Tag Archives: agriculture

Montpellier Panel – Growth with Resilience: Opportunities in African Agriculture

The Montpellier Panel, a group of experts from the fields of agriculture, sustainable development, trade, policy, and global development chaired by Gordon Conway from UK’s Imperial College, have a new report ‘Growth with Resilience: Opportunities in African Agriculture’. The report looks at how agriculture is connected to economic growth, food production, climate change and ecosystem services, but interestingly puts resilience at the centre of their approach.  They argue that that while there are many challenges to agriculture in Africa, there are an under appreciated set of opportunities.

The figure below summarizes their report’s strategy.

Gordon Conway has written an article for SciDev.net has a about the report.  He writes:

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 per cent 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 and bananas; and to livestock diseases.

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.

Developing agriculture with resilience depends on science, technology and innovation; but there are no magic bullets. We need strong political leadership.

An excellent example is Ghana, where agricultural gross domestic product has risen by five per cent each year for the past decade and the millennium development goal of halving hunger by 2015 has already been achieved.This was largely due to the leadership of former president John Kufuor who gave agricultural development a high priority and created an enabling environment for the adoption of new technologies and other innovations.

An agroecological paradigm shift in agricultural development

Below is a guest post from my colleague Thomas Hahn, an institutional economist and Assoc. Professor at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

On March 8, 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food , Olivier De Schutter, delivered his report on food security. The report Agroecology and the right to food (click on link to download a copy), identifies agroecology (enhancing agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes by recycling organic matter and diversifying species) as a means to increase harvests in areas areas where the poor live. The message is very different from the conventional view of agricultural, for example see Jonathan Foley’s articulation of agricultural development in a lecture at SRC last year.

The report’s first point is that food production needs to increase in the areas where hungry people live. At the resolution of the planet I believe Foley is correct in his analysis that we need to blend the benefits of conventional and organic agriculture. But the poorest farmers with no cash can lower their vulnerability (increase food security and safety and self-reliance) by relying on place-based resources.

The report’s second point is more political. The report suggests that supporting La Via Campesina and similar organizations is an effective way of scaling up agroecological best practices. This requires a shift in pubic policy from supporting the “green revolution” paradigm of subsidizing inputs to instead supporting the knowledge generation and dissemination done by networks such as La Via Campesina.

From a resilience perspective the language of “scaling up best practices” is always problematic because all agroecosystems are complex interactions between people and nature and “best practices” always need to be adapted. But supporting grassroot movements for disseminating agroecological practices is likely to involve much more adaptation to local contexts than other ways of dissemination.

The need for this type of activity is stated in the report as  “Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.” While this is common knowledge among critical agronomists, it is rarely admitted in UN Reports.

Agroecology and the right to food calls for quite radical change in research and development priorities.  Below are a few selected citations from the report:

“Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live — especially in unfavorable environments.”

“We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”

“To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” De Schutter says. “Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3-10 years.”

“Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today,” De Schutter stresses. “A large segment of the scientific community now acknowledges the positive impacts of agroecology on food production, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation — and this this is what is needed in a world of limited resources. Malawi, a country that launched a massive chemical fertilizer subsidy program a few years ago, is now implementing agroecology, benefiting more than 1.3 million of the poorest people, with maize yields increasing from 1 ton/ha to 2-3 tons/ha.”

“Agroecology is a knowledge-intensive approach. It requires public policies supporting agricultural research and participative extension services,” De Schutter says. “States and donors have a key role to play here. Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.”

“The research community, should: increase the budget for agroecological research at the field level (design of sustainable and resilient agroecological systems), train scientists in the design of agroecological approaches, participatory research methods, and processes of co-inquiry with farmers, and ensure that their organizational culture is supportive of agroecological innovations and participatory research;”

“Donors should:engage in long-term relationships with partner countries, supporting ambitious programs and policies to scale up agroecological approaches for lasting change, including genuine multi-polar engagement with public authorities and experts and existing local organizations of food providers (farmers, pastoralists, forest dwellers) and the networks they form, such as ROPPA, ESAFF, La Via Campesina, and PELUM, which have accumulated experience that could be the basis for rapid scaling-up of best practices;”

Or in other words, another world is possible.

Modernist agricultural diversity

Agricultural Fields near Perdizes, Minas Gerais, Brazil from NASA EOS

The visual diversity of the field forms is matched by the variety of crops: sunflowers, wheat, potatoes, coffee, rice, soybeans, and corn are among the products of the region. While the Northern Hemisphere is still in the grip of winter, crops are growing in the Southern Hemisphere, as indicated by the many green fields. Fallow fields—not in active agricultural use—display the violet, reddish, and light tan soils common to this part of Brazil. Darker soils are often rich in iron and aluminum oxides, and are typical of highly weathered soil that forms in hot, humid climates.

Water Footprint in Food Production

By Max Troell

New studies that focus on the emerging issue of water usage in agriculture have been released.

Researchers from the University of Twente, the Netherlands, have provided a comprehensive account of the global green, blue and grey water footprints of different sorts of farm animals and animal products, distinguishing between different production systems and considering the conditions in all countries of the world separately. Some of the main findings from this study were:

  1. the blue and grey water footprints of animal products are larger for industrial systems than for mixed or grazing systems. From a freshwater perspective, animal products from grazing or mixed systems are therefore to be preferred above products from the bio-industry;
  2. the water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of a wisely chosen crop product with equivalent nutritional value;
  3. About 29% of the total water footprint of the agricultural sector in the world is related to the production of animal products; and
  4. one third of the global water footprint of animal production is related to beef cattle.

The same researchers have also carried out a complementary study that quantifies the green, blue and grey water footprints of hundreds of crops and crop products, showing variations from province to province, for all crops around the world.

You can download the two reports from:



Nile Delta at Night

Nile River Delta at Night from NASA’s EOS image of the day.  They write:

The Nile River and its delta look like a brilliant, long-stemmed flower in this astronaut photograph of the southeastern Mediterranean Sea, as seen from the International Space Station. The Cairo metropolitan area forms a particularly bright base of the flower. The smaller cities and towns within the Nile Delta tend to be hard to see amidst the dense agricultural vegetation during the day. However, these settled areas and the connecting roads between them become clearly visible at night. Likewise, urbanized regions and infrastructure along the Nile River becomes apparent.

Syr Darya river meanders

Beautiful pictures from NASA EOS showing paleo and historic river meanders in the floodplain of the Syr Darya River in Kazakstan.

The floodplain is shown here as a tangle of twisting meanders and loops (image center). The darkest areas are brushy vegetation along the present course (filled with blue-green water); wisps of vegetation are also visible along flanking swampy depressions, or sloughs. An older floodplain appears as more diffuse dark vegetation (image upper left), where relict bends are overlain by a rectangular pattern of cotton fields. The straight channel of a new diversion canal—one of 16 from this point downstream—can be seen along the east bank of the river. The older floodplain is fed from the Chardara Reservoir, immediately upstream (not shown).

What’s driving current food prices?

New Scientist interviewed food policy researchers Maximo Torero and Joachim von Braun from IFPRI about current rise in food prices and they blame financialization of commodity markets:

Is this another crisis like the one we had in 2008?

Not quite. Maximo Torero of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC notes that oil, the real driver of food prices and of the 2008 crisis, is relatively cheap, at around $75 a barrel, not over $100 as it was in 2008.

In 2008, both immediate grain prices, and the prices offered for future grain purchases in commodities markets, climbed steadily for months, whereas now they are spiking and dipping more unpredictably, which economists call volatility.

“The market fundamentals – supply and demand – do not warrant the price increases we have seen,” says Torero. Not all harvests have been bad, and after 2008 countries rebuilt grain stocks. “There are enough stocks in the US alone to cover the expected losses in Russia.”

The food riots in Mozambique were not due to world grain prices, he says, but because Mozambique devalued its currency, making imported food more expensive.

So what has been happening this year?

Markets are responding nervously to incomplete information. First there was a series of shocks: Russia’s export ban, lower maize forecasts, then, days later, a US ruling to allow more bioethanol in fuel which seemed likely to further reduce the maize – the main source of bioethanol – available for food. Meanwhile there was no reliable information about grain stocks, which is strategic information that most countries keep secret.

The result was nervous bidding and sporadically surging prices in commodity markets. And that attracted the real problem: investors wielding gargantuan sums of speculative capital and hoping to make a killing. When speculation exacerbated the price crisis of 2008, Joachim von Braun of the University of Bonn, Germany, then head of IFPRI, predicted that it would continue causing problems. “We saw that one coming and it came,” he says. “Food markets have new design flaws, with their inter-linkages to financial markets.”

Volatility also makes it harder to solve the long-term, underlying problem – inadequate food production – by making farmers and banks reluctant to invest in improved agricultural technology as they are unsure of what returns they will get. “Investment in more production alone will not solve the problem,” says von Braun. As long as extreme speculation causes constant price bubbles and crashes, either farmers will not get good enough returns to continue investing in production, or consumers will not be able to afford the food.

“Without action to curb excessive speculation, we will see further increases in these volatilities,” he says.

Phosphorus dynamics – mining vs. recycling

Global P consumption in Millions of Tonnes. Data from FAO.

Phosphorus is essential for sustaining humanity, because it is essential nutrient for producing food, and it is often a limiting nutrient for plant growth. Unlike nitrogen, it cannot be fixed from the air, and must be either recycled or mined.

Modern industrial agriculture relies on continual inputs of mined phosphor. How long phosphorus mining can last is quite uncertain. A new assessment of phosphor supplies suggests these are supplies are much bigger than previously thought.

A recent editorial in Nature Not Quite Assured (Oct 27, 2010)writes:

Reserves of the phosphate rock used to make such fertilizers are finite, and concerns have been raised that they are in danger of exhaustion. It has been argued, for example, that data from the US Geological Survey point to the available supplies peaking in as little as 25 years time (see Nature 461, 716–718; 2009). Because there is no substitute for phosphate in agriculture, this might present an urgent and substantial problem. But initial findings from the World Phosphate Rock Reserves and Resources study conducted this year by the IFDC, an international non-profit organization based in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and formerly known as the International Fertilizer Development Center, suggest that phosphate rock deposits should last for between 300 and 400 years.

Accurate information about phosphate reserves is hard to come by, and the IFDC concedes that more work is needed to hone its estimates. The mining industry, governments and interested researchers should accept the organization’s invitation to collaborate in this process.

The phosphate issue runs beyond gaining assurances that total global supply will meet demand. There remain important concerns that phosphate and other fertilizers are being squandered in some parts of the world, whereas farmers in other regions cannot obtain them at a reasonable cost.

… current fertilizer-production methods fail to maximize the efficient conversion of phosphate rock into fertilizer. The supply of the rock is heavily concentrated in two nations, China and Morocco, on whose good faith the rest of the world relies for its phosphate supplies. That faith has been shaken by extreme price fluctuations in recent years.

Yet the heavy dependence of food production on fertilizers, inequalities of supply and the need for sustainable use of fertilizers — including recycling — are largely missing from discussions on approaches to sustainable development. They were only mentioned in passing, for example, at the United Nations’ world summit on food security in Rome last November.

Hydrologists, soil researchers and food scientists have begun to raise awareness of some of the issues surrounding phosphates. A discussion will be devoted to the topic at the Crop World 2010 meeting in London next week, in which researchers will be joined by industry and government representatives, including John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, who has worked hard to raise political awareness of food-security issues.

These efforts would be strengthened if an international body, such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, started to seriously champion the issue of sustainable fertilizer use. The organization already tracks fertilizer demand and supply, and has produced reports on phosphate fertilizer use. It doesn’t have a specific programme for sustainable fertilizers, but its departments of agriculture and natural resources do some work in this area, giving it a base on which to build. It now needs to push this issue out from the sidelines and into the policy-making process that will shape the future of agriculture and sustainable development.

My colleague Arno Rosemarin believes that the assessment is wrong.  He has co-authored another assessment of phosphor supplies, and comments on the nature editorial:

The statement in the IFDC report that we have 300-400 years prior to depletion og phosphorus is based on a zero increase in extraction from now on. The rate of annual increase is presently in fact 3-4%. Extraction will hopefully decrease as we become more efficient, start significant reuse programmes, etc. But this will take decades and no UN governance or monitoring plan is in sight. The food security summits in 2008 and 2009 never mention the word phosphorus. The new data on increased reserves from IFDC are based almost entirely on a recalculation for Morocco giving them 10 times more phosphorus and 85% of the global capacity. But the estimates are based on a hypothetical calculation and economic viability does not figure in the calculation. There are no data on reserves from industry in the calculation since this is kept confidential.

Ecosystem ecologist Jim Elser followed with:

While this seems like welcome news, as Dr Rosemarin notes, the new estimate is entirely based on a revision of estimates for Morocco and seems to be derived from a 20-year old geological report and not on any new geological survey data. It is also important to note that the 300-400 year IFDC estimate for P depletion is a different event than the timing of “peak phosphorus”, which refers to the date when global P production will occur (previous estimates placed this timing for 2030-2040). It is likely that, even if this new reserve number for Morocco is correct and the P ore there is indeed of high quality and accessible, a production peak for P is likely only pushed back by a few decades. In any case, the key issue for any such commodity is PRICE and what remains to be analyzed is the likely future dynamics of P fertilizer prices in the face of the need to double food production by 2050 while simultaneously satisfying the burgeoning bioenergy industry. “Not quite assured”, indeed.
Is this any way to run a biogeochemical cycle?

Satoyama – a Japanese cultural landscape

Many parents of small children will have seen Miyazaki’s classic animated film My Neighbour Totoro about Totoro, a forest spirit, who befriends two young girls.  Totoro inhabits a beautiful agricultural landscape known as Satyoyama.  Satoyama is a Japanese agricultural landscape that combines small scale agriculture and forest – if well managed it can be a multi-functional agriculture landscape that provides provisioning, regulating, and cultural ecosystem services.  Satoyama is an iconic Japanese cultural landscape that has been destroyed in Japan by development and rural out-migration, however is now being promoted in Japan and by the Japanese government for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Nagoya.

In honour of the CBD meeting in Japan, The Kyoto Journal (issue 75) has a special issue on Biodiversity that includes a large section on the ideals and reality of satoyama.  The table of contents for the section on the Worlds of Satoyama is:

UN university is conducting research on satoyama, and has a number of online resources (1, 2, and 3).

Via Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

Positive and negative externatilities of Bt corn

Evolution of resistance to Bt pesticides is a negative externality of Bt crops, but a recent paper in Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1190242) has found that immediate pest control on non-Bt crops is a large positive externality.  The Bt corn growers also benefit from having non-Bt corn around to slow the evolution of resistance.

The New York Times reports Modified Corn Benefits Nearby Farmers, and Vice Versa:

A long-term study of corn production in the Midwest has found that the widespread use of varieties engineered with a bacterial gene that kills insect pests has had big benefits in adjacent fields of conventional corn — cutting infestations there and boosting farmers’ income by billions of dollars. The paper, “Areawide Suppression of European Corn Borer with Bt Maize Reaps Savings to Non-Bt Maize Growers,” is being published in the Oct. 8 edition of the journal Science.

According to the paper, maintaining “refuges” of conventional corn varieties helps prevent the corn borer from developing resistance to the engineered variety, and the yields in such areas — because of a combination of reduced insect damage and lower costs of the non-engineered seed — ensure that such plantings are profitable.

Last year, Andrew Pollack reported in The Times that a growing number of corn farmers were violating federal requirements to maintain 20 percent of fields in conventional corn varieties. The new study says that any shift to wall-to-wall Bt corn is bound to backfire and makes little economic sense, Hutchison said.

A separate analysis of the new research in Science, written by Bruce E. Tabashnik, an entomologist at the University of Arizona, describes another approach to fighting insect resistance, in which farmers — instead of setting aside certain areas as refuges — buy a seed mix blending both engineered and conventional corn varieties. He said this could be the ideal way to maximize corn production in developing countries where small farm plots still predominate.