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…]

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.

African agriculture needs trade not aid, SciDev.Net

World’s first global Meat Atlas – facts and figures about what we eat, Friends of the Earth

World food prices stay high, but steady, FAO

‘Sugar is the new tobacco’: Cuts to amounts hidden in food could halt obesity epidemic, claim doctors, The Independent

Women Farmers in Chile to Teach the Region Agroecology, IPS

Big Beef, Washington Monthly

The Future of Agriculture Requires Dialogue, Huffington Post

Storming the ivory towers: Time for scientists to get out, ‘get social’, to learn better, faster–Nature commentary, ILRI

Drought tolerant maize varieties ready, The East African

A new horizon for African-European research links, Sci Dev.Net

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops, The New York Times

14 Food Resolutions to Bring in the New Year, Huffington Post

Food security: an urban issue, The Guardian

Global farm research consortium doubles funding to $1 billion, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Big Ag’s Gifts for 2013, Huffington Post

Exclusive: Make food and drink corporations ‘account for water usage’, says scientist, The Independent


The importance of seed diversity

ID-100144378 (2)Seeds might be small, inconspicuous things but they hold a great deal of power. For some, seeds mean survival, ritual, life. They are the basis of much of the food we consume. Perhaps because of their power and their value to the planet’s food security, seeds are a controversial topic. The sale of seeds, the modification of seeds and the saving of seeds are all issues which inspire much discourse and disagreement.

The Gaia Foundation produced a video called Seeds of Freedom, which documents the century’s old custom of saving and selecting seeds best adapted to local conditions, cultural preferences, and resilient to environmental constraints. The film highlights the threat that privatisation of the production and sale of seeds poses to these traditional farming practices.

Cycles of seed saving and the maintenance of agricultural biodiversity have been challenged by the introduction of higher-yielding hybrid and introduced crops that can lose their vitality after the first season, thus requiring farmers to purchase new seeds every year. The video paints the leaders of the Green Revolution as seeking power over the seed value chain. And while many would disagree with this, that scientists were developing high-yielding locally adapted crops with the aim of increasing food production and reducing hunger, there is little doubt that agricultural crop biodiversity was lost as the rise of monocultures and heavy chemical use expanded rapidly. In the Philippines, a poster country of the Green Revolution, only 8 rice varieties out of 3,500 are now grown.

Agricultural biodiversity and the wealth of information and traits it contains is particularly important given the global challenges we face, not least climate change. There are crops and crop varieties that can withstand extremes that would decimate many of the crops we regularly eat. Pearl millet for example, a crop grown annually on more than 29 million hectares in the arid and semi-arid tropical regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America, can survive the most hot and hostile Sahelian conditions.  Thus conserving seed diversity both in situ and in seed banks is imperative. A recent blog on Food Tank outlines 15 seed saving initiatives protecting biodiversity for future generations.

For many the concept of saving seeds is firmly entrenched in the ideals of food sovereignty, which is about the right of people to define their own food systems. Few would argue against increasing food production in developing countries and reducing the huge amounts of imports, which can leave poor consumers at the mercy of volatile global food prices. But in the extreme, food sovereignty espouses the restriction of all food trade and corporate involvement which raises a couple of issues.

Firstly agro-ecological methods and traditional farming, while often more resilient than conventional monocultures, have limits to the amount of food they can produce per unit of labour. In Africa, where smallholder farms dominate, maize yields average 1 ton per hectare, compared to Iowa, where farmers have access to the most cutting edge of technologies including GM and get, on average, yields of 11 tons per hectare. The answer is not in transferring an Iowan system of farming to Africa but technology does have the potential to transform productivity and livelihoods. [Read more…]

Current increases in crop yields will not meet future food demand

ID-10062725 (2)Global food production must increase if we are to meet the rising demand for food, feed and fuel brought about by growing populations, incomes and western diets. It must increase in the face of severe natural resource constraints.  Current production growth, however, will not meet the world’s food needs, as a recent article by Ray et al, entitled Yield Trends Are Insufficient to Double Global Crop Production by 2050, attests.

To achieve food security we need to increase food production between 50 and 100% by 2050. Ray et al, however find that for four key global crops, maize, rice, wheat, and soybean, which currently produce nearly two-thirds of global agricultural calories, yield increases between 1961 and 2008 were only 1.6%, 1.0%, 0.9%, and 1.3% per year. To put this in perspective, a 2.4% per year rate of yield gains is needed to double crop production by 2050.

This high level analysis masks a lot of geographic variation. For example, maize yields are improving in Ethiopia, Angola, South Africa, and Madagascar but decreasing in such countries as Morocco, Chad, Somalia, Kenya and Zambia. There is a similar diversity in yield changes for soybean, wheat and rice.

One answer is to expand the amount of land we grow crops on (extensify), a solution that would be disastrous for the environment, for carbon emissions and for biodiversity, for which habitat loss is the biggest threat. The other is to intensify, increase the yields from existing agricultural land. Often intensification is associated with large-scale high-input commercial agriculture, also detrimental to the natural resource base. The UN estimates that 80% of the required increase in food production between 2015 and 2030 will have to come from intensification. Additionally strategies to reduce food loss and waste, change consumer eating preferences and ensure the food system is more equitable could also have a large impact.

In another recent article in Science, Garnett et al discuss a new paradigm that is gaining traction, one outlined by the Montpellier Panel in their 2013 Report, Sustainable Intensification: A New Paradigm for African Agriculture. Sustainable intensification (SI), which aims to reconcile food production and environmental protection, has been much discussed on this blog and is receiving increasing attention from decision makers. Garnett et al outline the four premises underlying SI: [Read more…]

Quality Protein Maize

A long-standing need to genetically enhance the nutritional value of cereal grains such as maize, led to the development of quality protein maize (QPM), a process which began in the 1960s. Maize is a significant food source for much of the developing world. Indeed in 12 developing countries, it makes up over 30% of total dietary protein.

In 1985 CIMMYT began a QPM hybrid breeding initiative. The aim to breed for a naturally-occurring mutant maize gene that increases levels of lysine and tryptophan, two amino acids necessary for protein synthesis. The development of an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) in the 1990s aided the speed with which to measure levels of lysine, which was previously both slow and costly.

Due to progress made by researchers on QPM and the apparent benefits for human nutrition, there has been a renewal of interest in QPM R&D and since the mid 1990s, QPM has been tested at research stations all over the world (at a rate of around 600 to 1000 hybrid combinations of maize per year). [Read more…]