Let’s rethink agriculture

Farmers carry baskets of freshly harvested cotton along a road in the village of Zorro, Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard/ CIFOR

Farmers carry baskets of freshly harvested cotton along a road in the village of Zorro, Burkina Faso.

Six years ago, food prices spiked dramatically worldwide. In some countries sharp price rises of some staples are believed to have galvanized public discontent causing instability and social unrest. Several commentators have linked the events of the Arab Spring to soaring wheat costs, which hit poor families hard.

Others saw the crisis as yet another reminder of how our current agricultural production systems are becoming increasingly fragile. And certainly there are few factors that may have played a role: competition for cropland from biofuels, high oil prices, speculation in grain markets, restrictions on grain exports plus extreme weather events.

But scientists argue that there is one other underlying element missing from this list: degradation of land and water quality. As a consequence productivity of our agricultural production systems is declining.

So it seems almost obvious that as populations increase and diets change, we have to pay attention to how we can rehabilitate our degraded land and water resources to meet future global food demands. Especially if we want to maintain the natural systems on which agriculture depends. We cannot simply take over more land for agriculture.

These issues are most acute in resource-poor countries in the drier regions of the world, where the demands on limited water resources from agriculture and economic development are increasing.

Good news

But here the good news: efforts are being made. For example, The International Conference: Policies for Water and Food Security in the Dry Areas, held in Cairo only a few weeks ago, examined the effectiveness of water and food policy options, and tried to identify strategies to enhance land and water productivity. Jeremy Bird, Director General of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) spoke at the conference and reflected on the diversity of solutions that had been presented in the sessions. He also stressed the many considerations that need to be factored into designing incentives – it is not just about bio-physical factors or economics, but we must also consider the social, cultural and most importantly, the political dimensions.

And there is not only talk. A study undertaken by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and IWMI found that natural resources in dry areas may be limited, but when used efficiently, agricultural productivity can be dramatically improved without damaging natural systems.

A woman drives a donkey cart loaded with firewood back to the village of Zorro, Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard/ CIFOR

A woman drives a donkey cart loaded with firewood back to the village of Zorro, Burkina Faso.

The researchers actually found that many dryland communities were already adapting to limited resources and concluded that the potential for more widespread sustainable farming is huge.

They looked at three examples of low productivity soils in dry regions and studied interventions that were introduced to tackle low productivity. What they found were simple, cost effective treatments that could make a huge difference. For instance application of calcium-supplying phosphogypsum to soils with high-magnesium content had a marked effect on how productive the soil was. Adding clay to degraded sandy soils helped bind then together and hold more water whilst increasing yields.

For instance, by applying phosphogypsum to soils with high magnesium content more than 200 litres of water could be saved for each kilogram of cotton produced; that’s roughly twice the amount of water used in a typical domestic shower – an amount not insignificant in dry regions.

IWMI researcher Andrew Noble explains: “Clearly there is a need to rethink the way agriculture is undertaken. There are ways to make our agricultural systems much more sustainable. But society as whole needs to be a part of this process. That may mean, for instance, creating incentives for farmers to act as custodians and caretakers of natural systems, rather than encouraging production at any cost.”

Don’t leave farmers on their own

So this means that these interventions are certainly an important first step to improve food security, but to achieve long term sustainability one cannot go without better investments and policy reforms. It is a huge task and farmers cannot be left on their own. What we needed, the researchers argue, are supportive policies and functional institutions at the national level so we can make the most out of the potential for improving agricultural and water productivity.

Further reading:
Qadir, Manzoor; Noble, Andrew; Chartres, Colin. 2013. Adapting to climate change by improving water productivity of soils in dry areas. Land Degradation and Development, 24(1):12-21. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/ldr.1091

This blog post is a modified version of this story appearing on the IWMI website.
Blogpost by Anna Deinhard, one of the ASSW6 social reporters and IWMI Communications Fellow.
Pictures courtesy Ollivier Girard/ CIFOR

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