ON THE FLIGHT into Fort Myers, Florida, I looked down on a vast, oil-driven network of fast-food chains, malls and suburbs, little fiefdoms of fancy destined for ruin in the low-carbon future.
Standing an hour later at the Global Farm sponsored by ECHO, the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, I felt that the contrast couldn't have been more stark. It was like stepping into the Nigerian village I grew up in as a missionary kid, albeit one with lots of white people. Instead of running on oil, this place derived its energy from contemporary sunlight; aside from a golf cart here and there, everyone walked or rode bikes.
At the moment I am sequestered under a clump of bamboo, hiding from the mid-afternoon Florida sun with a tour group of snowbirds--retirees from the northern climes who winter in southwest Florida. Of the 30 or so people on the tour I'm the only one under 60. Susan, herself a snowbird and one of ECHO's 450 volunteers, is our affable guide for the day. She is waxing eloquent about the wonder-working power of duck manure.
She points beyond the bamboo patch to a large pond where a strange wooden contraption juts over the water. It's a duck pen, Susan says, then explains the concept: the ducks, a mixed flock of Indian Runner, Cayuga and Khaki Campbell breeds, are let out during the day to eat weeds around the farm. At night they go back in their cage. The pond below their cage contains tilapia fish. In standard duck cages the duck manure would simply fall to the ground and become waste that the farmer would have to clean up, but here it falls through a wire screen and into the water. The duck poop feeds algae in the pond, Susan says, and the tilapia grow fat on the algae. The farmer gets to eat both the tilapia and the ducks, and the farm is weeded in the process.
Learning to see agriculture as an ecosystem with myriad moving parts fueled by sunlight, like this beautifully choreographed dance of ducks, tilapia and algae, is but one of many insights fostered by ECHO, a nondenominational Christian organization that for the past 28 years has been training missionaries and development workers in small-scale sustainable agriculture for the tropics. Their mission is "to equip people with resources and skills to reduce hunger and improve the lives of the poor."
Never has such a mission been more needed. Early in 2009 the number of hungry people reached a historic peak: 1.02 billion. Experts like the U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis say that hunger will continue to escalate; they cite rising oil prices, agricultural market and trade deregulation, the use of food crops to create biofuels, and drought induced by climate change. Most affected by these adverse changes will be farmers in the Global South, 60 percent of whom are women or girls.
Susan steers us through the Global Farm's 12 acres, with six tropical ecosystems represented. In the Hot Humid Lowlands we visit a mushroom demo shed. Mushrooms add an essential amino acid for people on an all-rice diet, providing them with a complete protein.
The Tropical Monsoon area sports a nifty treadle pump, a simple foot-operated device used to irrigate a large garden. A hundred yards away in the Semiarid Tropics, the garden beds are sunken to maximize rainfall absorption. There we see a solar oven and a biogas digester, both low-tech, sustainable ways to capture energy on the farm.
ECHO has recognized the wealth of agricultural knowledge that already exists among the world's poor farmers. The staff think of themselves as "extension agents to the world," but rather than presume to "teach" people how to farm, they share information that helps people be more effective at growing food crops under the often harsh conditions of the tropics. "The vast majority of the world's poor could never afford to have somebody do agricultural research on their behalf," said Tim Motis, director of ECHO's Department of Agricultural Resources and Seed Bank. …