Efficiency the key to feeding more people without environmental damage

ID-10028951A new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, published in Science, shows that an extra 3 billion people in the world need not lead to higher levels of hunger if existing cropland is used more efficiently, additionally reducing agriculture’s environmental impact. The report focused on 17 crops that account for 86% of the world’s crop calories as well as the majority of irrigation and fertilizer use. The hope is that the report can help guide and prioritise donors’ and policy makers’ activities for the greatest benefit.

The report identifies three areas of priority that, with the suggested actions, hold the most potential for meeting global food needs and reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint, a key pillar of sustainable intensification. Geographically the majority of these opportunities occur in China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan and Europe. To summarise we need:

1. To produce more food on existing land, in particular closing yield gaps. An estimated 850 million people could be fed by closing the most dramatic yield gaps, in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, by 50%.

Closing yield gaps may seem a simple task through technology and access to productive resources but the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) believe that we need to rethink how we approach yield gaps, taking a whole systems approach.

2. To grow crops more efficiently, in particular using water and nutrients more precisely and reducing climate impacts. The largest potential gains in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as pinpointed by the study, could come from deforestation in Brazil and India, rice production in China and India and crop fertilization in the U.S.

The U.S., China and India, and particularly their maize, rice and wheat production, were also found to be the largest sources of the overuse of nutrients in the world. Across the globe 60% of nitrogen and around 50% of phosphorus applications are in excess of amounts needed by crops. A 2012 article on China Dialogue highlights the dangers of overusing fertilizer. Improving the efficiency of fertilizer use would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Together with Pakistan these countries are also responsible for the majority of irrigation water use, water that could be reduced by 8 to 15% without yield penalties by improving crop water use efficiency.

3. To use crops more efficiently, in particular reducing food waste and reducing the proportion of crop calories going into livestock feed as opposed to directly for human consumption. Current crop animal feed, predominantly maize, could feed approximately 4 billion people. Such a shift would require widespread behavioural change, reducing the overreliance on meat in developed countries, although the report’s authors highlight the potential to shift crops from livestock to humans in times of crisis. [Read more...]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Roadmap for Strengthening Forest and Farm Producer Organizations, FAO

Six innovations revolutionising farming, The Guardian

Could insects feed the hungry world of tomorrow?, BBC

Beating the heat, Nature Biotechnology

Crop yields and global food security, Australian Government (GRDC)

Acres of genetically modified corn nearly doubled in a decade, Harvest Public Media

What’s the best way to measure empowerment?, Duncan Green, Oxfam

Majority of African Farm Workers Struggle to Afford Food, Gallup

Wild about Agricultural Innovation in Botswana, Global Food for Thought

Pesticide blamed for bee deaths now linked to bird declines, Los Angeles Times

Food Security and WTO Domestic Support Disciplines post-Bali, ICTSD

Why does Europe hate genetically modified food?, Rappler

Can Africa create a new green generation of food producers?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Higher Food Prices Can Help to End Hunger, Malnutrition and Food Waste, IPS

[Read more...]

So many metrics, so few options for resilience

By Stephanie Brittain, Agriculture for Impact

“Poverty eradication is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. We are therefore committed to freeing humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency”.

This introductory quote from the draft Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) highlights that tackling poverty and hunger are still key targets for the SDG’s, the evolution of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s). Aims to ‘End Extreme Poverty including Hunger’ and ‘Improve Agriculture Systems and Raise Rural Prosperity’ show that poverty and hunger are intrinsically linked. Indeed, most of the world’s poorest and hungriest are the smallholder farmers that ironically produce 80% of the world’s food. It’s important that the SDG’s meet the needs of these farmers if they are to meet their targets.

So what are the SDG’s going to offer the world that the MDG’s didn’t? Well this time we have metrics, and potentially lots of them. So with an emphasis on developing indicators to measure change, how then are we actually going to make these changes and meet these indicators of poverty reduction and food security? Meeting these development goals isn’t purely about economics as previous development indicators would have you think. Furthermore, since no country has yet achieved all three economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development, we need to approach and achieve progress in a holistic way.

What is resilience? 

Working under a resilience framework may be the answer. Resilience can be thought of as a ‘buffer zone’, providing people with the ability to ‘bounce back’ from socio-economic and environmental stressors. In the latest report the Sustainable Development Solutions Network on the proposed indicators for the SDG’s, resilience is often referred to in the context of building resilience against natural disasters. But there is so much more that could, and should be done to encourage resilience thinking in the new SDG’s with regards to social cohesion and food security, for example.  

Recently, the Agriculture for Impact (A4I) team saw an example of building resilience in practice when we went to the Meki Batu Vegetable Cooperative, a project supported by Self Help Africa in Ethiopia. As the video below highlights, they are building resilience by creating cooperatives, giving access to credit and markets for farmers that helps them to become food secure and generate an income where they previously struggled.

emilyStronger Together: How Co-operatives Help Smallholder Farmers Thrive” 

Entrepreneurship for resilience

Part of building resilience is also creating the enabling socio-economic and political environment for people to develop. The need for entrepreneurship in Africa is highlighted in the June 2014 Montpellier Panel Report, where the Montpellier Panel believe that rural and food sector entrepreneurship can achieve sustainable food and nutrition security for the continent and significantly contribute to Africa’s rural and urban economic growth.

Agroways (U)For example, AgroWays (U), a grain warehousing system in Jinja, Uganda was first set up in 1995 by Managing Director Herbert Kyeyamwa with the intention of buying grain at the peak of harvest, storing it, and then selling it in the off-season when prices are higher.

Now in 2014, the business has grown to service 134 farmer groups with a total membership of 8,560 smallholder farmers. Herbert employs nearly 150 full and part time staff to assist with a variety of tasks from harvest, the collection and transport of grain to village aggregation centres and central warehouse staff. 

Herbert is a shining example of an entrepreneur that has responded to market demand to create a company that generates employment and wealth within the agribusiness value-chain. This, however, did not happen without external technical assistance, training, and finance—key components for any business to thrive.

Resilience for development: The SDG’s

By approaching the new SDG’s with resilience in mind, it helps us to acknowledge that development, including poverty reduction and food security is multi-disciplinary. It allows us to plan with a longer term vision and encourages a more holistic way of measuring success and failure that moves away from the traditional ‘deaths’ and ‘income’ indicators. Building resilience also means to build strong and healthy communities, as the video and our experiences in Ethiopia highlight. 

It isn’t just natural disasters that we need to build resilience against – the impacts of seasonal stressors such as poor harvests, pests, volatile food and input prices all negatively impact vulnerable communities and smallholder farmers. A poor harvest will leave vulnerable families in worse shape to recover from a major natural or economic disaster.  Because these stresses continue to drive food insecurity and poverty and increase the gap between the worlds’s richest and poorest, they also risk  endangering our ability to meet the SDG of no extreme poverty or hunger before even starting. Conversely, by building resilience across all sectors, farmers are better equipped to recover or ‘bounce back’, creating a necessary safety net for the worlds more vulnerable communities. In the face of an increasingly volatile environmental and economic climate, resilience should be actively built in to the SDG’s aims and metrics. 

How To Make An Entrepreneur: Recent blogs from the Agriculture for Impact team

Imperial College London

 

Emily Alpert from Agriculture for Impact was published on the Chicago Council’s ‘Global Food for Thought’ blog, as she discusses the skills, training and enabling environment required to allow entrepreneurship along the agricultural value chain to flourish.

Click here to read Emily’s blog “How to make an Entrepreneur“.

 

Emily was also featured on Thomson Reuters, where she explains how entrepreneurs in Africa are showing that farm labour isn’t the only way to be involved in agriculture and keep food in steady supply in the face of climate change. You can read Emily’s blog “Farm entrepreneurs feed Malawi despite climate change” here.

What is agroecology?

ID-100203114As the threat of climate change, natural resource scarcity and declines in the provision of the majority of ecosystem services continue, agroecology is increasingly being explored as an option for addressing the stress conventional farming systems put on the environment. To date, however, agroecology is still a niche farming method, relatively underutilised in agricultural development, policy and research despite growing evidence of its benefits for both productivity and sustainability. A new paper by Laura Silici at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) explores what agroecology is, why it is not yet being scaled-up to any significant degree and recommends future action for integrating this social and ecological movement into modern farming systems.

Agroecology is defined as “an ecological approach to agriculture that views agricultural areas as ecosystems and is concerned with the ecological impact of agricultural practices”. The paper explains that it consist of three facets:

1)      The scientific study of whole agricultural systems including social and environmental factors within and beyond the scale of the farm;

2)      The range of techniques developed from ecological concepts to build resilience and sustainability which can be put into practice; and

3)      A social movement, which explores the ways in which agriculture may better serve society.

The benefits of agroecology are numerous arising from the multifaceted approach to managing agro-ecosystems, which allows for exploration of synergies and trade-offs, thus addressing social, environmental and economic objectives. Agroecological farming systems are also found to be more resilient to stresses in the environment such as climatic events, pest outbreaks and environmental degradation. Due to diversity of crops being grown productivity may be higher overall and losses across one crop do not necessarily lead to complete crop failure. Agroecology has also been linked to food sovereignty, allowing farmers to save on synthetic or market-bought inputs and reducing their dependence on national or global markets and prices. Beyond this is also being more widely researched and explored by a variety of organisations in the pursuit of sustainable farming production and consumption systems.

Often associated with lower yields, when compared to conventional agriculture, agroecology may limit the yield potential of farming systems, perhaps displacing agricultural production elsewhere. But there is substantial evidence, particularly in developing countries where farmers may neither utilise intensive technologies or agroecological methods, that agroecology can significantly increase yields without the environmental and economic costs associated with conventional monocultures. Badgley et al (2007) found that alternative agricultural practices in developing countries could provide sufficient yields for food security without more land and, given that such methods are typically labour-demanding, without causing economic motivation for agricultural expansion. Similarly, in an assessment of 286 projects introducing sustainability measures to (mainly) small-scale farms in developing countries, yield increased by an average 79% for a variety of farming systems and crop types (Pretty et al, 2006). Similarly a review of 40 initiatives employing a variety of agroecological practices found average crop yields to increase by 113%. Additionally there is much evidence supporting the environmental benefits of Agroecology such as carbon sequestration, improvement of soil fertility and structure, enhanced pollination and pest control. [Read more...]

Constraints to smallholder commercialisation

ID-100136355In the wake of the 2008 food price crisis, which exacerbated food insecurity and increased smallholder farmers’ vulnerability to shocks and stresses, recognition of the barriers smallholders face in becoming more productive and developing their farms as commercial businesses has been growing. In 2010, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation implemented the Multidisciplinary Fund (MDF) project to help develop policies supportive of smallholder commercialisation in Africa, in particular identifying the heterogeneity amongst smallholders in terms of their attitudes to commercialisation.

A new report, Understanding smallholder farmer attitudes to commercialisation – the case of maize in Kenya, by the FAO, focuses on maize producers and rural youth in Kenya by investigating “attitudes, strategies and opportunities related to maize commercialisation” in Meru and Bungoma regions in the country. The report is based on key informant interview, focus group, farmer survey and stakeholder workshop data.

At present farm management is not undertaken with commercial prospects in mind for a variety of reasons – continued reliance on maize production for household consumption and a level of mistrust in markets; production and marketing activities remaining distinct from one another; reactive rather than planned production decision-making processes; poor storage facilities; and low maize quality. That is not to say that there aren’t farmers who do think more commercially but in particular farmers are more likely to require direct payments immediately to meet their household needs rather than selling at times or to traders that might allow them to obtain higher payments for their maize. Net buyers of maize, numbering some 45% of the smallholder farmers surveyed, are found to make more objective business decisions, again likely related to the level of urgent cash needs of poorer households and net buyers of maize. One of the main concerns in finding an outlet to sell maize are the transaction costs and the risks associated with the transaction, most farmers aiming to minimise costs and risks. Those smallholders engaged in more commercial practices, in particular selling maize to more distant traders or modern market channels, were more likely to experience a lack of nearby market opportunities, to specialise in maize, to have access to better price information and to have benefited from government input support programmes.

Given the relatively small amounts of maize sold by most farmers, collective marketing whereby maize is pooled and sold in bulk (and inputs can be bought in bulk) could be beneficial but it was found to be unlikely that net buyers would become net sellers of maize purely through collective marketing. Greater institutional support to partner these collective marketing approaches and a business oriented approach may aid their effectiveness. [Read more...]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

The sustainable intensification of European agriculture, Rise

The Role of Trees in Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture in the Tropics, PAEPARD

World Bank and UN carbon offset scheme ‘complicit’ in genocidal land grabs – NGOs, The Guardian

Food waste reduction could help feed world’s starving, BBC

The Next Green Revolution May Rely on Microbes, PBS

Which governments are doing best/worst in the fight against hunger and undernutrition?, Duncan Green, Oxfam

Food security report – MPs call for ‘Plan B’ for animal feed, Farmers Guardian

Fertilizers: quality over quantity, Global Food Security

Picking up the pieces from a failed land grab project in Tanzania, Global Post

Agronomic and environmental aspects of the cultivation of genetically modified herbicide-resistant plants, Tappeser et al (eds)

Malnutrition a threat with use of climate-resilient crops, scientists say, Thomson Reuters Foundation

‘Land grabbing’ could help feed at least 300 million people, study suggests, EurekAlert [Read more...]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,670 other followers