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 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.

2 thoughts on “Montpellier Panel – Growth with Resilience: Opportunities in African Agriculture”

  1. “modern plant and animal breeding methods, including biotechnology” do not increase resilience, they reduce it, making local farmers dependent on centrally controlled technologies outside of their control.

    Economic growth cannot be the goal of improvements in agriculture. These improvements must increase the “fit” of local agricultural methods to local environmental conditions.

    Continued economic growth is impossible in a world of finite resources. Unbridled economic growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell.

  2. There are several problems of definition in the approach to future food security outlined by Professor Conway and the Montpellier Panel.
    • Technologies are suggested that draw on `ecological principles’ but these principles are not defined in the report. It can be argued that all agriculture must follow generic `ecological principles’ to extract energy from sunlight, to grow and compete, and to reproduce. At least one of the examples given – crop rotations – is not based on any basic ecological principle and is not known in nature.
    • `Agro-ecological’ methods are suggested with no definition of what this means but with several examples: “mixed cropping that enable more efficient use and cycling of soil nutrients, conservation farming, microdosing of fertilisers and herbicides, and integrated pest management”. Agro-ecology seems to be `cherry-picking’ to include issues firmly covered by conventional agriculture. For example, biological control – a major form of integrated pest management – had its own `Imperial Institute of Biological Control’ in Trinidad from 1926, serving British colonial agriculture world-wide.
    • Agro-ecology also seems to be `cherry-picking’ to exclude highly ecological facets of global agriculture, for example, by ignoring the value of crop introduction. Seventy per cent of crops production in Latin America and also in Sub-Saharan Africa comes from dozens of introduced crops. The profoundly ecological reason for this success is that introduced crops escape their co-evolved pests and diseases in their centres of origin in other continents. (Incidentally, this `crop introduction effect’ was explained by John Purseglove, also working in Trinidad.)
    • Much is made in the report of resilience: the ability to: “withstand or recover from stresses and shocks”. But resilience is part of the confused trio of `stability, resistance, and resilience’ that have dogged ecology for generations. If resilience means `bouncing back from stress’ then it is a dangerous and overly-static concept in the face of the normal response of the biological component of agriculture – evolutionary adaptation and change under the selection pressures of stress. This occurs both in traditional farming – where the genetic diversity of farmers’ varieties allows adaptive change under farmer and environmental selection – and also in the rapid varietal replacement possible as a result of modern plant breeding.
    Indeed, to ensure our food security in the face of climate change needs to combine the two last points – building on the historic success of crop introduction and also maintaining varietal diversity and rapid varietal deployment through effective seed systems.

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