Monthly Archives: June 2015

Getting smart about change: Climate and Agriculture

Getting smart about change

Many households in Africa spend a significant amount of their income on food. Additionally, the world’s population is increasing significantly, presenting tremendous changes in diets which later translate to increased threats to the food supply, due to increased competition for land, water, energy and other inputs. Climate change however presents various challenges to food supply systems as it not only reduces the availability of food but also reduces the micro-nutrient profile of food crops.

In a bid to address these challenges, a global forum dubbed ‘Feed the Future’ was held in 2014 based on the following questions:

  • What are the impacts of climate change on the future of agriculture in the developing world?What is coming up in innovative practical working alliances to a more climate smart agriculture in the coming years?
  • What are some of the most innovative practices to enhance productivity and resilience of smallholders?

Dennis Garrity, United Nations Drylands Ambassador and Former Executive Director of the World Agroforestry Centre, moderated the panel at the forum on the importance of addressing the current and future threats of climate change in current food security programs. Some of the suggestions fronted in addressing this challenge included:

  • Incorporating trees into the farming systems (EverGreen Agriculture) e.g. Faidherbia Albida and Gliricidia
  • Increasing productivity sustainably
  • Enhancing the resilience of producers and supply chains
  • Reducing emissions
  • Socio-economic intensification e.g. enterprise diversification
  • Genetic intensification e.g. improved varieties and breeds
  • Ecological intensification e.g. intercropping and rotations

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Getting a picture of when nature isn’t a friend to farmers


Natural disasters brought about by extreme weather have caused numerous losses in the central coastal region’s steep terrain transected by short rivers. Exacerbated by climate change, extreme weather is increasing in frequency, intensity and unpredictability.

To reach a practical understanding of climate-change impacts and local people’s response, the researchers and partners involved in the Climate-smart, Tree-based, Co-investment in Adaptation and Mitigation in Asia (known as Smart Tree-Invest) project have been asking what are the consequences of a changing climate for people in Hương Lâm Commune in Hà Tĩnh province and Hương Hóa Commune in Quảng Bình province, Central Viet Nam? What are the local solutions to cope with the challenges? Can they be shared with other villages throughout Viet Nam?

As one of the ways to find answers to these questions, we used a method called Photovoice to help farmers become more aware of extreme weather patterns, the risks associated with natural disasters, the possible responses and the general impacts of climate change. Photovoice is designed for farmers to take the lead and tell their stories via photographs so that the research team—and other interested people—can more fully understand their needs and aspirations.

In Hương Lâm Commune, Ms Nguyễn Thị Côi’s farm land had been most affected by landslides and drought. She escorted the research team to her land—nearly half of which had been lost to landslides since 2010—and took photos of the area. Through this method, the team obtained firsthand experience of the losses local farmers had suffered owing to harsh conditions.

Ms Côi emphasized that, ‘We suffer from both landslides and drought owing to a lack of water in the dry season. Consequently, we manage to cultivate only one crop a year’.

Who gets to choose tree species on farmland?


I was recently asked which indigenous, nitrogen fixing tree species should be promoted in Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR).

Nobody really knows the relative contribution different tree species make towards soil fertility and crop yield, simply because extensive research has not been done to address this question. In West Africa, nitrogen fixing species such as Faidherbia albida were favored, but it was noticed that even where certain, non-nitrogen fixing tree species (such as Philostigma reticulatum and Guierra senegalensis) were left by farmers and yet crop yields still doubled. Most likely, this wasn’t so much because of biomass production or nitrogen fixation, but because in the dry season they attracted livestock for shade and for fodder, and the livestock fertilized the soil!

In any case, such a narrow focus on one thing – soil fertility – is understandable but in my view misguided. Firstly, Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration has succeeded because the farmer decides which species are important to his/her specific needs, not the project manager or the scientist. This is one major reason why FMNR has spread so fast: it meets the perceived needs of the user, and while soil fertility is definitely a major need, a farmer may choose to leave a specific species for an entirely different reason, including:

  • Traditional medicine
  • Wild foods, including honey
  • Fodder
  • Spiritual reasons
  • And more

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Rethinking trees in Kansas agriculture


In the history of Kansas agriculture, trees have something of a checkered past. From initial legislative efforts to expand tree cultivation through the payment of generous bounties to today’s wholesale eradication of windbreaks and hedgerows, the importance, and value, of trees has shifted due to economic, ecological and climatological trends.

Those same trends are now putting trees in a new light through the practice of agroforestry, an intensive integration of trees and shrubs into agricultural systems. But for successful-and profitable-integration, landowners must rethink trees as essential components rather than optional or undesirable. In short, trees have to provide tangible benefits.

“We need to put working trees back on the farm,” said Gene Garrett, University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry. “They’re there for a purpose. Trees are crops, just like hogs and cattle, and farmers should be thinking of them as having value.”

Garrett, along with other local and internationally-recognized experts on agroforestry practices, spoke on the subject at a two-day workshop in Topeka on May 20-21. The workshop was sponsored by the Kansas Farmers Union, the Kansas Forest Service and other partners.

At the time of Kansas’ statehood in 1861, trees were a scarce commodity. Settlement depended on wood for building settlements, bridges, railroads-infrastructure for an expanding civilization-but with only 4.5 million acres of forest available, demand far outstripped supply. One solution was to enact bounties rewarding farmers to plant trees. The first bounty, fifty cents per acre for planting and cultivating trees, was offered in 1865, and increased three years later to two dollars per acre, as well as additional bounties for creating windbreaks along public roads. In 1873 the legislature upped the ante by offering 160 acres of land in return for planting 40 acres of trees.

“Kansans like trees,” said Larry Biles, State Forester with the Kansas Forest Service. “We have a long history of trying to promote and grow trees across the state.”

Unfortunately, Kansans also have a long history of forgetting. Windbreaks and hedgerows planted in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl are being eradicated to provide more cropland, and trees, once so critical to frontier settlements, are often regarded as a type of weed.

“I’ve seen a lot of trees going out, but the decisions we make are driven by short-term policies or economic decisions,” said Rich Straight, Forest Service Lead Agroforester for the USDA’s National Agroforestry Center. “Not everyone is in favor of trees.”

In many ways, the problem is one of tradition and definition. In the traditional model, pastureland for livestock, cropland and forest are segregated into separate entities. But, Garrett said, we’d be remiss if we didn’t think of forests as agriculture. “It’s not going to go where it needs to go before we accept that,” he said. “There’s a clear distinction between what I’m defining and what we think of as traditional agriculture. I’m not talking about planting trees, I’m talking about specifically integrating trees.”

Garrett’s definition-the manipulation and utilization of biological and physical interactions among components to yield multiple harvestable products while providing numerous conservation and ecological benefits to the farm-is based on five fundamental practices: alley-cropping, silvopasture, riparian buffers, windbreaks and forest farming, what he called “the newest kid on the block.”

The practice is intensive rather than passive, the deliberate and intentional combination of elements working together. Proper site location, proper species, proper climate and proper maintenance are necessary for elements to work in conjunction with one another, Garrett said. Above all, proper planning is essential.

“When you talk about putting trees with crops, it sounds simple,” he said. “It isn’t, not at all. You have to understand the fundamental relationships between them.” The amount of shade falling on the understory, tree spacing, alley width, types of forage, surface root depth, and other factors play important roles in harmonic integration.

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Regreening Africa could help stem the tide of migration


European Union leaders have been wrestling in recent weeks with the surge of the “boat people,” tens of thousands of refugees from Africa and the Middle East crossing the Mediterranean in overloaded boats in the hopes of finding a better life. Many of these migrants died during the journey.

Refugees like the boat people are fleeing poverty and the loss of their livelihoods in the wake of political instability, conflicts and more deeply rooted issues like land degradation and food insecurity. While media reports have focused on the political crises, rural communities in the drylands of the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and Syria face crop failures linked to declining soil fertility and droughts.

As European leaders respond to the refugee crisis, it would be good to consider more than a military crackdown on migrant smugglers, increased surveillance of illegal migrants or allocation of additional resources for resettlement. The situation provides an opportunity to think deeply about what can be done to alleviate underlying, systemic problems of degraded land and food insecurity in the countries of origin. A new WRI report shows that a new “green revolution” in Africa could be a solution

Restoring Degraded Land to Improve Quality of Life

Awareness of the connections between degraded land and food insecurity, livelihood threats and climate change is growing—as is the support for solutions. The global Bonn Challenge aims to bring 150 million hectares (370 million acres) into restoration by 2020. The New York Declaration on Forests, signed in September 2014 during the Climate Summit in New York, pledges to restore 350 million hectares (865 million acres) of degraded forest land by 2030. The recent New Climate Economy report shows that restoring just 150 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 could feed 200 million people, raise $35-40 billion annually in farm incomes, strengthen climate resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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Can Africa afford to save its soils?


On the fertilizer-starved continent of Africa, the discourses about soil fertility revolve around the availability of inorganic fertilizers, and how policy – subsidies, tariffs, markets – can be made to support their use.

Supporters say that poor farmers are not able to make investments in restoring degraded soils because it takes too long to see yield increases or benefit from soil improvement measures.  Poor farmers simply can’t wait that long to see results – they say.

But in degraded, low-input and low-output systems so prevalent across the continent, agro-ecological approaches, including principles of organic farming – if properly managed – can increase yields immediately and restore soils to support productive farming.

In celebration of the International Year of Soils, we asked a number of experts:

Is investing in inorganic fertilizers really a better option than restoring soils over the long-term using an agro-ecological approach?

Join the debate in the comments section below: Can poor farmers afford to invest in restoring degraded soils?

Deborah Bossio, International Center for Tropical Agriculture

Changing the hippy discourse

In part, the focus on inorganic fertilizers comes from a persistent debate during the 70’s and 80’s around organic agriculture in North America and Europe.  There was great concern then – as there is today – that organic farming, if practiced over large areas, would threaten food security. Yields from organic farming were always going to be lower, the discourse went. Only hippies, idealists – and the privileged few – could afford organic.

Yes – a shift from high-input, high-output conventional to organic farming on large-scale farms in California resulted in lower yields – at the beginning.  A long-term experiment was set up at University of California Davis in 1988 to figure out how to make the conventional-to-organic transition least painful, using crop rotations and nutrient management.

Now, decades later, this experiment is helping drought-stricken farmers in California battle water shortages by planting cover crops to improve infiltration and soil carbon (see blog here).

Since then, several global studies have explored the debate, with surprising results.  In 2007, a University of Michigan meta-review found that, in developed countries, yields were almost equal on organic and conventional farms.

More recently, Lauren Ponisio and colleagues at UC Berkeley, found organic yields 19% lower than conventional. But – these yield differences could be offset using agro-ecological practices such as crop rotation and multi-cropping. For crucial food security crops like beans, peas and lentils, there was no yield gap at all.

Yet in poorer countries, the entire yield gap phenomenon disappears. In 2006 Jules Pretty and colleagues, including from the International Water Management Institute, published a study demonstrating that agro-ecological farming interventions not only improved the supply of critical environmental services.

Stating the facts

In the 57 poor countries where the interventions were applied, across 37 million hectares of land, productivity increased on almost 13 million farms.The average crop yield increase was 79%. All crops showed water use efficiency gains,with the highest improvement in rainfed crops.

There’s more. Carbon sequestered on average amounted to 0.35 tons of carbon per hectare each year. More than 70% of farms that used pesticide slashed theiruse by 71% – yet their yields rose 42%.

In 2007, the Michigan study reiterated these results. They revealed that organic farming can yield three times more food on individual farms in developing countries than low-intensive methods on the same land.

The fact is low-input, low-output systems productivity is very low. Farmers in Tanzania may get less than 0.5 tons per hectare of maize on depleted soil – yet the potential is ten-fold that.  In these systems, intensification implies more local and organic inputs; more management – not less.

More than just organic chic

Another persistent narrative is that agro-ecological approaches are for only a few select farmers who can access premium prices for organic produce. Organic is a niche market. But this argument couples organic farming practices with organic produce marketing – implying that those who don’t get premium prices lose out. As the above shows, they don’t.

In a study by Niels Halberg, of International Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems (ICROFS), and the International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI) it was found that shifting to organic farming can lead to higher food security in low input, low yield areas where hunger is most severe, and may even increase regional food self- reliance. Exactly what is needed in sub-Saharan Africa.

Instead of focusing on fertilizer only – whether mineral or organic – the debate should focus on supporting poor rural farmers with a range of options, knowledge, skills, and inputs to increase their yields today – and tomorrow.

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