Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Jim De Vries

“Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group” is a regular series where we profile advisors of the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we’re featuring Jim De Vries, who is Director of Heifer International’s Programs Division.

Jim De Vries congratulates a Heifer partner in Albania on her commitment to help another family.

Jim De Vries congratulates a Heifer partner in Albania on her commitment to help another family.

Name: Jim De Vries

Affiliation: Heifer International

Location: Little Rock, Arkansas, United States

Bio: Dr. James De Vries directs Heifer International’s Programs Division, which includes the areas of Africa, the Americas, Asia/South Pacific, and Central Eastern Europe. He provides leadership to the headquarters team as well as to Heifer’s on-the-ground staff around the world, developing and managing more than 770 projects through 53 country and regional offices.

On Nourishing the Planet: We are extremely interested in the work of Nourishing the Planet, since part of Heifer’s mission is “caring for the planet.” Sustainable farming practices are a key to the survival and well-being of the small-scale producers with whom we partner to help end poverty and hunger. We strongly believe that small-scale farmers and herders are guardians of our natural resource base, and that given the right knowledge and resources they will continue to cool the planet and provide food security for billions. Over the past decades, Heifer has witnessed the tremendous creativity, resilience, and energy of these farmers and their key role in nourishing the next generation and the resource base to sustain them. We are also witnessing many factors that threaten the continuation of smaller farms and local food systems, including the acquisition of huge tracts of land by foreign interests, and the spread of large scale “factory farming.” In this respect, the Nourishing the Planet effort is very timely and promising.

What is the philosophy behind Heifer International’s work? The principles that undergird and direct Heifer’s work are, first, that people should be empowered to provide for themselves and their families and communities. This is captured in one of our slogans: “not a cup but a cow.” In other words, people should have sustainable productive resources instead of handouts. Secondly those who are assisted should assist others. We capture this in the practice of “passing on the gift,” in which farmers who received assistance then help to nurture the next group by passing on livestock offspring and knowledge.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about livestock and greenhouse gas emissions. Can you discuss the difference between raising livestock on small-scale farms versus industrialized meat production? The FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow brought attention to the impact of livestock production on greenhouse gases (GHG). While all livestock, and especially ruminant livestock, emit GHG, the net impact depends greatly on the production system. As documented in the report, large-scale intensive production systems are responsible for the bulk of GHG both directly due to the high grain-based diets and indirectly due to the large-scale monoculture farms producing the needed grains through a system which demands large inputs of fertilizer and water.

Heifer International and others are engaged in research which shows that small, mixed farming systems are net carbon sinks and therefore help cool the planet. The livestock in these systems enhance soil quality and water retention and thus contribute to a reduction in GHG rather than increasing them. There is also good evidence that well-managed grazing land can sequester large quantities of carbon in the soil.  A study by Altieri and Koohafkan [Environment and Development Series 6, “Enduring Farms; Climate Change, Small Holders and Traditional Farming Communities,” 2008] concludes that, “Agriculture and forestry, particularly many small farms and traditional agricultural systems still dotting landscapes throughout the developing world, can be part of the solution by contributing to climate change mitigation, through carbon conservation, sequestration and substitution, and establishing ecologically designed agricultural systems that can provide a buffer against extreme events.”

How do you integrate the needs and desires of the farmers you help into your program design? Heifer International incorporates the interests of the farmers we partner with by building our programs from the farmer and the community up. Our planning process begins with the farmers assessing their own situation and visioning the future conditions of their family, community, and farm. For us it is not about Heifer identifying what they need, but rather about communities assessing their resources, their values, and their hopes and making plans to move toward a desired future. Heifer and our various partners are there to support these communities and to accompany them, of course within the framework of our mission and principles.

Can you describe the kind of policies and education programs you would like to see implemented globally to address hunger and malnutrition? The policies and programs that Heifer would like to see in place are, in a nutshell, those which support small-scale farming and local food systems. At the top of the list would be policies which enhance and secure access to productive resources and fair markets. We have witnessed a continuing trend of small-scale farmers losing access to land and water and being pushed onto ever smaller and lower-quality land and having water diverted to commercial-scale agriculture or other uses. Farmers and especially women farmers have also lacked access to training in good agro-ecological farming practices and to credit. Another critical component is access to markets, which requires not only infrastructure such as roads and processing facilities, but also protection from the dumping of imported products at prices that make it impossible for small farmers to compete and make a living.

Thus, educational programming should focus on agro-ecological farming practices and marketing and also on local food systems and good nutrition. Education should not be limited to farmers but also include consumers and policymakers. In fact, we will never end hunger one village at a time; we must do both our development work in the field and we must educate the public about the root causes of and solutions to hunger. Heifer has made a very strong commitment to public education for the reason stated above. All of Heifer’s education programs work hand in hand with the international development work to add value and serve as a “voice for Heifer’s work” in the world.

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