PLANET EARTH: Creating Resilient Agriculture

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Image: OutreachLONDON - Food security is critical to the mission of Rio+20. The threats are numerous: repeated food price spikes; shortages of good-quality land and water; rising energy energy and fertiliser prices; and the consequences of climate change.

Already, somewhere between 900 million and a billion people are chronically hungry, and by 2050 agriculture will have to cope with these threats while feeding a growing population with changing dietary demands. This will require doubling food production, especially if we are to build up reserves for climatic extremes.

To do this requires sustainable intensification – getting more from less – on a durable basis.

Combining traditional and technological

Farmers around the world will need to produce more food and other agricultural products on less land, with fewer pesticides and fertilisers, less water and lower outputs of greenhouse gases. This must be done on a large scale, and more cheaply than current farming methods allow. It will also have to be sustainable – that is, it must last. For this to happen, the intensification will have to be resilient.

The latest report of the expert Montpellier Panel, lays out a vision of agricultural growth for Sub-Saharan Africa that is resilient – able to withstand or recover from stresses and shocks. The report makes specific recommendations around resilient agriculture, resilient people and resilient markets.

Developing resilient agriculture will require technologies and practices that build on agro-ecological knowledge and enable smallholder farmers to counter environmental degradation and climate change in ways that maintain sustainable agricultural growth. Examples include various forms of mixed cropping that enable more efficient use and cycling of soil nutrients, conservation farming, microdosing of fertilisers and herbicides, and integrated pest management.

These are proven technologies that draw on ecological principles. Some build on traditional practices, with numerous examples working on a small scale. In Zambia, conservation farming, a system of minimum or no-till agriculture with crop rotations, has reduced water requirements by up to 30% and used new drought-tolerant hybrids to produce up to five tons of maize per hectare – five times the average yield for Sub-Saharan Africa.

The imperative now is scaling up such systems to reach more farmers.

Another solution is to increase the use of modern plant and animal breeding methods, including biotechnology. These have been successful in providing resistance to various pests of maize, sorghum, cowpeas, groundnuts and cotton; to diseases of maize, bananas and livestock. These methods can help build resilience rapidly. We need to combine them with biotechnology-based improvements in yield through improved photosynthesis, nitrogen uptake, resistance to drought and other impacts of climate change.

Agro-ecology and modern breeding methods are not mutually exclusive. Building appropriate, improved crop varieties into ecological agricultural systems can boost both productivity and resilience.

Enabling environments

The Montpellier Panel report recommends that governments, the private sector, and non-governmental organisations work together to help develop resilient and sustainable intensification; combat land and water degradation; and build climate-smart agriculture, such as conservation farming. These partnerships can also build the resilience of people by increasing the reach of successful nutrition interventions and building diverse livelihoods, especially by focusing on rural women and young people. The report particularly recommends taking part in the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) framework that aims to greatly reduce the number children with stunted growth, which stands at roughly 50 million in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.

The report also describes how to achieve resilient markets that enable farmers to increase production, take risks and generate income through innovation while ensuring food is available at an affordable price. Creating grain stores and opening up trade across Africa can reduce food price volatility. The continent also needs more private investments and public-private partnerships that will encourage increased production.

Developing agriculture with resilience depends on science, technology and innovation; but there are no silver bullets. We need strong political leadership. An example is Ghana, where agricultural GDP has risen by 5% each year for the past decade and the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger by 2015 has already been achieved.

This is a crucial year. The sequence of G8, G20 and Rio+20 meetings provides a ready platform for the international community to coordinate policies and intensify investments. I am optimistic that agricultural development and food security will be priorities, and an agenda based on agricultural growth with resilience will be a key outcome.

*Gordon Conway is Professor of International Development, The Agriculture for Impact Programme, Imperial College London. This article first appeared in Outreach, a multi-stakeholder publication on climate change and sustainable development produced by Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future.

Image: Outreach

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