Three reasons to protect agricultural biodiversity

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0

23309616640_6150860834_o

Durum wheat variety, Ethiopia. Credit: Bioversity International

Even though new species are being discovered every day, one in five plants are threatened with extinction, according to the first annual State of the world’s plants, 2016 published by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in May 2016. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the largest threats facing these endangered plant species are the conversion of land for agriculture and biological resource use – the deliberate or unintentional consumption of a ‘wild’ species. Indeed, agriculture has been identified as the main threat to 85% of all threatened species, plant and animal, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. For example, the growth of palm oil plantations has led to significant losses of natural forests and peatlands, with accompanying impacts on biodiversity.

Agricultural biodiversity, defined by Bioversity International as “the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture,” is facing serious decline. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) some 75% of genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900s. There are several causes of this loss of diversity, but the main reasons are ease of production and changes in consumer expectations and preferences, leading to an ever greater uniformity in the end product. If the produce is what people want to buy and it’s easy to produce why should it matter if there is less biodiversity? Here are three, of many, reasons why it is of paramount importance:

  1. Genetic diversity is important for an uncertain future
varieties of quinoa credit FAOALC

Several different varieties of quinoa grown in Peru. Credit, FAO

Genetic diversity in agricultural systems may be lost if species go extinct or different varieties of a species fall out of favour. If this happens, genes that are important for resistance to pests or diseases, confer tolerance to changing weather patterns and extreme weather events, or make the crop nutritious, may be lost. Even if these traits are not evident or useful now, the advantage they confer may be valuable for future generations, and may be difficult or impossible to recreate once they are gone. Indeed, work by Bioversity International highlights how the wild relatives of cultivated crops are already becoming increasingly important in the search for traits that farmers can use to improve domesticated varieties through crossbreeding. [Read more…]

How Caring for Our Soils Helps Fight Climate Change

By Katrin Glatzel, Originally posted on Agrilinks.org, Dec 10th 2015

As the International Year of Soils comes to an end, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been passed and COP21 is wrapping up in Paris, it is time to reflect on the role soils can play in future development agendas.

The decision made at the Rio+20 conference to develop a set of SDGs and the agreement “to strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world in the context of sustainable development” created momentum to discuss the role soils play in the global sustainable development agenda. It also initiated discussions concerning the need to develop clear soil and land indicators, necessary implementation mechanisms, supporting governance instruments, and the role of public participation.

This is now, at least partially, reflected and anchored in SDG goal #15, “Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss.” Furthermore, the French government’s “4 per 1000” initiative, submitted in spring 2015, is aimed at making agriculture a solution in addressing climate change while advancing food and nutrition security. Specifically, it is based on the premise of sequestering atmospheric carbon in the world’s soils at the rate of 0.4 percent a year.

Smallholder farmers are part of the solution [Read more…]

How climate-smart soil management increases resilience and helps mitigate climate change

Originally posted on: 4th December 2015, Grantham Institute 

As we mark World Soil Day, and with COP21 well into its first week, Dr Katrin Glatzel of Agriculture for Impact takes a look at how good soil and land management practices can help us achieve important climate and development goals.  

Soil matters. The decision made at the Rio+20 conference to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the agreement ‘to strive to achieve a land degradation neutral world in the context of sustainable development’ gave momentum to discussions on the role of soils in the global sustainable development agenda. This is now, at least partially, reflected and anchored in SDG goal #15, ‘Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss.’

In addition to this, earlier this year the French Government launched its “4 per 1000” initiative, aimed at making agriculture a solution in addressing climate change while also advancing food and nutrition security. Agronomic techniques, including for example Sustainable Intensification practices, can sequester carbon from the atmosphere – at an average rate of four-thousandths of the existing carbon stock in the soil.

soil humusThe quality and amount of soils’ humus (decayed organic matter) and its soil organic carbon (SOC) are a key determinant of soil quality and crop productivity. When the concentration of SOC falls below a certain threshold, key soil properties are adversely affected inhibiting plant growth. Increasing the amount of humus and SOC in the soil requires adding nitrogen (N) and other plant nutrients, such as phosphate (P) and sulphur (S) in order for the transformation of biomass carbon into SOC to occur.

Conventional means of soil management often cause more harm than good, while organic approaches are sometimes too demanding of labour, reliant on scarce or unavailable inputs and insufficient to produce the yields required to move people out of poverty and achieve food security. Part of the solution is to combine the best of organic and conventional approaches in a way that is environmentally appropriate and sustainable. This includes bringing nutrients to the soil in from the outside to improve the SOC, either through livestock manure, the prudent use of inputs, such as the microdosing of fertilisers, or cultivation of legumes. [Read more…]

Mozambique ‘from the field’: Going beyond and scaling up

By Stephanie Brittain

Mozambique has overcome a prolonged period of intense civil war, and emerged as one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. Despite this massive achievement, it is still one of the world’s poorest countries with more than 50% of Mozambicans living on less than $1 per day.  70% of the population live in rural areas and agriculture is the main source of income, accounting for 29% of GDP and employing 88% of the labour force. Smallholder farms account for 90% of domestic food supplies. There is scope for development in terms of food and nutrition security as a quarter of children under 5 are underweight.

Working to tackle food insecurity and bolster the lives of smallholder farmers is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA invests in creating change across the whole agricultural value chain, catalysing public and private partnerships to achieve breakthroughs in agricultural production.

I went to Mozambique to see some of AGRA’s projects and to better understand the impact that their work is having on the lives of smallholder farmers. This is the first of a series of blogs that will discuss some of the lessons learnt from this visit.

Zano Ramambo farmers’ organisation

After a tough 10km drive down a heavily eroded dirt road I arrived in the village of Boavista, Manica Province, where I was warmly greeted by the Zano Ramambo farmers’ organisation. For the past 3 years, this farmers’ organisation has been receiving support from AGRA and ADEM (Manica Development Agency), an NGO that builds the capacity of farmers and optimizes value chains for poverty reduction in the province.

Dirt roads erode easily making it difficult to pass during the rainy season

Dirt roads erode easily making it difficult to pass during the rainy season

The organisation was established in 2006 by 36 members, with an initial focus on cattle farming. However, in the past few years they have widened their focus to include agriculture and grown in size and strength.  Zano Ramambo has now grown from the initial 36 members to 60 members, of which 35 are women. The organisation established a joining fee of 250 MZN ($7) and a monthly fee of 10 MZN ($0.28) per member. In 2014, the farmers focussed on better organising their group by elected board members and setting up a bank account to help them better manage their profits.

[Read more…]

Pay up or lose out: Incentives for food security

By Stephanie Brittain

Soil is a precious global resource that has long been overlooked. When soils are healthy, they provide a number of ‘ecosystem services’, including the food we eat, maintaining hydrological and nutrient cycles and offer a home for much of the planets flora and fauna.

ID-10042579However, soil degradation is a global issue affecting nearly one-third of the earth’s land area, caused by a number of different factors such as overgrazing, unsustainable farming practices, drought and wind erosion. When soils are degraded it disrupts the soils capacity to provide these vital ecosystem services, reducing the productive capacity of agricultural land by eroding topsoil and depleting nutrients resulting in enormous environmental, social and economic costs.

But if the benefits of sustainable land management seen so clear, then why don’t farmers already adopt these practices? In poor regions or those suffering from food insecurity in particular, it is hard to convince farmers to change their practices for more sustainable ones, usually at the expense of a higher yield in the short term. This short-term thinking is exasperated by a lack of political and financial support to combat soil degradation in Africa, leading to long term problems of nutrient deficient soil that is unable to maintain the level of production. Farmers require incentives for investing in soil health as the short term return on sustainable land management is currently unattractive.

The December 2014 Montpellier Panel report ‘No Ordinary Matter:  Preserving, restoring and enhancing Africa’s soils’ found that in sub-Saharan Africa, the economic loss of soil degradation is estimated at $68 billion per year, affecting an estimated 180 million people. In some areas of Africa, agricultural productivity declined by half between 1981 and 2003 as a result of soil erosion and desertification processes.

Payment for Ecosystem Services

With reports such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluding that more than 60% of the world’s ecosystems are being used in ways that cannot be sustained, more needs to be done to promote the sustainable use of our natural resources.

Credit: Kate Holt/Africa Practice (2009)

Credit: Kate Holt/Africa Practice (2009)

One method that has been used to promote and encourage sustainable natural resource management  is ‘Payment for Ecosystem Services’ (PES); an approach to environmental management that uses cash payments or other compensation to, for example, encourage farmers to better look after their soils for ecosystem conservation and restoration.

Payments for ecosystem services are not primarily designed to reduce poverty. But, there are opportunities for designing PES which can enable low-income communities and individuals to earn additional income through land management, restoration and conservation, thus promoting sustainable ecosystem management.

An example of a successful PES scheme can be found in Kenya in the form of the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project (KACP), which aims to test the role carbon finance can play in persuading small-scale farmers to adopt more sustainable practices. Not only has adopting more sustainable agricultural practices led to an increase in yields for some participating farmers of up to 30%, but sustainable and responsible farming practices also locks carbon in the ground –earning the farmer additional income in the form of carbon credits. [Read more…]

What is the role for citizen science in a Big Data Revolution?

By Katrin Glatzel

One of the recommendations of the new Montpellier Panel report ‘No Ordinary Matter: Conserving, restoring and enhancing Africa’s soils’ suggests that a Big Data Revolution is needed to fill the huge gaps in data availability, especially in Africa. Regularly updated data on soil types, locations, qualities and degradation ought to be significantly enhanced and the information made available in a timely manner to allow for the targeted and selective use of inputs. Getting this data, however, is not an easy task and would require scores of researchers and public sector funding – and time. The use of advanced remote-sensing systems, dense networks of local weather information and citizen science can help to provide this information.

Citizen science, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (2014) as the “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions” is one way to generate scientific data on a much broader spatial and temporal scale. While there are concerns about the quality of data derived through non-experts, monitoring and evaluation processes, targeted training programmes, verification tools, as well as  novel data analysis techniques,  to name but a few, can help to improve the quality and flow of data.

[Read more…]

Global soils

Soil is a declining resource for a variety of reasons such as conventional agricultural practices and overexploitation of forests. Soil loss and erosion – half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years – has a huge impact on our ability to produce food and, due to erosion, around 30% of the world’s arable land has become unproductive in the last 40 years. Tipped as an environmental problem second only to population growth, sustainably managing our soils should be a global priority.

CoverOnly

Click here to download a copy of the report

On the 4th of December, the Montpellier Panel published its latest report ‘No Ordinary Matter: Conserving, restoring and enhancing Africa’s soils’, this time focusing on the importance of soils to global food security. The report explains the contribution of soil to alleviating many of today’s pressing challenges is overlooked. The report finds that soils have become politically and physically neglected, triggering land degradation and recommends the following action be prioritised:

  1. Strengthen political support for sustainable land management
  2. Increase financial support for investment in land and soil management.
  3. Improve transparency for land and soil management.
  4. Attribute a value to land degradation.
  5. Start a ‘Big Data’ Revolution on soils.
  6. Create incentives, especially secure land rights.
  7. Build on existing knowledge and resources.
  8. Build soil science capacity in Africa.
  9. Embrace integrated soil management (ISM).
  10. Climate smart soil helps agricultural systems become more resilient. [Read more…]