Chains, loops, pillars and bridges – building resilience into agricultural systems.

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0

UN Photo Logan Abassi

Credit: UN/Logan Abassi

As meteorologists report that the El Niño Southern Oscillation is ending and a La Niña may be developing, spare a thought for smallholder farmers. Erratic rainfall, short growing seasons, prolonged droughts and flooding mean that crop yields suffer, and so do the livelihoods of those who rely on farming as their main source of income. And because agriculture does not only provide food, but also provides important environmental services, employment, and economic opportunities for local communities, it is not just the farmers and their families who feel the effects of the unpredictable weather that is becoming increasingly common all around the world. With increasingly global food systems, we will all suffer the consequences.

Despite the volatile weather, the food must grow on. Globally the growing population demands more, and more varied, food, to be grown with ever scarcer resources. However, current agricultural techniques have a voracious appetite for resources, consuming about 70% of all freshwater and using ever more land. But there are other viable ways of farming that are less resource intensive. In the recent submission to the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 44), A4I advocated for the practices of Sustainable Intensification (SI) for agriculture. SI integrates innovations in ecology, genetics and socio-economics to help build environmentally sustainable, productive and resilient ways to produce more food with less, ensuring that the natural resources on which agriculture depends are maintained and even improved for future generations – also take a look at the A4I SI database where there are explanations and more than 80 case studies to highlight some of the best practices of SI. [Read more…]

Sustainable water management in African agriculture

By Katrin Glatzel

Ngomene Farm Senegal June 2015 (15)

Credit: Katrin Glatzel, 2015 (Senegal)

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where agriculture is predominantly rainfed, farmers’ access to water is often limited based on seasonal variation. Yet water scarcity in the region is not necessarily caused by a physical lack of water, but rather by an ‘economic water scarcity’. This implies that the necessary public investments in water resources and infrastructure are not substantial enough to meet water demands in an area where people do not have the means to make use of water sources on their own. In fact, in many parts of SSA there is plenty of water available. However, groundwater resources, such as aquifers, remain a relatively abundant yet underused resource, with less than 5% of the water used for irrigation coming from groundwater.

The challenge is therefore to increase the amount of available water that is ‘harvested’ for crop growth. Such water harvesting can be done at the field, farm or watershed level. In some places, there is a potential for groundwater extraction using boreholes. And research by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has shown that motor pumps have the potential to expand the amount of agricultural land irrigated during the dry season to 30 million hectares — four times the current area. There is urgent need to sustainably increase the amount of irrigation from the current 6% of arable land. Until then an estimated 200 million people in SSA – that is 18% of the continent’s population – face serious water shortages.

Furthermore, climate change and a growing population continue to pose additional challenges to water management in agriculture. Prolonged periods of drought in many parts of SSA are becoming increasingly frequent. This increases pressures on valuable water resources and agricultural irrigation. In response, water conservation policies, strategies, and activities such as water harvesting, are ever more important to manage and protect fresh water as a sustainable resource to meet current and future human demands. [Read more…]

Top 8 Quotes from “African Farmers in The Digital Age: How Digital Solutions Can Enable Rural Development”

“African Farmers in the Digital Age” is a special edition anthology, published in partnership with Foreign Affairs that brings together the views of twenty leading thinkers on all aspects of food systems, smallholder farming, and the transformative opportunity presented by digital technology. The authors of the essays in this collection paint a picture of what a thriving African food system can accomplish and lay out some concrete steps for building that system. According to the editor, Gideon Rose, “From mobile phones to big data, nutrition to climate change, the collection covers it all, with authors who have something powerful to say and the authority to be heard.” Here are some of the most insightful and salient quotes to give you a taste of the wisdom the anthology has to offer:

  1. “The combination of digital technology and human creativity in deploying it will revolutionize life for Africa’s farmers by overcoming isolation, speeding up change, and taking success to scale.” — Kofi Annan, Sir Gordon Conway and Sam Dryden

Access to digital technology can make the distance between a remote farmer and the market even shorter than a straight line. Whereas many smallholders live several hours by foot from most markets, mobile platforms can share market price information or connect farmers to buyers in an instant.

  1. “It is time to change the way we think. Farmers are not the cause of Africa’s poverty; they are a potential solution. They are key to creating the future envisioned by the SDGs.” — Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General

Check out this blog “Agriculture in Every SDG” to find out how agriculture is a central element for achieving each and every one of the recently adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  You might also want to have a look at the report “No Ordinary Matter” – the Montpellier Panel shows several ways that farmers can help to improve their soil quality and even sequester carbon!

soil carbon sequestration

  1. “If Africa’s evolving food system leaves its smallholder farmers behind, the continent will not reach its immense potential.” — Sir Gordon Conway and Sam Dryden

[Read more…]

How Caring for Our Soils Helps Fight Climate Change

By Katrin Glatzel, Originally posted on, 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…]

Smallholder farmers: Agents of Change in a Risky Climate

By Alice Marks

It can be difficult to avoid sounding hyperbolic when talking about climate change because the truth is that, if current farming practices and resource-heavy ways of life are not changed, the future does not look bright.

Every part of the food supply chain is likely to be affected by climate change. Crop yields will tumble and food quality, safety and delivery may be compromised. Water supplies in many areas will dwindle, while elsewhere flooding may cause water supplies to become contaminated and unsafe, destroy crops and threaten livestock. On top of this, certain pests and diseases may thrive in warmer temperatures.

Floods in Mozambique. Photo Credit: Naomi Watts/ World Food Programme

Floods in Mozambique. Photo Credit: Naomi Watts/ World Food Programme

In addition to farmers likely producing less, weather extremes may put extra stress onto already struggling infrastructure, making it increasingly difficult to get any surplus which farmers do produce to markets and consumers. By 2050, hunger and child malnutrition could increase by as much as 20%, and with agriculture as Africa’s biggest employer, the livelihoods of millions are at stake. So far, so risky. [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…]

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.


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…]

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.

Plant scientists urge Europe to stop blocking GM trials on political grounds, EurActiv

Borlaug Dialogue Highlights, World Food Prize

The Love Life of Plants, Gates Notes

‘Silent revolution’ of biotechnology food will surpass GMO products: Greenpeace report, Raw Story

World losing 2,000 hectares of farm soil daily to salt damage: UN University, EurekAlert

‘Climate-Smart Agriculture’: the Emperor’s new clothes?, CIDSE

Can sustainable intensification be the answer to better seeds, soil and family farming?, ICRISAT

World’s Largest Ever GMO Safety Study Set for London Launch, Sustainable Pulse

Even it Up: Big global campaign on inequality launched today, From Poverty to Power

The GMO debate: 5 things to stop arguing, The Washington Post [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…]