Agriculture contributes significantly to environmental problems, yet is also critical to sustaining human life. As our population continues to grow, how can we do more with less? And with less environmental impact? In Africa and other developing regions, radio is an important part of the solution.
Earth Day is a time to reflect on the various ways that human beings are part of and interact with the environment. A time to commit to changing our ways, and living more lightly and harmoniously with our fellow earthlings. With the world's population quickly approaching 7.5 billion, it's important that we learn to do more with less, and to share.
Agriculture's growing environmental footprint
The practice of agriculture -- whether to produce food, beverages, fabric, fuel or medicine -- is high on the list of human activities with the greatest impact on the environment. It inevitably involves transforming natural environments in some way. Unwanted plants and animals are repelled or removed in favour of the ones we chose to raise. Trees are cut down, grasslands cleared, and wetlands drained in order to access agricultural land. We remove biomass that would otherwise recycle into and nourish the soil. The list goes on.
Indeed, the agriculture sector is currently responsible for up to a third of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: 17 percent directly and 7 to 14 percent through land use changes. Emissions from agriculture, forestry, and fisheries have risen steadily alongside the needs of a growing population, nearly doubling in the past 50 years.
Yet, agriculture is something that we must do. In fact, with the world's population expected to grow by another billion in the next 15 years, agriculture is more important than ever. For everyone to have a shot at the healthy, happy life they deserve, we'll need to do more farming -- only better. We cannot feed billions of people by hunting, scavenging, and harvesting wild plants. We don't have any choice but to grow more food, more efficiently, with a shrinking environmental impact. It's a tall order. So how do we fulfill it?
Promoting eco-friendly farming
A key challenge is to promote and support farming practices and inputs that have the least impact on the environment. These include crop rotation, intercropping, companion planting, drip irrigation, organic fertilizers, avoiding tillage, integrating trees, keeping areas beside rivers and streams wild, and using mulch to keep soils covered and return organic matter to the earth.
In Africa, where Farm Radio International works, small-scale and family farmers not only employ, but are also the source of, many of these innovations. Stewards of their local environments equipped with agricultural knowledge that has been refined over generations, they are committed to producing what they can today without depriving future generations of the opportunity to do the same. To this end, they need reliable and relevant information about eco-friendly and more productive farming practices. They also need a voice: a way to share their needs, experiences, ideas, and opinions more broadly to increase awareness of what farmers can and are doing to feed the planet.
How radio can help
Even in 2016, radio is still the best and most cost-effective way to reach and serve small-scale farmers. In fact, newer technologies are making radio even more effective and efficient. With farmers gaining access to mobile phones, radio has become a two-way medium. Interactive radio programs like phone-in shows give farmers the opportunity to shape what they hear on the radio to meet their needs -- which is especially important when dealing with new and evolving environmental challenges, such as those related to climate change. They can also draw on the knowledge and experiences of their fellow farmers.
Its potential for sharing information about eco-friendly agriculture is only one reason to celebrate radio on Earth Day. Another, which is often overlooked, is that radio has an incredibly light footprint, especially since many radios are now powered by the sun or a hand crank.
Conventional agricultural extension programs involve a tremendous amount of driving. Extension workers travel by truck or motorbike and have to log tens of thousands of kilometres on bumpy roads if they are to serve the thousands of farmers spread throughout their catchment area. Radio can transport the voices and advice of extension workers right into the homes of farmers and also capture farmers' experiences so that extension services can do a better job of helping them to achieve their goals. Traveling over the airwaves, radio has a gossamer touch, spreading silently, without a puff out of a tailpipe, into every nook and cranny of the country.
And it works! Farm Radio International has conducted dozens of evaluations that prove that interactive radio programs about agriculture are often listened to by the majority of farmers and lead to measurable gains in knowledge, helping a sizable portion of families apply new, sustainable farming practices. This is no small feat. With everything resting on the productivity of their land, farmers are justifiably cautious when it comes to adopting new ways of doing things.
Earth Day 2016
An example of the power of radio that relates to the theme of this year's Earth Day, "Trees for the earth," is a project that Farm Radio International completed in Uganda in partnership with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). I invite you to read this recent video blog post to learn how radio reached nearly one million villagers and gave them the tools and knowledge to plant more than 300,000 trees.
As you pause to consider reasons for optimism on this Earth Day, I hope you will join me in celebrating the small-scale farmers who work hard every day to provide for their families and communities and the interactive radio programs that help them to grow more and better food with minimal impact on the planet we all rely on and share.
Farm Radio International works with more than 600 radio partners across 39 African countries, reaching tens of millions of small-scale farmers and their families. Learn more about its life-changing work at www.farmradio.org.