five hours solid, you know, real hard, a good tropical rainstorm for four or five hours, how deep does your soil get wet?" And they'll say, "Oh, it's about maybe three inches. It gets wet down to three inches and it can't go any further. The water just can't penetrate it." And so I'll say, "Okay, well what happens with the rest of the water? That's not very much water." And they'll say, "Oh, it all runs off." And then I'll just stand there a minute. And they'll say, "Oh, I understand." Now all that water is running off has to go somewhere, and it causes floods. But it's not because we're getting too little water, it's because we aren't getting it into our soil.
Cory Ames 20:17
Well, I kind of surprised myself that I may not actually know what defines a drought. My understanding would be that it would just be that lack of water, or, you know, lack of rainfall, perhaps, or whatever it might be. So then, what, in fact, classifies it? Does it then come down to the soil? What sort of water we're able to retain on the ground level?
Roland Bunch 20:39
Yeah, what we need to do is redefine the word drought. I mean, the word drought really does mean, there's not enough rainfall. But in fact, that's not the critical issue. The critical issue is whether the rain is getting into the soil, and the plants can use it. So yeah, there is a question there, and like you, the vast majority of the world, at least up until very recently, the last few months, has felt that, yeah, what was the problem in Africa, obviously, must be they're not getting enough rain. But in fact, that's not the problem. The problem is that the rain can't get into the soil and do anything for the crops. So the crops suffer from a total lack of water, even though there's been an excess of rain.
Cory Ames 21:20
I mean, it's what we think is the problem here in Texas, as well, South Central Texas. We're in a historic drought right now, and very similar throughout the Southwest over to California, you know. And so, I think that, perhaps, it's important that as a nation, as a country, our understanding of what causes droughts, and continues to perpetuate them evolves.
Roland Bunch 21:41
In the United States, you not only have the problem of lack of organic matter in the soil, and that's unless your people are farming organically. That's a universal problem in the States. But you'll find that the soil has hard pans and clay pans, and there's all sorts of names for this stuff, but the soil is just gotten to be like a rock.
We have a little thing that one of our smallholder farmers in Guatemala once discovered was a real neat teaching technique. We call it the machete test, or the-- you know what a machete is, it's a big knife that farmers carry with them in Guatemala everywhere they go. And here in Africa, we use the same thing. So we'll take one of these machetes, and if we're working with a group of farmers out in the villages and we're trying to show him you know, what green manure cover crops have done-- See, most of what the green manure cover crops have done most of, it's invisible, because it's under the ground. So we'll take this machete and we'll hand it to him, and we'll go to a field where people aren't using green manure cover crops, a typical field, and have them stick it in the ground just as deep as they can. We'll say, "okay, stick this in just as deep as you can."
So they'll grab it and go like that [imitates sticking a big knife into the ground with a big grunt]. And it'll go in about this far [indicates a couple feet or so]. And then we'll take them over to a field where there's been green manures for, hopefully for four or five, six years, a neighbor of theirs or something like that. And we'll say, "okay, stick this in the ground here as far as you can." And they'll go [another imitation and grunt] like that, and the doggone thing will go clear into the handle. Machete, you know, that's close to a yard long, will clear into the ground.
And some of them almost fall over when they do it, because they aren't expecting it to go in that far, you know. And they're just amazed, they're just absolutely shocked. All the farmers that are watching this, just, you know, they want to go out and try it to see if this guy wasn't just faking it. They have a hard time believing that something can make their soil that soft again.
Cory Ames 23:36
Right. And so, in some of these experiences, you talk about just the production has changed. And you know, we can draw implications of what the increased food production can mean for those particular farmers. But can you further paint a picture for us of what, sort of, additional ancillary byproduct outcomes are we seeing when these smallholder farmers adjust their techniques? The land management practices, you know, what other experiences are you noticing, outside of just they're able to grow more food?
Roland Bunch 24:05
Okay, well, let me go into the food thing first, because that's also interesting. There's a typical thing that sort of happens. Now, there's variations and so forth, depending on the farmers depending on the local markets, depending on their food preferences, and all sorts of things like that. But basically, what happens is that over a period of four or five years, the first year, frankly, they won't get any results at all, because they're just producing what we might call the fertilizer. They aren't applying it yet. Usually. There are a couple of systems in which we can apply it during the first year, but that's that's not common.
So the first year they don't see many results. By the third year, they've doubled their harvest, usually. By the third year, they aren't even having to do any more soil preparation so they're saving a tremendous amount of work. And this is work that women usually have to do in African villages. So we're really tremendously reducing the work that women have to do. By the sixth year, you've got a totally different situation. What happens then is you've got a tripling of harvests. That means, in as much as most families now are only producing maybe five to 10 months, usually about six to eight months of food, and the rest they have to get, like, from their sons or they have to go out and work for somebody else, go work in a mine, or work on a large landholders field or something.
So they are not producing all the food they need. They are food insecure. But if they double that, if you double that or triple that, then you've got 10 to 15 months, or even 20 to 25 months worth of food. By the time you've tripled it, they've got more than double the amount of food they need. Okay. So that means that all sorts of things change. First of all, it means that they no longer have calorie malnutrition, they have plenty of calories to eat. Now, they don't have enough proteins and vitamins and minerals usually. But what happens with the green manure cover crops is that most of the best systems, and I can describe a couple of these systems if you want, they're, like I say, there are about 20 or 30 we're going to be using depending on the area, but most of these systems provide beans or peas.
Okay, because what we use is leguminous plants, almost all our green manure cover crops are leguminous plants. So that means we're getting usually edible beans and peas. That means you're getting all the protein you need. And, you know, one hectare, say, which would be maybe the average size farm now in Africa among smallholder farmers, one hectare of beans is far more than a farm family can eat. So they've also got some income to educate their kids and so forth.
The second thing that happens, of course, is-- well, and also they can often eat the leaves of these plants. Like for instance, with Lablab beans, you can eat the leaves. Those leaves can be dried and stored for 12 months, which means that farmers are not only getting protein year round, they're also getting vitamins and minerals year round from these leaves. And those leaves, basically, are free because they're a byproduct of growing the beans and fertilizing your soil. So that, frankly, is a nutritionist dream. Free proteins, vitamins and minerals that are available all year round. I mean, you can't do any better than that. Nutritionally, okay.
The third thing is, they aren't having to do nearly as much labor as they did because they don't have to prepare the soil anymore. The soil is as soft as-- I mean, you know, plowing the soil would be like Simon Bolivar once said: would be like plowing the sea. There's no point, it's so soft. What the point, all you're doing is stepping on it and so forth, which is not good for soil. You're turning it over, that's not good for a tropical soil either, or any soil really. So you don't have that work.
Most of these green manure cover crops will also help you reduce weeding. For instance, the one we use most, Lablab, you never have to do a second weeding in your maize, you only do one. Which means the women don't have to go out there and spend a month or two doing heavy labor in the hot tropical sun, and doing it during the hunger season. Because the hunger season occurs during the two or three months before the next harvest. And that's when they have to do their second weeding of maize. So, women love green manure cover crops much more than even men do because it saves them a tremendous amount of labor, and hard labor, the hardest labor they do during the year outside of maybe carrying water.
You know, that's another advantage. The next advantage - well, there's several more - is that they are using these plants, they put them on the soil, the crop roots - either they become part of the soil or more often the crop roots come up and consume them right in the mulch. Crop roots don't need soil. I mean, you know, hydroponics has proven that. So you know, people grow crops here in the United States in water. Plants don't need soil.
So these roots will go up into the mulch and access those nutrients before they ever touch the soil. Which is also beneficial because phosphorus, for instance, once it touches the soil, within a week, most of it is no longer available to plants. When farmers put chemical phosphorus in their soils in the United States, only 10% of that phosphorus is used the first year because 90% of it has become unavailable to plants.
Whereas, in our situation, the phosphorus stays in the mulch. It doesn't become unavailable to plants in the mulch. That's because of chemical reactions in the soil. And the plant roots come up. You know the plant roots can easily grow upward, they'll go anywhere where dinner's served. So they go up into the mulch and they get all the phosphorus there and none of it becomes unavailable because it never touches the soil. So that's another advantage.
But one of the other advantages I was headed toward is that when all this plant material is going into the soil, all that plant material has carbon in it. And that carbon is being sequestered in the soil. So it's no longer forming part of co2 in the atmosphere, which means that-- well, frankly, I've done the mathematics, and we aren't sure exactly what happens over a long period of time. But to the best of our knowledge, these plants, the way we use them in green manure cover crop systems, are sequestering something on the order of at least six tons per hectare of pure carbon. Okay, six tons of pure carbon per hectare.
That means that if all the farmers - and like I say, I've done the arithmetic - if all the farmers, say, just in Africa, and just the smallholder farmers, we won't even talk about the large scales, if just the smallholder farmers in Africa, all adopted green manure cover crops - and I think we can have that happen in a generation - that means that about three to 4% of all the carbon that the whole world needs to sequester in order to meet the 2100 goals of the Paris Climate Accords, which people are now saying, "well, it may be impossible." These smallholder farmers in Africa could sequester about three to 4% of all of that.
If all the farmers around the world and all the ranchers around the world did so we'd sequester over half of it. Over half. By the year 2100 we were sequester over half the carbon that needs to be sequestered, according to climate change accords. And most people who are dealing with that problem don't even realize this. Most of the people making calculations about it are saying now, "Well, it may be impossible for us. We're gonna have to deal with three degrees centigrade more heat, which means, you know, everything's gonna fall apart and so forth."
They don't even realize that this potential exists. And it's huge. It's huge. I mean, half the carbon that needs to be sequestered by the whole world could be sequestered by farmers and ranchers around the world.
Cory Ames 32:10
Where do you think is the missing link? Why isn't that being acknowledged as a such a massive solution?
Roland Bunch 32:16
Because people don't know about it. They don't know about green manure cover crops, and they certainly don't know how much carbon they're sequestering every year. Even if they do know about green manure cover crops, often they've never seen that figure.
Cory Ames 32:26
Do you think that-- especially people who are doing these particular calculations, are we not quite aware of the negative effects of what's become our industrialized agriculture all around the world and, you know, acutely in the US or wherever it is. Are we not particularly aware of that, or the soil depletion, do you think?
Roland Bunch 32:42
Well, people are well aware of soil depletion, they don't understand how it can be. A lot of people think that chemical fertilizers is the way to go. But the depletion is mostly a matter of organic matter, not a fertilizer. And furthermore, fertilizer is an expensive way to do it.
Now, large scale farmers in the United States are going to have to modify a whole series of things to be able to use these practices. What we do has been modified for 50 years for smallholder farmers, you know. And I don't know exactly what needs to be done in the States. There is a fellow that, if you haven't interviewed him, you certainly should. There is a fellow who is really the informal leader of the whole green manure movement in the United States. His name is Gabe Brown. He's a farmer in North Dakota, which is about as different from Africa as you can get in terms of you know, the amount of heat and all that sort of stuff.
But yet, he's been working with these green manures for 20 or 30 years. Actually, he first learned a lot about them from the same fella that taught us a lot about them when we first got started. Fella from Brazil. There's a whole movement there, where they have taught farmers to use green manures and do several other things. And they have farmers who have over 100,000 hectares. Some people say, "Well, you can't do green manures on a very large scale, because you got to do this and that and the other." Well, they've got farmers that have over 100,000 hectares, or two or 300,000 acres of land that are using green manures on the whole shooting match.
And they have over 2 million farmers in Brazil right now as I speak, that have 25 million hectares of green manure cover crops. So we're not talking about something that nobody's ever done. We're not talking about something that can only be done on a small scale. We aren't talking about something that can only be done by smallholder farmers. And Gabe Brown will tell you that very clearly. But yeah, it can be done in United States. I'm not the person to ask how to do it because when I went to ag school, I purposely didn't even learn how to drive a tractor because I didn't want to work with anybody that had a tractor. I wanted to work for the people that don't have tractors.
Cory Ames 34:55
Why was that, Roland?
Roland Bunch 34:56
Well, because I wanted to work with the people that needed it, that were economically having problems, that we're hungry. I mean, I've been tempted a few times. I was invited to go work in the Middle East a couple of times, but, you know, and I would love to have gotten to know those countries and seen what's happening there. But those aren't poor farmers. They've all got tractors.
Cory Ames 35:16
I'm interested, especially, you know, given the origins of your interest in research and green manure in cover crops in the early 80s. It's still obviously not mainstream by any any notion, but the concept of regenerative agriculture is becoming a bit more popular as of late. How do you feel about that now, here, some 40 years later, that it is something that is gaining momentum? At least, you know, in my circles anyways, here, contextually in the United States. What are your thoughts on that? And are there any, I don't know, concerns or kind of cautionary notes, that we should be aware of?
Roland Bunch 35:56
Well, we basically consider green manure cover crops to be a regenerative practice. We put ourselves squarely within the group of people that talk about regenerative agriculture or agroecology, there's several different names. I prefer the name regenerative, because it really says what is true, we can regenerate things, we don't just have to put up with things the way they are. We can change agriculture dramatically, and make it more productive and better for the environment and better for climate change, and so forth and so on. So yeah, I totally agree with most of what's being said about regenerative agriculture, and I think it's the way the world has to go if we're going to have a decent life for people in the future.
Cory Ames 36:39
I think it is something that gets people quite excited. I think, first and foremost, the difference between the narrative that, perhaps, humans are inherently destructive. It's a bit tired anyways, and that doesn't feel good, at a minimum. And so it is really energizing and inspiring to find things like that, the regenerative agriculture movement. There's other sectors and industries where people have some similar sentiments, now, in a different light, that, in fact, yeah, we don't have to be destructive. We aren't necessarily, in our nature, destructive. It's just, perhaps, the way in which systems have been and what we learned at that point in time, but that we have the opportunity otherwise to, in fact, leave things better, as we would hope, than we originally found them. So it's certainly inspiring, at least from my own experience.
Roland Bunch 37:28
Let me go back and make one other comment about what I've said. I mean, I just listed, I don't know, eight or 10-- Well, actually, there's one more that I didn't even list and that is, people can grow all the food they need on a third of their land, even here in Africa, with green manure cover crops. So one of the things they do within the first six years is they start reducing how much land they're dedicating to just basic grains, and they start growing vegetables, and both cash crops and other crops that will improve their diets in terms of vitamins and minerals.
So you know, that's another thing that always happens. And that means that, you know, they have a good income that they can use for medicines and education for their kids, and so forth, and so on. But I'm sure that with all these benefits, I mean, I listed what eight major benefits, a lot of people-- the biggest problem you're going to have with this podcast is people just plain aren't going to believe you can put a couple of extra plants in your field, and all of a sudden have all these tremendous benefits, you know. Less labor, virtually no cost, carbon sequestration, all the foods you need, vitamins and proteins and minerals, you know, extra income for your family, on and on, better soil, et cetera, et cetera.
And it's totally sustainable. As far as we can see, there's no indication that things are slowing up. So there's going to be a real credibility gap there. But let me say one thing: every single one of those advantages is also the advantage of a forest. A natural forest does all those things. You've never heard of a drought in the forest. You've never heard of a forest that had worn out its soil. You've never heard of a forest that required human labor to grow well. You know, on and on and on all with every one of those things I talked about that are advantages of green manure cover crops are things that happen in the forest.
So there's no big surprise if we turn our fields into forests, which is what we're doing. I mean, we have green manure cover crops that are trees, we always try to have trees in our green manure fields. We have all sorts of other plants-- well, not all sorts, we try to have three or four green manure cover crops in our field. So you're getting much more biodiversity, you're getting much more shade - well, the soil is shaded. The maize and so forth isn't totally shaded because we prune the trees every year.
Basically, what we're doing-- in fact, our motto is "imitate the forest." Do everything you can to get your field looking like a forest, except prune the trees so that your maize still gets enough sunlight to grow well, or your sorghum or your cassava or whatever. And so yeah, it's not a surprise that all these benefits accrue, because they're the benefits that are natural to a natural forest.
Cory Ames 40:10
Right. Are there any situations, and perhaps this is where you can touch on the variations in systems that you're working with, the 20 to 30 that you mentioned. But are there situations in which this type of approach doesn't work? And not to speak to the difference in scale, smallholder versus the more large industrialized model, but in the context of smallholder farmers, are there limitations in this type of approach?
Roland Bunch 40:35
Home gardens, where you're producing four or five different crops each year, planting at different times and so forth, outside of planting a few trees that can provide a little bit of what we call dispersed shade, and some leaves that will definitely fertilize the soil, we can't use green manures, because you're planting things at different times different ways. Some plants are only six inches tall, others are six feet tall. It's very hard to use green manures in a situation like that.
Now, for commercial vegetables, we're finding ways of dealing with it to some extent. But with a home garden, a kitchen garden, it's virtually impossible to use many green manure cover crops well. Another situation which I think we're going to overcome in a few years but we haven't yet, we've found a species in Indonesia. We were having troubles getting it out of the country, but we think it's going to be really good. But another situation is flooded rice, in other words paddy rice. We don't have any green manures that can grow in a lake. We've found one in Indonesia, and we're trying to get it out of the country, but it's been very, very hard. We haven't done it yet.
And I think it's going to work very well, because not only can it grow in a swamp, it produces edible food and it will provide dispersed shade all at the same time for the rice. And that's going to be particularly important for rice, because as the world heats up, rice is one of the main crops that's going to be most affected by increasing amounts of heat. So you know, we're still working on that. But outside of that - now, we aren't working in highland areas, because it's just not the highest priority, because without a lot of heat, the nitrogen doesn't burn off in the soil, the organic matter doesn't burn off that fast. So it's not as critical a place. The people in the highlands are not having as much problem with droughts as in the lowlands.
The other places we can't work, that's why we only talk about 70% of the people in Sub Saharan Africa, is places where there's violence. I mean, we tried in Guatemala, back when about 2% of the entire national population was murdered by the government in the 1980s. And we tried to continue working in extension, and, we were just putting our farmer leaders in danger, because every time they got on a bus, there'd be some military people there that were checking all the everybody's credentials, and if they had somebody's name on the list, they got disappeared, as we say. So those are the areas where we can't do it. But in about 70% of Sub Saharan Africa, green manures can can pretty well solve the problem.
Cory Ames 43:15
And so you mentioned a bit earlier in the conversation, maybe I'm misremembering, but 2 million or so smallholder farmers, you mentioned in Sub Saharan Africa that you have, through the extension of larger organizations, that are now getting interested and active, ready to go. What's the resistance or the barriers or anything like that to doing exactly what we're talking about here and ending that that the hurricane of hunger, or averting, perhaps, the greatest consequences of it?
Roland Bunch 43:43
Now that we have all the farmers, there's two things still that we lack. One is the money, we really need to grow our organization tremendously. And the other is training - trained people who can do the work we need. Basically, for these farmers, we're developing an internet based decision tree. That just means you answer a question by poking one or two or three buttons. And after you've done that 15 or 20 times, it'll tell you which systems you ought to use and how you ought to manage them. So that part of the whole thing we won't need to go out and give courses.
What we will need to do is keep track of which farmers and how many farmers and so forth are adopting green manures. And actually, in most cases they'll be smallholder farmers that have already been lead farmers and have trained other people in their area to go out and, probably twice a year, troubleshoot in the villages. Make sure that they're doing things right, that they understand the system, and that they are using a system that works in that area and that they don't have like insect problems or disease, plant disease problems or something like that.
So it's gonna take a lot of supervision to get people going. And that will only be necessary for the first couple of years, then people can be on their own and do a good job. And in fact, they will enrich these systems themselves. Smallholder farmers can learn to experiment and really enrich these systems. In fact, like I said, most of what I've learned about these systems I've learned from smallholder farmers who have been doing that. But we do need, for the first two years, any group that's working with them, we do need a few people who can go out and look at the fields, talk with the farmers, and find out what's happening.
And also find out, maybe they don't like the particular beans that they're producing. So, you know, they need a cooking class or two or something like that. There are a few things that still need to be done in the villages where green manure cover crops are being adopted. We need more money so that we can beef up our organization and do a better job of training the farmers who already know some of this stuff so they can go out to into a diversity of systems and be useful as as providing additional training on the spot.
Cory Ames 45:55
And so, all barriers and challenges considered, do you feel hopeful at hitting that 70% number in its entirety sometime in the next generation?
Roland Bunch 46:05
Yes, I am. We can do it if enough people decide. I mean, actually, right now, I used to say people would have to decide to do it. Now I think the demand is there, the demand for the training and learning how to do it is there. What we lack now is the money to beef up the organization and train enough people to help the people who are starting with green manures get on the get on the right track, right from the start.
Those are our two needs right now. But those are doable. And, in fact, the interest in hunger that's been created in this last month by the predictions of what's going to happen because of the war in Ukraine and so forth, this is going to be a tremendous help to us, I think, in terms of fundraising. And then the only thing will be, it'll be up to us to train enough smallholder farmers not only in how to grow other green manure cover crop systems beyond the one they're using, but train them how to go into an airport and get on a plane and fly to Zambia, you know, few things like that.
Cory Ames 47:05
It's the consequence of some of these tragedies that happen, where they can start a wider spread conversation around these important issues. It's the the edge of it that potentially is helpful as things are either, experienced on some stage that gets the world's wide coverage that can happen, or, you know, in some ways happens closer to home, in some respect. As it seems like in the US, maybe not explicitly hunger, not that we don't have issues with hunger, but many of the the consequences of droughts, climate change, flooding, and that kind of stuff, that's certainly becoming very close to home. That's to be the expectation.
So consequence of that is, it has to get worse before it gets better. But hopefully, we're mobilizing people in the interest and the demand. I'm glad that you're seeing, especially on such a long trajectory of experience in this space, that you feel hopeful, all things considered, after the decades of work in this field. But Roland, thank you so much for taking the time here. Before we wrap up, you mind if I ask you a couple rapid fire questions?
Roland Bunch 48:09
Go to it.
Cory Ames 48:10
All right. So first one for you: what's maybe a book film or other resource that you might recommend to our listeners? Can be about the subject matter that we spoke about today or not. Something you always come back to or something that's impacted you recently?
Roland Bunch 48:22
Well, if people are interested in green manure cover crops and they really want to grow them, people that are working in development in the developing world, sorry, but I'm going to recommend my own book called Restoring the Soil. It has the experience of farmers around the world who are growing green manures already, successfully, using about 150 different systems. The first half of the book is general information about green manures, and then the second half of the book is the discussion of all these different systems and where they're useful.
And the picture on the front here is a farmer back in Honduras, years ago, who was using green manures. You can see a whole lot of, it looks like weeds growing up the maize in the background. And he's showing us in his left hand the size of ear he used to get from one plant of maize. In his right hand, he's got two much larger ears, which is what ne now gets, on average, from each plant, which means he's approximately tripled his production.
You can see the really black dark soil down at his feet here. But that soil is what he has now as opposed to the white, hard soil before. But the thing I like most about this photo is his son is sitting next to him, and he's about 23, 24 years old. Previously, he would have gone to the Capitol by now. He wouldn't be there anymore. But his son knows that this field is going to go on producing for many years what it's now producing, and so he and his wife and so forth can raise their children here and be sure that they're going to have a decent future without suffering from hunger.
That really warms my heart. Because if you can keep families together and keep them near each other, especially in developing countries where grandparents are so important in the raising of grandchildren, and aunts, and uncles, and so forth and so on, and everybody doesn't have to go to the city and become a beggar or a thief or something else, you know, all the young kids, it's so much nicer for the society in so many different ways. That would be the book I'd recommend.
I mean, there are a couple of other books on green manures. You can look them up, you know, just Google green manure cover crops. The Brazilians have written a couple of books in English, although most of their material, which is extremely good, as in Portuguese or in a few cases, Spanish. If anybody can read Portuguese or Spanish, I would certainly recommend those. But in terms of movies and so forth, there isn't a whole lot out there. You know, the word hasn't gotten out. That's one of the things we're trying to do today.
Cory Ames 50:56
Excellent. Well, happy to accept the recommendation, your book. We'll make sure it's linked up. A second one for you, Roland: do you have any particular morning routines or daily habits that you feel like you have to stick to, if anything at all?
Roland Bunch 51:11
That's a question I really love, because one of the things I try to communicate to people is that we don't have a monopoly on the good life here in the United States. We haven't figured everything out about life. I have yet to spend very much time, or at least to live in a culture that didn't have some things that were really valuable to teach us. And the sooner we learn them, the better our lives will be.
Now, one thing, I lived in Latin America for about 37 years, and I developed the habit of having a siesta every day after after lunch for 20, 30 minutes. That's interesting, because not only is it nice, and it's something that we can enjoy, but many studies recently have shown that, in fact, it increases your lifespan. It's healthy for you to take a half hour siesta in the afternoon. And so, this is one thing I learned from Latin America. I've learned many things from Latin America, many things from Africans, many things from Asians, and they've made my life richer and more interesting and healthier. People in the United States and Europe and so forth, ought to take that into account. Just because people are poor doesn't mean they don't have anything to teach us.
Cory Ames 52:18
Absolutely. And maybe a follow up for you, in particular, where so much time spent in so many different countries across the world: are there any in particular that you're most fond of? Maybe something in Latin America, because you spent so much time there, or any cultures kind of speak to you most affectionately?
Roland Bunch 52:35
Well, if I had my druthers and could go anywhere I want, I'd probably pick one of the Southeast Asian countries. People there are as friendly as anywhere you can get, and friendly in a very deep way. I mean, you you make very good friends in Southeast Asia, and I like it. But it also depends on what you're looking for.
If you really want to just have a good time, you know, if you really want a party and just enjoy yourself and everything, there's no place like Brazil, especially in Northeast Brazil. The average pattern is that you go to a party at 11 o'clock at night, and you get home about four o'clock in the morning. I mean, almost every day. And we know about what people do during Carnivale, because we hear about the fancy parades and the scantily clad women, shall I say, but Brazilians enjoy themselves all the time. And they have a tremendous sense of humor, and, in fact, if you listen to Brazilian Portuguese, you'll notice it has a lilt to it. That would be difficult for any group of people who weren't enjoying themselves to develop in their language.
But you know, if you're interested in good food, there's lots of places. I mean, obviously, France is one place, but I think China is another place, and I think also Japan's another place. I very much like the food in Vietnam, for instance. They have some really good food there that people don't know about. If you're interested in making friends, or just having people who are friendly, I don't think anybody's more friendly than West Africans. You know, they are so friendly, it's incredible.
If you want deep friendships, like I say, I go to Southeast Asia. You know, if you want really, really faithful friends, you won't have very many of them. But if you really want really faithful friends who will do anything for you, if you need it, go to Japan. I mean, it's interesting, there's so much to learn. The world is an incredible place. And there's a whole lot out there to learn about and to enjoy and to enrich our own lives.
Cory Ames 54:34
I certainly agree. And maybe along those lines to finish up here Roland, what's one piece of advice that you might leave our listeners with? These folks are changemakers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe, looking to leave the world a better place than they found it. What might you leave us with?
Roland Bunch 54:50
Well, I suppose there's two things that I would probably say. Of course, one is read my book. No, in general, people that aren't just working in agricultural development, I would say that, as I've gone around and done consultancies all over the world, and I've worked with at least 50 different nongovernmental organizations and a half dozen governments in these consultancies, the biggest mistakes I see are, first of all, not maintaining close connection and communication with the people in the field.
The leaders of these organizations often make huge mistakes, the international leaders, the people in the States and Europe and so forth, make a huge mistake by not knowing what their people really need, and then trying to force things they don't need, or don't want down their throats by subsidizing them or paying for them, giving them away. You know, this sort of thing. If your program is giving a lot of stuff away, you're on the wrong track, frankly. If you're doing the right thing, you don't have to give money away, farmers will do it.
If you've got the right technology, and you're teaching it well, then farmers will do it. This idea that farmers are totally conservative-- I mean, I have agronomists even today telling me in Africa, that "Oh, African farmers, they're so conservative, they don't want to do anything." We have farmers just absolutely piling all over each other to try and get enough gliricidia tree cuttings to plant in their fields. And we have far more farmers in our own program areas than we can help because so many farmers want to do it. So you know, that's one thing.
The other thing that I would say is, when you listen to them, value what they say. Sure, smallholder farmers are ignorant in some ways, they haven't been to school, a lot of them. Or if they have, they've only been to grade school and the quality of that education wasn't very good. But just because they are ignorant in that sense, doesn't mean they don't know anything, and they don't have things to teach us.
Your organization is not going to be doing a good job if the people all the way through the organization from the top to the bottom aren't in communication with the supposed beneficiaries, and aren't learning from them and respecting what they have to say. Those are the two biggest mistakes that NGOs are making all over the world.
Cory Ames 57:10
Well, I appreciate that. And I think good advice and consideration for us to end on here Roland. Thank you so much for taking the time. One last thing, where's the best place for folks to go to keep up with your work and follow along? Perhaps it's just to dive into the book next. But are there any other better places for people to keep up with you and in the work that you do?
Roland Bunch 57:31
Right now, the book would be the best. In a few months, we're going to have a website that should have lots of information and papers and stuff like that. And also this internet system where you can punch a few buttons and find out what would be the best green manure cover crop in your particular area. But yeah, that would be the best right now. I mean, there isn't much available, and that's one of the problems that we have in terms of people understanding what's going on.
Cory Ames 57:53
Well, looks like we're on the track to get that out there. And we'll do whatever we can over on this end. So thanks so much for all and I really appreciate it. We'll have all that we can linked up in our show posts at growensemble.com and socialentrepreneurship.fm. Thanks again, Roland.
Roland Bunch 58:10
Cory Ames 58:12
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Founder, CEO, Author
Roland Bunch has worked in agricultural development for more than half a century in more than 50 nations of Latin America, Africa and Asia. He has done paid consultancies for the Ford Foundation, Cornell University, CARE and the top non-governmental organizations of Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, as well as the national governments of Guatemala, Honduras, Swaziland and Vietnam. He has published over 35 magazine articles and book chapters in a dozen nations of North America, South America, Europe and Australia.
In 1982, he published the book, "Two Ears of Corn, A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement", which has since been published in ten languages and is an all-time best-seller in the field of agricultural development. Two Ears of Corn pioneered the ideas of teaching smallholder farmers to manage their own experiments and train other farmers. Both of these approaches have now become major movements around the world under the names of “participatory technology development” (PTD) and “farmer-to-farmer extension.”
Beginning in 1983, Roland began investigating and disseminating the use of plants that fertilize the soil, now called “green manure/cover crops.” Together with Valdemar de Freitas and Ademir Calegari, two Brazilian agronomists, he has spearheaded a movement that has put this technology on the agenda of numerous agricultural development programs around the world. In the process, he founded and presently directs the organization Better Soils, Better Lives, and published the book, "Restoring the Soil, How to Use Green Manure/Cover Crops to Fertilize the Soil, Control Weeds and Overcome Droughts". This book, now in its second printing, is by far the most definitive description of the more than 150 green manure/cover crop systems presently being used by some 14 million smallholder farmers around the world.
Roland has been nominated for the Global 500 Award, the End the Hunger Prize of the President of the United States, and the World Food Prize.
- Two Ears of Corn, A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement
- Restoring the Soil, How to Use Green Manure/Cover Crops to Fertilize the Soil, Control Weeds and Overcome Droughts
- The Highland Maya, Patterns of Life and Clothing in Indian Guatemala
**While he does not have any social media contact points, you can review his work by searching "Roland Bunch" in your favorite search engine.**