On food and mountain agroecology

In many countries in the Global South, malnutrition is a cross-cutting issue with economic, societal and environmental impacts. Via an SDC-funded project carried out by IFOAM – Organics International, hundreds of mountain farmers have received training on a more diversified and ecologically sound approach to agriculture. The project resulted in better living conditions and a reduced incidence of malnutrition.

Erlinda Pillajo stands in her field in Ecuador.

Erlinda Pillajo is an Ecuadorian farmer who has trained many of her peers, including Janet Barrios, in organic farming. © IFOAM

Janet Duran Barrios is proud of what she has produced. On a bed of straw laid out on the ground next to her field are the many varieties of maize she harvested in the space of a few days. She says that she is able to produce over 50 varieties of maize, all grown using natural methods and fertilisers that are safe for the environment. Until recently, this would have been impossible for her, as she lacked the means and know-how to do so. But today she is reaping the rewards of her efforts: produce with a higher nutritional value and the environmental protection afforded by agroecology.

Janet is justifiably proud of the expertise she has developed through her hard work. In the past few years, she has benefitted from the support, advice and guidance of her peers on the most effective means to diversify her crops. By choosing a more sustainable approach to agriculture, she has also made her products healthier and better adapted to the market. In her fifties, she lives in Ollabamba, a community in one of the many mountainous regions close to the Peruvian Andes. Located in Andahuaylas province over 700 kilometres from the capital, Lima, this small municipality has historically consisted of farming families whose crops constitute their only, and often modest, livelihood.

These remote regions are also those most sensitive to weather conditions, natural disasters and soil erosion. Their inhabitants live mainly off the land and are subject to difficult living conditions, such as poverty and chronic food insecurity to varying degrees depending on the region. In response, on the initiative of the FDFA's Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), IFOAM – Organics International developed a project aimed at reducing economic and food disparities between lowland and highland regions. But how?

What exactly is the Nutrition in Mountain Agroecosystems?

Since 2014, the Nutrition in Mountain Agroecosystems (NMA) project has been addressing malnutrition in vulnerable populations. This involves providing farmers, both women and men, with training on production methods that take into account not only the nutritional properties of their harvests, but also respect for nature. The project seeks to develop effective measures for agriculture and nutrition, and more specifically, agriculture that responds to nutritional challenges. This approach places nutritionally dense foods, diversified diets and food enrichment at the heart of the fight against malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. In this context, diversifying the plant and animal species grown and raised by smallholder farmers is more than just a good strategy for improving agricultural practices — it is key to improving food diversity and nutrition.

Promoting organic agriculture has a direct impact on food quality. One cannot tackle one without addressing the other.
Alejandro Espinoza, Project Manager, IFOAM

In concrete terms, the idea was to create links between mountain communities and to diversify their diets. The programme fostered discussions and knowledge-sharing, while providing these smallholder farmers with access to wider markets for their products. This bolstered the populations' resilience and facilitated skill-sharing among peers.

For the more than three billion of the world's people who have only irregular and insufficient access to nutritious, high-quality food, the COVID-19 crisis led to a serious deterioration in overall living conditions. Among these groups, combatting malnutrition has become the most effective means of enabling the most disadvantaged people to increase their economic and human capital and adopt a more sustainable approach to farming. The project was implemented in two four-year phases — the second one came to a close in October 2021 — and led to an increase in the quality and sustainability of agriculture in eight specific mountainous regions in Nepal, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ethiopia, India, Tajikistan, Ecuador and Peru.

Rural producers enjoy better recognition

In Janet's native Peru, as in a number of other middle-income countries in South America, Africa and Asia, the NMA project has had positive feedback. Many smallholder farmers trained through the project also had an opportunity to take part in high-level discussions. In Lima, thanks to the efforts of some of these farmers, the national moratorium on GMO farming was extended until 2035, thereby prompting local farmers to place greater emphasis on natural farming methods. As a result, these oft-forgotten, smallholder farmers now enjoy greater recognition not only locally, but also regionally and nationally. "These farmers are central to our project," said Alejandro Espinoza, Project Manager with IFOAM. Promoting organic agriculture has a direct impact on food quality. One cannot tackle one without addressing the other."

These people are not highly educated. Yet despite this, their analytical skills and ability to adapt to new working conditions are truly impressive.
Patricia Flores, Regional Coordinator for IFOAM in Peru
Portrait of Patricia Flores.
Patricia Flores © IFOAM

Patricia Flores has seen this positive change for herself. As IFOAM's regional coordinator for Peru, she was pleasantly surprised by the ability of many farmers —women and men alike —  to adapt quickly over the last few years. "These people are not highly educated. Yet despite this, their analytical skills and ability to adapt to new working conditions are truly impressive," she explained by phone. As a group, they have understood that this change benefits them: they have developed new skills and broadened their knowledge, and in so doing they have bolstered their social capital.

The NMA project has bolstered the social capital of marginalised people

As programme manager at the SDC, Marleen Heeb has also worked with Patricia Flores on a number of occasions. She too stresses the social impact that this project has had on local populations. "It is obvious that a number of once-isolated farming groups are now united. Since the NMA project was launched, there have been clear changes in these farmers' social perception, skills and overall influence," explained Heeb.

Since the NMA project was launched, there have been clear changes in these farmers' social perception, skills and overall influence.
Marlene Heeb, programme manager at the SDC

Heeb also pointed out that the project's priorities include supporting the large number of marginalised people. Helping these farmers, who work the land in relative isolation, to come together and discuss healthier and more sustainable farming practices also helps break down the silos that once isolated them. Emulating their peers, many farmers are following the path of agroecology. "Changing farming practices is risky, but they did it," said Heeb. She also points out that those who live in tenuous conditions have become accustomed to adapting more readily to new working conditions. "The road to knowledge is one that never ends," added Patricia Flores.

More ties between Ecuador's communities

In Ecuador, social ties between peers and people in the same trade are also very important, more so than in other countries, according to Cecilia Ponce of Heifer Ecuador, the organization that manages the implementation of the NMA project there. Ecuador is a country with a fairly limited communication infrastructure: only 33% of the population has easy access to the internet. "In that respect, the use of new technologies brings with it a steep learning curve, which is why overcoming it is a source of great pride for this rural population," explained Ponce by phone.

Discussions among family members grew, and the dialogue then expanded within each community. "Not only did some people increase their social capital within Ecuadorian society, but they also had an opportunity to innovate for their own personal benefit. They are proud of their new-found independence," she said.

The NMA project espouses the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda

Through its commitment to fostering sustainable development, Switzerland is recognised internationally for its expertise, particularly on nutrition, lending the country a significant degree of credibility on the world stage.

The Swiss Confederation's approximately CHF 6 million investment in the two phases of the NMA project in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia also plays a role in boosting the relevance of Switzerland's foreign policy. Sustainable development is included in the federal government's 2020–2023 foreign policy strategy.

All of the micro-projects carried out within the framework of the NMA in the eight target countries have had a significant impact on every level — not only local, national and regional, but also international. "The objective is to use all the positive examples and good practices we have amassed in order to see the phenomenon take hold worldwide and in international organisations," explained Marleen Heeb.

The NMA project thus helped achieve SDGs 2, 3 and 12 of the United Nations' 2030 Agenda. These goals focus on the elimination of hunger and the promotion of sustainable agriculture, the promotion of health and well-being at all ages, and the adoption of sustainable consumption and production patterns.

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