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…]

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.

Study: Earth can sustain more terrestrial plant growth than previously thought, News Bureau, Illinois

Seeds of Truth – A response to The New Yorker, Dr Vandana Shiva

New resource shows half of GMO research is independent, GENERA

UN Draft report lists unchecked emissions’ risks, The New York Times

Specter’s New Yorker GMO Labeling Essay Misses the Mark, Just Label It

Seeking Fertile Ground for a Green Revolution in Africa, PAEPARD

Is soil the new oil in Africa’s quest for sustainable development?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

How the private sector can catalyze innovations for feeding Africa, Devex

The good and bad of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), New Vision

Research is ‘no panacea’ for development, finds DFID, SciDev.Net [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…]

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.

Food security: Ag’s big challenge, Farm Weekly

Ending extreme poverty with a new model of development, Rajiv Shah, Devex

Q&A: Agriculture Needs a ‘New Revolution’, Kanayo Nwanze, IRIN

The Africa Fertilizer Gap, Global Food Security

How can Governments and Donors support Africa’s Women Farmers?, Duncan Green, Oxfam

British firm gets go-ahead for planting genetically modified omega-3 seeds, The Irish Times

Complex land rights feed ‘grabbing’ complaints in Tanzania, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Study casts doubt on climate benefit of biofuels from corn residue, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Six Innovative Initiatives That Are Working to Strengthen Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture, Huffington Post [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.

Steady increase in incidents of low levels of GM crops in traded food and feed, FAO

Victoria Seeds: Changing lives through wealth creation, Josephine Okot

The End of the ‘Developing World’, The New York Times

Book review: ‘The Meat Racket’ by Christopher Leonard, The Washington Post

GM Crops Lead to Increase in Trade Disruptions – UN Report, Sustainable Pulse

How the global banana industry is killing the world’s favourite fruit, Quartz

Agroforestry can ensure food security and mitigate the effects of climate change in Africa, EurekAlert

What can would-be African lions learn from the Asian tigers? It’s all about how urban elites see farmers, according to ODI, Duncan Green, Oxfam

Fertilizer in small doses yields higher returns for less money,

Storm brewing over WHO sugar proposal, Nature

Food system that fails poor countries needs urgent reform, says UN expert, The Guardian

UN expert calls for bridging gap between urban consumers and local food producers, UN

Food Tank By The Numbers: Family Farming, Food Tank

The Power of Household Consumption and Expenditure Surveys (HCES) to Inform Evidence-Based Nutrition Interventions and Policies, USAID