Sustainable agricultural intensification: Tackling food insecurity in a resource-scarce world

By Lindiwe Majele Sibanda and Katy Wilson.

Reblogged from AlertNet

ID-10029986 (2)Today, the world is searching for solutions to a series of global challenges unprecedented in their scale and complexity. Food insecurity, malnutrition, climate change, rural poverty and environmental degradation are all among them.

A recent meeting hosted by the Irish government and the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ) in Dublin convened experts and practitioners from around the globe to discuss how the next iteration of development goals following the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) can respond to this set of challenges, as part of the so-called “post-2015” development agenda.

Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly vulnerable to these threats as both supply-side and demand-side challenges are putting additional pressure on an already fragile food production system. Indeed, current systems of production will only be able to meet 13 percent of the continent’s food needs by 2050, while three out of four people added to the planet between now and 2100 will be born in the region.

Improving agricultural yields efficiently and sustainably must be central in addressing Africa’s food insecurity challenges. This calls for “sustainable intensification”. 

Sustainable intensification offers a framework for producing more food with less impact on the environment, intensifying food production while ensuring the natural resource base on which agriculture depends is sustained, and indeed improved, for future generations.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the term has taken on a highly politicised meaning, with some arguing it is synonymous with industrial agriculture reliant on a high use of fertilisers and pesticides. But this does not have to be the case.

The term’s original scientific intent was for it to be relevant to all types of agricultural systems, including smallholder farmers in Africa. It is now time that the term is re-embraced to help meet the challenges we face as a global population of 9 billion people by the year 2050.


A new report from the Montpellier Panel, an eminent panel of international experts led by Sir Gordon Conway of Agriculture for Impact, provides innovative thinking and examples of how sustainable intensification can be used by smallholder African farmers to address the continent’s food and nutrition crisis. [Read more…]

Four ways to reduce water use in agriculture

wwd imageToday is World Water Day 2013, celebrating the International Year of water cooperation. A paradigm of the world’s water challenges is that although agriculture accounts for approximately 70% of global water resources, around one billion people are chronically hungry.

As water for irrigation and food production constitutes one of the greatest threats to the sustainability of the world’s freshwater resources, we discuss four methods of reducing water use in agriculture, methods that can reduce water use without limiting, and sometimes increasing, food production.

Grow crops that use less water. This can mean either crops that due to their physiology require less water. For example growing grapes and olives requires significantly less water than tomatoes or bananas. Or it can mean crops bred to require less water such as the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project.  Of course the choice of crops grown is also dependent on environmental and socio-economic conditions.

Precision use of irrigation either by scheduling irrigation for times when the crops needs it or using irrigation only in areas needed. Methods can include direct measurement of soil water content to inform on timing and placement, sprinkler or drip irrigation. But issues of access to and management of water supplies can limit the feasibility of some of these techniques in some areas.

Use methods alternative to irrigation such as rainwater harvesting and treated wastewater.

Enhance water retention in the soil through farming methods and systems such as residue management, conservation tillage, zai, bunds, contouring and field levelling. This will reduce the amount of water that needs to be applied to the field.

For the future new technologies such as micro-scale solar desalination units or nanotechnology hold some potential. But whether at the frontiers of technology or tried and tested, many of the solutions to agriculture’s dependence on water require knowledge, research and access to forms of innovation. Investing in participatory research that meets the water and production needs of local farmers is therefore critical to reducing water use in agriculture and building the sector’s sustainability.

For a wider analysis of global water security click here.