Nasser Youssef Nasr

Ashoka Fellow
Cachoeiro de Itapemirim, Brazil
Fellow Since 1990


This profile was prepared when Nasser Youssef Nasr was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
The New Idea
Nasser hit on the germ of this simple but potentially very important idea six years ago. The mayor of the town of Cachoeira de Itapemirim (pop. 145,000), located north of Rio de Janeiro state in Espirito Santo, hired Nasser to plant a garden on municipal land to supply fruits and vegetables for school lunches. Armed with the traditional methods he had learned in agronomy school, Nasser cleared the land and began planting. He applied chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. But when he harvested his first crop, Nasser was disappointed by the low yields. Moreover, sensitized by a family tragedy, he started worrying that the children he was charged with feeding were consuming the toxic chemicals that he had used to grow his crops.
That worry moved Nasser to action. Nasser studied the literature on organic farming, visited alternative agriculture projects, and began to experiment with new techniques. His central insight came in the midst of this period of searching and experimenting. By clearing native vegetation--whether by hand or with herbicides--before planting a crop, Nasser saw that he was eliminating the insects' natural food. Left with nothing better to eat, the insects then attacked his food crops, forcing Nasser to use chemical pesticides to control the "plague."
This first insight led quickly to others. Leaving native vegetation in place before planting would eliminate most of the need for herbicides, and letting insects feed on that vegetation (their accustomed diet) rendered pesticides obsolete. As he put these ideas into practice, Nasser was delighted to watch his production costs drop radically. Replacing expensive chemical fertilizers with organic matter, much of it from this native groundcover, helped him reduce outlays by 40 to 50 percent. Nasser's garden required half as much water, since native vegetation and organic fertilizers helped the soil to retain moisture. Moreover, full groundcover all but eliminated erosion. Labor costs fell as well because the plot required only minimal weeding and application of chemical products.
Nasser's most satisfying success and what helped him sell his techniques to farmers around the state, high productivity. Today, Nasser's 10-hectare garden provides enough fruits and vegetables to feed the people in the town's schools, hospitals, shelters, and day-care centers. Yields of citrus fruits, tomatoes, carrots, and other produce are several times the national average. Moreover, harvests are growing in quantity each year rather than diminishing, and the crops are remarkably disease-resistant. Moreover, by raising the productivity of his small plot, Nasser has freed up space for diversification. He now plants 10 different crops where only two or three grew before.
The alternative agriculture movement has had increasing success in making farmers and consumers aware of the risks of industrial agriculture. However, despite a number of steps forward, such as integrated pest management (one bug eliminates another), farmers often feel that there aren't enough alternatives. Nasser's approach and education program are targeted right at this central-most need.
As word about Nasser's method has spread, farmers from around the state have approached him for advice and information. One group, which successfully adopted the techniques in Cachoeira de Itapemirim, has formed a cooperative that produces toxin-free fruits and vegetables for local markets. Satisfied that his techniques are catching on locally, Nasser now wants to take the idea to farmers, agronomists, and environmental groups around Brazil.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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