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How Africa can solve its food crisis by growing more crops sustainably

  • Published at 05:27 pm April 18th, 2013
How Africa can solve its food crisis by growing more crops sustainably

This week in Dublin, world leaders, policymakers and civil society representatives met to discuss the urgent and interrelated issues of hunger, nutrition and climate justice that are faced by the poorest people and nations. In parallel, the global community is already discussing the goals and metrics that should shape sustainable development once the millennium development goals expire in 2015.

It is time to place sustainable intensification at the heart of African agriculture, and ensure that development goals deliver on the agenda opened in Dublin. Sustainable intensification involves producing more crops, better nutrition and higher rural incomes from the same set of inputs – such as land, water, credit and knowledge – while reducing environmental impacts on a sustained basis.

Sub-Saharan Africa faces specific and complex challenges. The number of hungry people in the continent rose to 239 million last year and 40% of children under five years old are stunted due to malnutrition. Africa's population is expected to almost double by 2050, bringing it to almost 2 billion people. Based on present trends, the current African food production system would be able to meet only 13% of the continent's needs by 2050.

Despite this urgent need, African crop yields have been largely stagnant over the past 50 years. Less than 4% of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated. Almost three-quarters of its soils are degraded (pdf) due to years of planting crops without replacing nutrients; fertiliser use is by far the lowest in the world with most farmers unable to afford it.

Yet the carbon footprint of African smallholder farming is low, and problems of eutrophication and other forms of agricultural pollution are less prevalent than elsewhere.

Sustainable intensification is sometimes viewed as a Trojan horse for the implantation of large-scale, industrial agriculture – increasing yields through a dramatic increase in the use of fertilisers and pesticides while paying lip service to the environment and local farming conditions. As such, sustainable intensification polarises opinion.

But the term needs to be understood in a more balanced way and reinterpreted as relevant to the realities of smallholder agriculture and the need for strengthening food security.

A report released on Thursday by the Montpellier panel – international experts in agriculture, sustainable development, trade, policy and development from Africa and Europe – aims to demystify sustainable intensification and show its relevance to addressing food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty.

Agricultural intensification can take many forms, including current systems, many of which are not sustainable. With increasing pressure on natural resources and the impact of climate change, intensification must be made more sustainable. It can follow many paths, such as reducing reliance on fertilisers and pesticides; generating lower greenhouse gas emissions, and contributing to the maintenance of critical public goods, such as biodiversity and clean water.

Sustainable intensification is achievable for African smallholder farmers, and builds on many of their traditional practices. It includes: "micro-dosing" by which smallholder farmers use the cap of a drinks bottle to measure out small amounts of fertilisers, boosting yields significantly while keeping costs down for farmers and reducing the risk of fertiliser runoff into waterways; combining mixed field and tree crops, such as nitrogen-fixing varieties; harvesting and managing scarce water for supplementary irrigation; and promoting regeneration of diverse natural species in common lands.

But sustainable intensification requires more than just inputs and technology – it demands greater co-operation and organisation in rural areas. For instance, supporting village "grain banks" run by local farmer associations helps smallholders to protect their grain. Farmers deposit grain and the bank keeps it protected against pests and diseases, so that farmers can access it as needed or sell later in the season when prices are typically higher. This type of network is supported by the Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange, a private-sector firm that provides farmers with prices and other market intelligence by SMS text.

We are calling on governments, in partnership with the private sector and NGOs, to recognise the huge potential for sustainable intensification as a driver of development – in terms of food security, better nutrition and more resilient rural livelihoods.

While many parts of the world have experienced large increases in crop yields over the past 50 years, production has not always been intensified sustainably. Intensification is often associated with the ills of modern agriculture seen in the west – over-use of chemicals and fertiliser, pollution of rivers and water bodies, mono-crops and biodiversity deserts.

But African agriculture does not need to follow suit. Helping African farmers to increase their production and incomes while safeguarding the environment – in short, sustainable intensification – offers a balanced and practical way forward.  

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