Premise of progress – Building human and social capital for Africa’s agricultural success

By Katrin Glatzel

It is not uncommon that young people don’t want to follow in their parents’ footsteps, especially if it means a low income, food insecurity and back-breaking work.

For the agriculture sector in Africa, this is a big challenge. With over half of the population working in agriculture, the average African farmer is now between 50 and 60 years old. At the same time, the need for greater agricultural production is acute. In order to feed the projected population of 2050, global food production will need to increase by around 60%.

Africa is uniquely positioned to meet this challenge. An estimated 60% of the world’s undeveloped arable land is in Africa, there is great potential for increased irrigation and crop productivity, and a rapidly increasing population of young people are ready to transform their continent.

1However, to the majority of young people, the idea of working in agriculture is anything but exciting. More and more young Africans move into cities searching for better education and employment opportunities. Based on current trends, 59% of 20-24 year olds in sub-Saharan Africa will complete secondary education in 2030, compared to 42% in 2012. This translates into 137 million young people with secondary education and 12 million with tertiary education by 2030. Yet, only 2% of students are enrolled in agricultural programmes, compared to 26% who study humanities. [Read more…]

Gene therapy for a changing climate

By Emily Alpert

Credit C. Schubert, CCAFS

Credit C. Schubert, CCAFS

The rains are too short. Or are they too long? The temperature seems to be hotter. Maybe the air is getting drier here and wetter there? For certain, the weather is becoming less and less predictable under climate change and African smallholder farmers are amongst the most vulnerable. Already, temperatures in Africa are predicted to rise faster than the global average causing significant losses to yields, herds, calories and nutrients.

Without a better understanding of the climate and how it is anticipated to change, smallholders risk losing their entire crop.  Without crop failure, simply poor harvests alone are enough to cause farmers and their families to suffer. Smallholders won’t have enough to eat, but they won’t have enough to sell either. Lower incomes will drive families further into poverty, worsen undernutrition and prompt coping strategies that lower resilience to shocks and stresses over time.

Supporting smallholder farmers to better adapt to climate change and build their resilience to a variety of risks – weather-related or not – can be done in a variety of ways. For example, better access to finance can enable farmers to invest more in their farms; better training can teach them how to sustainably maximise their production; and improved land management practices can improve soil fertility and nutrient management. Whilst all of these elements are crucial for supporting smallholders, they may not be sufficient to address the scale of the challenge. Genetic improvements to seed and livestock varieties that can tolerate extremes such as droughts, floods, and vegetation loss, however, may give them the right advantage. [Read more…]

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. [Read more…]

Sustainable Intensification: Radical measures and new paradigms for achieving food security in Africa

By Stephanie Brittain

InfographicLaunched today by Agriculture for Impact, a new Sustainable Intensification database aims to explain the ecological, socio-economic and genetic approaches that together contribute to the Sustainable Intensification of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa in an easily accessible way, illustrated by more than 80 case studies.

Never has there been a greater need for a new paradigm for improving African agriculture. Worldwide, more than 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger. Meanwhile, Africa’s population alone is set to double to 2.4 billion by 2050, putting additional pressure on our planet’s resources to achieve food security for all. A 2011 FAO publication estimated that 1.2 million km2 of land will need to be converted to agriculture by 2030 to meet the increasing demand for food; most of which will need to occur in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. On top of that, climate change is likely to reduce the suitability of many areas of land for farming purposes; this will further exacerbate hunger and increase food shortages for people already suffering the highest burdens.

[Read more…]

Eco-agriculture a win-win for smallholder farmers: Greenpeace report

indexEcological agriculture, a variety of techniques used to improve provision and utilisation of ecosystem services within a farming system, is often considered to be lower yielding than intensive forms of farming reliant on synthetic inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. While the former is thought to be more sustainable, this sustainability is significantly reduced if more land is needed to produce similar yields to conventional farming. A new report from Greenpeace provides evidence, however, that eco-agriculture can yield better than its less environmentally-friendly counterpart in certain instances and be more profitable for small-scale farmers.

The report, Fostering Economic Resilience, is based on fieldwork from Malawi and Kenya and shows that farmers practicing either agroforestry, the use of trees that provide a natural fertilizer, or push-pull pest techniques, the use of plant species to draw crop pests away, achieve “higher incomes and yields than those practising chemical-intensive agriculture”.

Since the 1960s the use of nitrogen fertilizer has grown some 900% and is expected to grow further by 40-50% over the next four decades. And yet the problems of intensive agriculture and an overreliance on synthetic chemical inputs are well known:

  • Inputs are expensive to farmers and to governments when subsidized – 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa spend some US$1.05 billion a year on fertiliser subsidy programmes, an amount which makes up an average of 30% of their agriculture budgets.
  • The continued and heavy use of chemical inputs can pose severe health risks to farmers – “the UN Environment Programme has calculated that the cost of pesticide-related illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa, for governments and those affected, could reach $90 billion during 2005-20.”
  • Their manufacture is energy-intensive and contributes to climate change – “the manufacturing, transport, distribution and use of chemical fertilisers alone accounts for around 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions”.
  • Synthetic inputs can damage soils and run-off into waterways leading to soil acidification, eutrophication of water bodies and biodiversity loss – “some 30-80% of Nitrogen applied to farmland as fertilizer escapes to contaminate water systems and the environment”.

Ecological agriculture, such as agroforestry, water harvesting and organic farming, on the other hand, aims to protect soil and water resources, conserve biodiversity and both adapt to and mitigate climate change.

[Read more…]

Scaling up- scaling up: food security, smallholder farmers & markets

LeapingandLearningFrontCover

Click here to download the Leaping & Learning Report

October 16th 2014 is World Food Day, and in line with this years International Year of Family Farming, the theme of this World Food Day is “Family Farming: Feeding the world, caring for the earth” aiming to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farmers. Across Africa, smallholders account for 80% of Africa’s farmland and produce 80% of the food in Asia and Sub Saharan Africa. However due to a lack of suitable infrastructure, access to inputs, technology and storage, the majority of smallholders farmers are not well connected to markets.

After a warm welcome and opening remarks from our very own Katrin Glatzel, and introductions from H.E. Ambassador Neil Briscoe, the UK Permanent Representative to the Rome-based Agencies the panellists shared some of their experiences, successes and challenges from their diverse fields of work.

We heard first from Sharada Keats from the Overseas Development Institute as she provided a comprehensive overview of the key findings and recommendations of the 2013 Leaping & Learning report, sharing that there is no silver bullet for scaling up. Attempts to scale up often do not reach the poorest and most vulnerable and social safety nets must be put in place to ensure that those most in need are adequately supported during the uptake of the project. Thom Sprenger from HarvestPlus supported that reaching the farmers and consumers most affected by micronutrient deficiencies  is a barrier to scaling up and that there is a need to mitigate risks associated with the adoption of a new crop – through credit, insurance, input incentives, and market connections. [Read more…]

Yield gaps, trade liberalisation and biotechnology: three new reports on the way to tackle food insecurity

cover_6Three new publications investigate proposed solutions to global food insecurity, exploring the potential consequences of liberalising trade, increasing crop yields and introducing biotechnology. The first, written by agricultural scientists Tony Fisher, Derek Byerlee and Greg Edmeades, Crop Yields and Global Food Security, investigates the rate at which crop yields must increase if we are to meet global demand for staple crops by 2050. They explore how such targets might be achieved and what the consequences would be for the environment and natural resources.

Population growth, rising incomes per capita and growing biofuel usage mean we expect demand for staple crop products to increase by 60% between 2010 and 2050. This increase can either be met by expanding land area under agriculture or by increasing the yields of crops grown on current land. With land being in short supply and much potential agricultural land requiring deforestation and natural habitat clearance, the latter option has far more support. Indeed crop area is expected to grow only 10% between 2010 and 2050, with some of this increase originating from increased cropping intensity. To date yields of wheat, rice and soybean have been steadily rising over the past 20 years. The rate of growth, however has been declining and wheat yields are increasing at approximately 1% each year compared to 2010 figures (1.5% for maize). Crop models tell us that if we are to meet future demand and keep food prices at less than 30% higher than the low prices of 2000-2006 then yields of staple crops must rise by 1.1% each year. Of course these figures do not take into account the other resource challenges agriculture faces, climate change or tackling hunger and thus authors suggest a higher rate of increase of 1.3% per annum.

The book explains key concepts in crop physiology and yield, for example, a term often used when discussing agriculture in developing countries, “closing the yield gap”. The yield gap is effectively the difference between the yields obtained on a farm (Farm Yield or FY) and the yields obtained under field trial conditions (Potential Yield or PY). For wheat, although the book also explores other staple crops, the yield gap is on average around 48% of the FY. This varies by location with developing countries (and crops produced under rainfed conditions) showing a larger gap and Western Europe showing the smallest gap, some 30%. Progress towards closing this gap is worryingly slow, occurring at a global average rate of just 0.2% per year, and in Western Europe may actually be increasing. Yield gaps are difficult to close and on average closing a yield gap by 10% of FY takes some 20 years. Here authors highlight the difficulty of increasing Farm Yields through technology adoption and improved agronomic practices, and the importance of increasing PY to stimulate Farm Yield gains, likely through improved varieties.

Addressing these yield gaps, authors say, will require a combination of plant breeding of higher yielding and more resilient varieties, public agricultural extension to train farmers in improved farming practices and greater integration between farmers, scientists and businesses. While examples of yield gaps being significantly closed do exist, particularly where new technologies are adopted and markets are reliable – the One Acre Fund being given as an example, the rural transformation required to help subsistence farmers in developing countries close the gap will require substantial investment that as yet is missing. [Read more…]

Advocating strategies for agricultural transformation: FAO and AfDB

ID-100207881On the 29th September 2014 two events laid out global and African strategies for agriculture and food security. At its 24th session, the Committee on Agriculture (COAG), one of FAO’s Governing Bodies providing overall guidance on policies relating to agriculture, livestock, food safety, nutrition, rural development and natural resource management, met to discuss a wide range of issues, including family farming and sustainable agriculture.

Opening the event, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, emphasised the broad range of options needed to transform global food systems and that a paradigm shift is needed to make agriculture sustainable. In particular a departure from “an input intensive model”. We need to reduce the use of agricultural inputs such as water and fertilizer and look to new solutions. Such approaches as agroecology, climate-smart agriculture and biotechnology were used as examples of alternatives to the current system but that their use should be based on evidence, science and local context. The FAO’s director-general made the urgency of making agriculture more sustainable for the long term clear, noting that food production needs to grow by 60% by 2050 to meet the demands of a population of 9 billion people.

From some camps the conference was a step in the right direction towards embracing agroecology as too was the recent FAO International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security. Indeed about 70 scientists and scholars of sustainable agriculture and food systems sent an open letter praising the FAO for convening the event. Seen as both a science and a social movement, agroecology is gaining momentum, now helped by support from the FAO, in particular by their moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach to agriculture and agricultural research and support for the scientific evidence behind agroecology. The letter called for the FAO, its member states and the international community to launch a UN system-wide initiative on agroecology as the main strategy for addressing climate change and building resilience. The letter closes with a hope that the FAO will consider this proposal at the forthcoming Committee on World Food Security meeting on the 13th to 18th October 2014.

Danilo Medina, president of the Dominican Republic, also spoke at COAG 2014 of food as a universal right and of the dire need to transform the rural economy. The Dominican Republic has been particularly successful in reducing hunger from over 34% in 1990 to under 15% today. Since the current government came into power rural poverty has also been reduced 9%, linked to the doubling of the volume of agricultural loans and re-design of loan instruments to benefit smallholders, and the use of surprise visits to farming communities by officials in order to increase understanding and engage with smallholders, in particular around forming cooperatives. As noted by Graziano da Silva, this type of political commitment at the highest levels of government is critical to achieving national food security. [Read more…]

Boom and Bust: the future of our food producing ecosystems

ID-100219796A recent paper, No Dominion over Nature, authored by UK ecologists, Professors Mark Huxham, Sue Hartley, Jules Pretty and Paul Tett, describes how current approaches to food production are damaging the long term health of ecosystems, hampering their ability to provide ecosystem services and leaving them vulnerable to collapse. Focusing on continual (and unsustainable) increases in agricultural productivity, for example through intensive monocultures, will inevitably lead to a “boom and bust” cycle.

The “dominant narrative” in meeting the ever increasing demand for food (some estimate we need to increase food production by 100% by 2050 to meet this demand) is to intensify agricultural production, an approach, such as the Green Revolution, that has so far allowed food production to keep pace with population growth. Such a pathway, as authors argue, is causing ecosystem deterioration, eroding the ecosystem services we rely upon such as pollination, climate regulation and water purification. Intensification comes at an economic and ecological cost – ever increasing synthetic input amounts are costly, too costly for some, while they have serious impacts on the environment.

An alternative is low input agriculture such as organic farming, which may not produce the yields to meet future demand without expansion of farming area and similarly poses a threat to the environment with agricultural expansion being a major factor in the conversion of natural habitats, deforestation and biodiversity loss. In particular the report talks about the debate between those arguing for intensification and those for low-input farming, most often framed as an argument between economists and environmentalists, or ostriches and romantics as Paul Collier terms them. Ostriches in that proponents may have their head in the sand ignoring looming environmental and climate crises, romantics in that their advocacy of environmentally friendly approaches such as organic may seem appealing but could have negative impacts, for example increasing the cost of food to account for environmental externalities, which could exacerbate hunger.

The authors reject both approaches suggesting instead “a focus on maintaining ecosystem health through the management of terrestrial and aquatic environments as multifunctional mosaics”. In a sense combining intensive agriculture with neighbouring land that provides ecosystem services in a way that maximises ecosystem resilience. In particular the concepts of bioproductivity, “the ability of ecosystems to capture energy in organic form”, an ability which forms the basis of food production, and thresholds or planetary boundaries are discussed as key management guidelines. Ecosystems should be seen as “functional self-regulating systems” and should be managed to ensure a continual and adequate supply of ecosystem services. [Read more…]

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…]