No matter how far you travel, or which hidden corner of the world you reach, and no matter how great the cultural differences between these corners seem to be, there is one thing that every form of society has in common:
They are all based on agriculture.
Certainly, in western civilizations, the dependency on countrymen and women has become almost invisible. But even in such societies, where most people buy their food in supermarkets or even on the internet, everyone must feed on something, and this something has to be grown by someone.
WWOOFING: Connecting sustainable agriculture and travel
It can happen that just when you are thinking, “this is the farthest I could ever get from home”, you come across a fellow traveler, who sits in some foreign garden, between vegetable beds and composts, digging his way through the dirt.
You might ask, “What are you doing?”
And he answers, “I am WWOOFING here.”
“What does WWOOFING mean?” you ask.
And the fellow with the rubber boots and a little dirt on his face will then explain that WWOOFING is an international platform to connect farmers with people who are interested in their way of living.
On wwoof.net organic farmers and smallholders advertise offers for a cultural and educational exchange. Volunteers can lend a hand on properties worldwide, and in return they receive free accommodation and food.
The time of stay can vary from only a few days to several months. During this time, volunteers not only learn a lot about a natural lifestyle, but also have the chance to get to know the people of another country and their local traditions, while being a guest in their home.
As a WWOOFER you might find yourself milking cows in the morning, enjoying a horseback ride to secret spots of the area in the afternoon and sharing stories at night over a delicious meal of homegrown products.
Today, there are approximately 12,000 hosts in 130 countries who are part of the community, many of whom have their own local websites and administration.
‘What is WWOOFING?’ The full meaning of agriculture
If we would go for the short version, the story could stop here with: “Now, off you go, you have all information you need.” But actually, there is so much more to say and WWOOFING so much more than just a free place to stay and a hot meal every day.
How becoming a WWOOFER could even be political and a great support for sustainability is the long version of the answer to the question “What does WWOOFING mean?”
For most of human history, peasants were creators of biodiversity
To understand the full meaning of agriculture today, we must go back in time – about 10,000 years to be precise.
During this historical period, also known as the Neolithic era, humans began to discover the benefits of cultivation in contrast to a life as hunters and gatherers. Thus, they began to settle down. This development marks the beginning of a long tradition of global agriculture which continues today.
With the settlements, humans began to breed crops and livestock. Wild plant species with the most favorable traits were specifically grown and the most successful crops were crossbred for new variations.
Over the course of many years, a great genetic diversity was formed.
In this manner, for most of human history, peasants helped to create biodiversity. Just like gardeners, they groomed patches of the earth.
Today, about 38% of the global land area is arable land, making it the main land use-category of the planet. Hence, every discussion about biodiversity must be a discussion about agriculture as well.
Global farmland diversity has decreased by 75% since the 20th century
Nowadays the role of agriculture in biodiversity has drastically changed. Instead of being a driver for the development of genetic variation, it is now one of the biggest threats to natural diversity.
Degraded soils, polluted waters, and vast monocultural deserts are only a few examples of the bleak transformation we are experiencing.
Global farmland diversity has decreased by 75% since the 20th century. Out of about 7,000 livestock breeds around 20% are considered “at risk” by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). From 30.000 rice varieties in India, only 10 are dominating 75% of the rice fields today.
The struggle with seed production
One reason for that decline is aggravated conditions for farmers to breed their own seeds, like they used to do traditionally.
In most countries, farmers face strict registration rules for their seeds. In many cases, fulfilling these rules is just too much of an effort or is too costly for local farmers. In their place, big Pharma companies take over the seed production for the world.
But even these companies are declining in numbers. After the acquisition of Monsanto (US) by Bayer (GER), only three companies have control of 60% of the global seed market.
These companies mostly produce high-productive breeds, which are distinguished by very high yields in the first year. But because many of them are hybrids, meaning that the plants are infertile, farmers cannot reproduce seeds from their crops.
Thus, they are forced to buy new seed material from the corporations every year. An unfairly monopoly is formed, which make farmers highly dependent.
Farmers are protesting for their survival
Every once in a while, the increasingly difficult conditions for smallholders cause heavy protests, such as the ongoing strikes in India. Here, 40% of the country’s workforce is employed in the agricultural sector.
At the same time, the suicide rate among the agricultural sector is nowhere else in the world higher than in India. Since September 2020, farmer’s associations and hundreds of workers have protested the latest agricultural reforms in Delhi, which expected to allow big companies to “drive down crop prices and devastate their earnings”, as the Guardian states.
“No farmers no food” is the guiding principle, among the protesters, declaring that “this is suicide for us all”. Protests like this illustrate the fact that a declining crop-diversity and declining numbers of farms and farmers goes hand in hand.
Wildlife is affected, too
But the struggle about seed-material-rights is not the only mess we see when looking on our agrobiodiversity. The effects of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and the increasing demand for area is taking its toll, not only on domestic species but on wildlife as well. This is not really surprising to those who understand that all ecosystems of the earth are connected.
Making use of the gardener-metaphor we had earlier, our endangered biodiversity is sadly not just an issue for a few gardening fanatics but a serious danger to our global food security.
Especially in times of climate change, in which countries are debating about mitigation and adaptation strategies, we can’t effort to underestimate the value of resilient ecosystems.
Diversity means stability
In our wild environment just as much as on our fields, diversity means stability. Genetic diversity is the basis for adaptation to new and changing conditions.
If a heatwave hits, for instance, there is a better chance some of the crop will survive if there are many different plants in a certain area, keeping the ecosystem alive, while some individuals die.
There are plants that are more adapted to water stress than others. Not only can these plants save our food supply during a heatwave, they also stabilize the whole ecosystem by providing shade, saving water, and protecting the soil from wind erosion.
The same principle applies to pest infestations. In a changing climate, many plant species become weakened by extreme conditions even if they survive. It is easy for pests to invade when plants are already stressed. Diverse crops scatter the targets of highly specialized pests and lower the risk of large crop failures.
Organic farming helps sustain biodiversity
Surely, there are farmers who are still aware of the advantages of agricultural diversity and sustainable farming methods. In 2018, the global count of organic producers was 2.8 million, making about 1.5% of the global farmland organic. This number might seem pretty small, but it’s growing each year. Even if the standards defining the term “organic” may largely vary depending on the country, there are a few fundamental guidelines valid everywhere.
Toxic herbicides and pesticides are largely banned
In so called Mixed-Cultures farmers make use of the fact that there are plants which help each other grow or actively drive destructive insects away. Hence, these companion plants are eagerly planted together to reduce the need for pesticides.
Reduction of synthetic fertilizer.
Organics farmers rather rely on an intact soil fauna and a good amount of organic compound (humus) in the soil, which helps to save water and plant nutrients.
Reduction of heavy technology on the fragile ecosystem.
In many organic farming systems a lot of work is still done by manpower or even with the help of animals. This helps to protect the soil and creates jobs jobs, in addition.
Genetic modified organisms (GMO’s) are not the solution.
Genetic diversity and robust (old) varieties are the weapon of organic farms. Genetically modified breeds are not only expensive but also in many cases infertile and ethically debatably.
Generally, organic practices not only have positive impacts on our food, but also on the surrounding environment.
Volunteers are needed
Despite the fact that organic farming requires many more helping hands than industrial cultivation, the average yield of produce is much lower. This means that anyone interested in sustainable food production can lend their support.
In this way, their high-quality products can compete on the global market.
Volunteers help local farmers to contribute to conserv biodiversity and traditional agricultural practices. It also isn’t unusual that friendships emerge from these farm stays that last for a lifetime.
So, while being a WWOOFER can mean the most beautiful personal adventure, it is also a way of taking a stance for more sustainable agriculture in a world where decision-makers are setting the course to the opposite direction with increasing frequency.
In this world the small decisions count. And sometimes they can also form the best memories.
To find out more about WWOOFING, and to get involved, visit wwoof.net.
About the Author
Meike Becker is a graduate student in Environmental Science living in the city of Freiburg, Germany. The combination of a passion for travelling and for environmentalism makes it her mission to tell people about natural wonders and to encourage them to experience for themselves.
Her adventures are a mix of student projects for nature conservation, and private journeys through the world, while documenting its beauty. Her stories can be found on www.meikeunterwegs.wordpress.com or you can see her stories in pictures on Instagram: @meikeunterwegs.