Ecological Intensification: More food and a healthier environment.

By Alice Marks

An agroecosystem. Credit: S. Carrière, IRD

An agroecosystem. Credit: S. Carrière, IRD

It is no secret that natural resources such as water, nutrients, land and also biodiversity, are increasingly threatened by the changing climate and inefficient farming practices. Farmers often rely on these resources in order to produce food, so it is worrying to see them routinely diminished. Agriculture requires that natural ecosystems are modified and manipulated to better produce food, creating agroecosystems. However, the development of agroecosystems does not need to come at the cost of the environment. All people rely on natural resources, but these risk being damaged and depleted if current agricultural methods continue to be used. In order to meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050, food systems must be re-imagined to incorporate more sustainable practices

Methods of producing food need to be more efficient and less environmentally costly. Ecological intensification aims to help agriculture become more sustainable by both using and protecting natural resources intensively but efficiently, in order that environmental impacts are minimised.

To raise awareness about these challenges, Agriculture for Impact launched the Sustainable Intensification Database in late July, with more than 25 case studies that illustrate Ecological Intensification and how it relates to Genetic and Socio-economic Intensification, Sustainable Intensification’s two other pillars. Sustainable Intensification comes under fire for focussing too much on the ‘intensification’ and not enough on the ‘sustainable’. However, the ecological techniques described in the database offer solutions which can sustainably improve the efficiency of food production.

Precision agriculture

Microdosing scoop. Credit: H. Tucker, OAF.

Microdosing scoop. Credit: H. Tucker, OAF.

Precision agriculture is one way in which this can be done. Techniques such as microdosing, soil testing and appropriate seed spacing enable farmers to take up less land, use fewer inputs, and create less waste. Joyce and Everest are a young couple from Rwanda, whose story incorporates some of these practices. They joined One Acre Fund (OAF) hoping to obtain training and access to inputs. OAF taught them proper seed spacing methods and provided them with a planting kit which cost a little over US$0.50.

These kits have shown to improve yields of crops such as maize by as much as 10%, representing a US$30 increase in income. The kits include a fertiliser scoop for microdosing, a planting string and a top dressing stick, which farmers are taught to use properly through regular training sessions. These tools ensure appropriate seed spacing and use of fertiliser for two main reasons:

  1. Replacing traditional methods of seed planting, such as broadcasting, with precision seed spacing, improves germination rates by ensuring better seed to soil contact and that seeds are planted at the optimal depth. In addition, lower levels of predation of seeds by birds and small mammals are experienced, and plants are not overcrowded and outcompeted.
  2. Microdosing of inputs such as fertiliser, pesticide, or water minimises the application and over-use of inputs, by applying small quantities of the input directly onto the seed. This curtails their impact on the ecosystem, where numerous problems can arise from inappropriate input use, such as algal blooms resulting from overuse of fertiliser, pesticides killing the wrong species, or aggravated water shortages from wasteful irrigation practices.

In the first season with their OAF kit, Joyce and Everest planted 2kg of beans from which they harvested 100kg. This is really significant in comparison to previous efforts where they had planted 30kg of beans and yielded only 40-50kgs.

Socio-economic factors are also at play

Eucalyptus trees, harvested in Ethiopia.

Eucalyptus trees, harvested in Ethiopia.

Increasing food production alone is unlikely to be enough to improve livelihoods without also improving smallholder’s access to the post-harvest value chain. Ecological intensification relies upon socio-economic intensification, as improvements in warehouses and better access to markets are also vital for raising incomes. There is the opportunity to add value at each stage of the value chain, from production to marketing and beyond to the product being consumed. For example, smallholders may be able to get a better price for their produce by forming or joining a cooperative, thus increasing their bargaining power and ensuring better access to information about market standards and prices.

Furthermore, improving local institutions to create a culture of learning and incentives feeds into improving natural resource management. An example comes from Echmare, Ethiopia, where villagers allocated degraded land to community members for the purpose of agroforestry.  Personal responsibility resulted in each tree receiving proper care, and 90% of trees survived to maturity, compared to as few as 10% surviving on similar, but communally managed, woodlots in the area. Eucalyptus is harvested, earning additional income to farmers and leading to the local government encouraging other villages to allocate unused hillsides for similar uses, including tree planting, production of forage, horticulture and bee keeping, all of which can improve the quality of natural resources available for farming.

Increasing food production sustainably and improving livelihoods will draw on all three pillars of sustainable intensification. Ecosystems must be taken into consideration in order to make sure that future generations of farmers can still rely upon plenty of the natural resources we use today.

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