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…]

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.

Chicago Council’s Grow Markets, Fight Hunger Report Featured, Global Food for Thought

FAO food price index drops again in March driven by sugar’s sharp slide, FAO

Deforestation is messing with our weather — and our food, EurekAlert

Agriculture and Agrometeorological Services, PAEPARD

Yesterday’s bread against food waste, Plantwise

“Why Wait Until the Next Food Crisis?” Improving Food Reserves Strategies in East Africa, ACORD

Why we should be worried by the World Bank shoveling $36bn to ‘financial intermediaries’, From Poverty to Power

Feeding the World – Without GMOs, EWG

We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it, The Guardian [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…]

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.

2014-2015 Global Food Policy Report, IFPRI

Agriculture: Increase water harvesting in Africa, Nature

Middle Income Countries Play Key Role in Eliminating Hunger and Malnutrition, IFPRI

Agriculture bears major brunt of disaster impacts, new report says, FAO

Uganda’s plans for super bananas spark heated debate, Yahoo News

Contract farming and out-grower schemes, Action Aid

Political brief on the Principles on Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Foodsystems, TNI

The Path to Poverty: AGRA, small-scale farmers and seed and soil fertility in Tanzania, African Centre for Biosafety

Cropping Africa’s wet savannas would bring high environmental costs, Princeton University

The great land giveaway in Mozambique, Triple Crisis

Peak food? Can food tech supercharge crop yields and address global food security?, Genetic Literacy Project

Farming methods must sustain soil and be climate-smart, Daily Monitor [Read more…]

The Budongo Forest Landscape: Balancing competing land uses

In several blogs we’ve discussed topics around minimising trade-offs and balancing competing land uses at a landscape scale, particularly in terms of agriculture and environmental goods and services. Many theories and methods of analysis have been suggested that aim to reconcile competing interests and objectives in a landscape and, while fascinating and valuable, these endeavours rarely seem to feature the views of the people that live in such landscapes nor is it always clear how findings relate to current social and political settings. As part of my PhD research on the potential impacts of land sparing and land sharing on forest habitat, ecosystem services, incomes and food security in a rapidly changing landscape, I recently spent several months in western Uganda, around the Budongo Forest Reserve meeting farmers, local government, NGOs and big businesses to better understand the impacts and drivers of land use change in the area. The landscape around the Budongo Forest Reserve is a good example of what can happen when the objectives of the few (and most powerful) are prioritised over those of the majority. In a series of blogs I’ll be exploring the way the landscape has changed, how it may change again and options for reducing poverty and food insecurity with the hope of, through discussion, finding broader lessons applicable to landscapes elsewhere. To this end, readers, your thoughts, comments and questions are both welcome and essential.

To start off the series let me introduce you to the landscape in question.

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Map showing the location of Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda (Wallace & Hill, 2013)

The Budongo Forest Reserve landscape

The Budongo Forest Reserve in western Uganda is one of the largest tropical forests in the country, containing the highest number of chimpanzees in Uganda. Budongo Forest is located within the Albertine Rift, part of the East African Rift, which spans five countries, and contains more vertebrate species and threatened and endemic species than anywhere else in Africa.

South east of Budongo Forest Reserve, the landscape is characterized by gently rolling hills and a mosaic of rainforest, woodland, grassland, small-scale farms and large-scale sugarcane farming, a mosaic that has seen marked changes particularly in the last two decades. The main land use and source of income in the region is agriculture with many households relying on subsistence farming and forest products for their livelihoods. The most important crops are cassava, maize, bananas, sugarcane and beans.

A rapidly changing landscape

The expansion of cash crops, rapid population growth and migration from within and outside of the country driven by civil war and conflict, as well as poor forest governance have led to vast deforestation, natural resource shortages in such things as firewood and timber, and disputes between residents over, what is fast becoming infertile and exhausted, land. The soils are being depleted rapidly due to slash and burn agriculture, poor access to fertilizer and over cultivation. Many of these drivers continue unchecked and, without intervention, unprotected forest in the landscape is expected to all but disappear in the next 15 years while yields may continue their largely downwards trend. Given the importance of forests for maintaining productive agricultural land, reliable weather patterns and as a source of food, medicine and energy such deforestation is likely to have significant detrimental and perhaps irreversible consequences for the livelihoods of people in the landscape.

Deforestation is thought by both residents and government alike, to have exacerbated poverty, landlessness, changed weather patterns, reduced soil fertility and led to the out migration of once common species. Forests are disappearing quickly in the Budongo Forest Reserve landscape, a trend that is thought to have begun in the 1980s with the growth of sugarcane farming, influxes of migrants and the introduction of pit-sawing, charcoal production and more extensive mechanized farming systems. As of 20210, in the area between Budongo and Bugoma Forest Reserve to the south, approximately 90,000 ha of high forest and 120,000 ha of woodland remain in the landscape outside protected areas, predominantly in small patches of up to several 100ha. Mwavu & Witkowski (2008) investigated land use change in and around Budongo Forest Reserve between 1988 and 2002. Area under sugarcane expanded 17-fold from 690 hectares (ha) in 1988 to 12,729ha in 2002. The loss of 4,680ha of forest (a reduction of 8.2%) occurred on the southern border of the reserve to allow for sugarcane expansion. [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…]