Stories tagged: agroecology in action

What is the Resilience Deficit and How is it Being tackled in the Sahel?

Peter Gubbels, Founder and Director of Action Learning and Advocacy for West Africa at Groundswell International, speaks to Farming First about how agroecology can help overcome the resilience deficit in the Sahel and boost farmers’ livelihoods.

Extreme weather patterns continue to hit the Sahel belt hard, threatening the livelihoods of millions of farmers and pastoralists. With over 80 percent of farmland in the region degraded and facing soil erosion and deforestation, communities are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.  

An estimated 24 million small scale farmers and their families living in the risk prone, semi-arid areas of the western Sahel are chronically vulnerable to food and nutrition insecurity. A growing population and dwindling natural resources have left Sahelian farmers unable to adapt to the challenge, leaving them, their families and their communities chronically poor.

Even in years where there is good rainfall, communities adopt negative coping mechanisms, such as reducing the number of daily meals and selling off assets. This has resulted in a growing “resilience deficit” and an increasing dependence on humanitarian assistance.

This means that as communities battle to offset the effects of an increasingly hostile climate, they are unable to build up longer term assets to persist through failed harvests.

Applying agroecology to build resilience

Business as usual approaches to farming in dryland areas are not working; we must transition towards farming systems that are more suited to ecologically fragile, risk prone and climate crisis affected environments.

Groundswell International works to tackle this “resilience deficit”, ensuring that small scale farmers across the region can apply best practices to adapt to climate shocks.

From the offset, the project worked through participatory dialogues with key community stakeholders to diagnose, identify and explore key innovations which help communities rehabilitate degraded soils and build resilience.

Combining agroecology – an approach in which agriculture harnesses natural processes, such as the role of indigenous trees in regenerating soil fertility – with locally-appropriate innovations, farmers were able to adapt agricultural practices to better suit a harsher environment.

In semi-arid lands like the Sahel, our approach to agroecology promoted efficient use of natural resources. Farmers were able to experiment with a range of different farming practices and innovations that helped them reduce their resilience deficit.

Through agroecology, the project has promoted indigenous farming techniques such as zaï pits – a traditional planting method that can help to rehabilitate abandoned and degraded soils. These are small circular pits in which organic manure is placed to improve soil fertility, improve water retention, and foster the growth of micro-organisms essential for healthy soils.

The project also promoted agroforestry, a form of agriculture in which local trees and shrubs are allowed to grow on crop land. They are heavily pruned before the rainy season, to provide organic matter to enhance the productivity of the land, provide fodder for animal feed, reduce high temperatures through partial shade, prevent wind erosion, and also provide much needed firewood for women.

Farmer-managed regeneration of trees – a technique which works with farmers to regenerate farmland through reforestation – helped restore tree and vegetative cover, helping degraded soils to better store rainwater.

For generations, smallholder farmers used shifting agriculture to manage soil fertility. They would clear a new field, by cutting down all the trees, while allowing old fields with low fertility to “rest”.

By reducing planting seasons and allow fields to rest, farmers became more productive.

“Before, I used to sow my fields two times and I did not have a good harvest because of the wind exposing the seedling roots. Now, I only have to sow one time, without needing to re-sow,” a farmer in the Mopti region of Mali said. 

On these fields let to fallow, trees, shrubs would regenerate from the stumps, slowly replenishing soil cover and organic matter over 10 years. With growing population pressure, farmers are no longer able to leave their fields in fallow. However, they have retained the perspective that trees are like giant weeds impeding the growth of crops.

The work of Groundswell has been to convince farmers to adopt innovations that allow them to manage trees and crops at the same time. The secret is to heavily prune the trees before the planting season, rather than cutting them down and burning the stumps.

According to another farmer who has benefited from the project, it has helped farmers see agroforesty as a vital part of farming.

“Before, my father told me to pull out the tree shoots when clearing the field for planting. Now, with the arrival of the project, I protect the young tree shoots and let them grow.”  

The main way Groundswell persuaded farmers about this approach was by “farmer to farming learning and exchange”. The most innovative farmers, who adapted this approach to trees, and had success, would train and motivate their neighbours and farmer leaders from other villages.

Overcoming the resilience deficit

In this way, Groundswell’s programs encouraged a move away from models of farming that were unsustainable and unsuited to local needs. Almost 100,000 rural farming families in Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal, have adopted agroecological innovations for resilience, helping to increase livelihoods substantially.

By encouraging biodiversity and livelihood diversification, these programs boosted farmers’ incomes, enhanced community food security, and re-greened the land.

Involving women smallholder farmers, who are not only involved in farming, but in harvesting fruits from indigenous trees, and collecting firewood, helped to increase food and nutrition security.

“Before, many women in the villages cooked their meals by burning millet stalks as fuel. Now they use firewood from the trees in their fields,”  said one female beneficiary.

The programs helped strengthen women’s decision-making processes, organisation and leadership in their communities.

To bring the approaches developed in the project to scale, we helped to nurture and foster farmers’ networks and knowledge sharing. Through a systems approach which involved learning and exchange between communities and linking these networks with district government development programmes, we brought agroecological practices to scale.

With extreme weather patterns set to continue in the Sahel, the effects of climate change will inevitably make lives and livelihoods difficult. The ability of farmers to persist and adapt to these challenges is possible if we work to restore degraded land and reduce the resilience deficit.

Featured photo credit: Peter Casier/CGIAR

The Future of Farming: Hi-Tech Solutions for Ongoing Challenges

With global hunger on the rise for the third year in a row, Farming First reports back from discussions around the future of farming at this year’s UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) meeting in Rome.

Despite huge advances in agriculture, the world’s farmers continue to face the double-edged challenge of feeding a growing population whilst also safeguarding natural resources. With just 12 years to avert disastrous global warming but with the world’s hungry now numbering 821 million, farmers need solutions that allow them to produce more with less.

So what does the future of farming look like?

A panel of experts from around the world discussed the ways in which new technologies and innovation could help farmers practice agroecology at a side event co-hosted by Farming First and the International Agri-Food Network.

For crop farmers, this can mean harnessing the latest advances in biotechnology that have developed naturally pest-resistant varieties of crops like maize and cowpea.

By planting improved seeds that have pest-fighting qualities, farmers can avoid the threat of
crop pests such as Fall Armyworm, pod borer or stemborer, and reduce their reliance on
synthetic crop protection products.

“These are good examples of how innovation can actually contribute to optimization of
inputs,” said Nancy Muchiri, senior manager at the African Agricultural Technology

Pod borer resistant (PDR) cowpea, she explained, allowed farmers to reduce the number of
times they needed to spray insecticides from five to eight times per season to just two,
placing less pressure on the environment.

“When looking at this question of reduced external inputs, effective agriculture should look
at the whole agroecological system, recognising the inter-relationships and interdependencies while innovating for optimal performance,” Nancy added.

Nancy Muchuri (Credit: FAO/Carlo Perla)

Another input that can be optimised to bring enhance both productivity and environmental stewardship is fertilizer, particularly in areas where it is currently under-used, such as sub-
Saharan Africa.

“With innovation, we can allow it to not go down the same route as others have gone down in the past, and we can leapfrog with innovation,” explained Otmane Bennani-Smires, executive vice-president at phosphate company OCP.

By understanding specific soil health needs in any given area, fertilizer use can be customised to ensure land is receiving the right nutrient source.

“When you take a systemic approach that is science-based and data-based, and you’re in a position to manufacture the right type of fertilizer, it is lower [cost] to manufacture, it has bigger yields, it’s better for the environment because you’re providing the soil and crops with just the right nutrients needs, and it’s better for the farmers,” added Otmane.

Otmane Bennani-Smires (Credit: FAO/ Carlo Perla)

Helping farmers with access to better data and information about agricultural inputs can allow them to be more accurate and precise in their decision-making, which softens their environmental impact.

Craige Mackenzie, an arable and dairy farmer from New Zealand, explained nutrient management on his farm was accurate to within just 2cm.

“We spend a lot of time customising what we do but we realised we needed to start from the ground up,” Craige said. “Everything is mapped – we precisely know where to put the fertilizer, we can avoid waterways.

“We’re only limited by our imagination. If we get this right, we’re able to reduce our outputs and greenhouse gases, we’re able to increase our productivity, increase our profitability – all
of these things go hand in hand.”

Craige Mackenzie (Credit: FAO/Carlo Perla)

Chris Noble of Noblehurst Farms highlighted further the opportunity to connect agricultural productivity with environmental stewardship through nutrients recycling. Noblehurst Farms uses an anaerobic digester to capture the methane from the manure and waste, producing electricity to power the farm.

“The digester became the interface between the farm and the dairy processing facilities as we could combine and recycle the waste nutrients from both facilities,” Chris explained.

Chris Noble (Credit: FAO/Carlo Perla)

Such innovative projects are increasingly being taken up by young farmers, who are both more aware of environmental concerns and more connected to advances in technologies.

“We should promote sustainability,” said Agustina Diaz Valdez, youth committee member at the World Farmers’ Organisation. “Lands that are in use now will be needed in the future and we have to continue producing.”

Agustina Diaz Valdez (Credit: FAO/Carlo Perla)

Rick White, CEO of the Canadian Canola Growers Association, explained how canola farmers in Canada had successfully incorporated new technology to produce more while using fewer

“Canadian advances in technology and best practices have enabled farmers to adopt conservation or no-till farming systems. This system involves little disturbance to the soil,” Rick explained.
The results of no-till meant a 71 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 43
per cent fall in energy use.

“The future is exciting,” Rick added. “It provides endless possibilities in terms of farming better and more smartly. Precision agriculture and greater data promise to generate new tools and new information to make better management decisions on the farm.”

Rick White (Credit: FAO/Carlo Perla)

The full side event at CFS45 is available to playback on Farming First TV’s YouTube channel. For more information on agroecology, check out Farming First’s series, Agroecology in Action.

Featured photo credit: FAO/Carlo Perla

Using Innovation as a Pathway to Sustainability

As part of our “Agroecology in Action” series, Robynne Anderson, Chair of the International Agri-Food Network (IAFN) focuses on how we can use agroecology to protect vital ecosystems and achieve zero hunger.

Fifty years ago, agroecology emerged as a discipline focused on studying the interaction between crops and the environment. Over the decades, it has helped increase our understanding of agriculture’s environmental impact.

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Investing in Technology Transfer to Ensure no Farmer is Left Behind

As part of our agroecology in action series, Arianna Giuliodori, Secretary General of the World Farmers’ Organization talks to Farming First about how technologies and innovations should be made more widely available for farmers. 

Farming lies at the heart of many of the world’s most urgent challenges. The farming sector will therefore play a key role in defining the path for future sustainable solutions.

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Agroecology in Action: Keeping Pests at Bay in the Safest Way

Fall armyworm. Coffee borer. Tomato leaf miner. These pests threaten harvests and livelihoods daily. Claire Starkey, President of Fintrac tells Farming First how her team works with farmers to create maximum pest resistance with minimal environmental impact using Integrated Pest Management, the latest agroecological approach to be explored in our “Agroecology in Action” series produced ahead of the Second International Symposium on Agroecology held by the FAO in Rome from 3-5th April 2018.

Agroecology is all about helping farmers to be good environmental stewards. At Fintrac, this is a core tenet of our work. Why? Because it is the ultimate triple win: for farmers, for consumers of the goods they produce and for the planet.

We know we need to protect the earth for future generations. But farmers also need to act sustainably to protect their shorter-term profitability: if they do not look after the natural resources they rely on, they will not get the yields they need to earn a living and feed their families.

Let’s say a family buys a cow. At first, the animal is producing plenty of milk. But over time, if the cow is not nourished properly, she produces less. The same analogy applies to crop production. When you first plant a seed, it may yield good results. But if you continue to reuse that same seed, it loses its effectiveness while also stripping the soil of essential nutrients, significantly reducing yields. That is why we focus so much attention on the transfer of good agricultural practices that protect vital water resources and build up soil health.

In other words, farmers optimize agricultural outcomes – and incomes – by following agroecological approaches that keep ecosystems healthy. And in the last three years alone, Fintrac has supported local partners in putting 630,000 hectares of land into sustainable production across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Another season, another pest

One of the biggest challenges facing the farmers we work with all over the world is the invasion of harmful pests. Notorious bugs like the fall armyworm right now in Africa, or the coffee borer in Latin America, show up season after season and threaten the food supply and livelihoods of vulnerable communities.

To combat this, Fintrac prioritizes and facilitates training in integrated pest management (IPM) techniques. IPM practices allow farmers to achieve maximum disease and pest control with minimal environmental impact.

It starts with prevention. Proper weeding and land preparation, along with planting natural live barriers, can go a long way to preventing pests from taking hold. Using pest- and disease-resistant seeds also sets farmers at an advantage. Once crops are planted, adequate crop nutrition and good water management practices help plants stay healthy. Regular health checks help detect any pest or disease infestation early.

But what happens, when despite our best efforts, pests do take hold? The first port of call is proper identification of the problem. We work with a network of field technicians that visit farmers to diagnose the issue and offer advice on how to take action when crops are affected.

Where possible, the next step is biological control, which can range from simple sticky traps to sophisticated microbial inoculants, which are referred to as “beneficial bacteria” that are developed from a crop’s natural enemies, such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. In Kenya, we worked with a local biologics company to train hundreds of vegetable farmers on the use of tuta traps to control a tomato leaf miner outbreak. These traps use a substance known as a pheromone to lure pests onto a sticky trap; a low-cost and safe method that helped farmers salvage what could have otherwise been a lost season.

A sticky pheromone trap attracts and captures the pest. (World Vegetable Center)

Through a partnership with a Malawian company, we are promoting the use of microbial inoculants to promote plant health and boost resistance to disease or infestation. Our partner has so far distributed these Nitrofix inoculants to thousands of farmers across Malawi.

Unfortunately, in some cases, this is not sufficient. We then might need to use agrochemicals, which requires expanding the knowledge and capacity of both farmers and governments to handle them. We have helped public sector agencies to refine pesticide control measures for example, which not only protect human health and the environment, but ensure crops destined for the international market comply with standards such as minimum crop residue requirements.

For farmers, training in safe use is essential, including guidelines for chemical selection, application, storage and disposal. In Honduras, farmers were trained on how to triple wash and perforate pesticide containers, which were then collected by safe disposal service teams. One of those farmer clients, Emiliano Dominiquez, who had been in danger of having his food and income source wiped out by aphids, instead saw crop yields increase six-fold as a result of integrating IPM into his on-farm practices.

When the environment is healthy and productive, farmers can grow abundant food for their families and the global market. It is therefore essential we work to beat challenges such as pests and diseases with the most sustainable and sensible approaches we can to protect our planet. After all, it is the only one we have.

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Agroecology in Action: Building Healthier Soils and a Healthier Planet

Only healthy soils will be able to fulfil the Herculean task of growing the food our planet requires both now and in the future. In this guest post, Dr. J. Scott Angle, President and CEO of IFDC, discusses how the agroecological approach of Integrated Soil Fertility Management can build healthier soils and a healthier planet. This is the third installment of Farming First’s “Agroecology in Action” series, produced ahead of the Second  International Symposium on Agroecology held by the FAO in Rome from 3-5th April 2018.

In the late eighties, the water quality and aquatic life of the Chesapeake Bay were under threat. As human activity and farming in the region had increased, so had its impacts on the local environment.

That is when a group of scientists, including myself, founded the Maryland Centre for Agroecology. Our mission then is how I would define agroecology now – creating a roadmap to help farmers be productive, while reducing their impact on the environment.

In the case of Chesapeake Bay, this relied a great deal on encouraging farmers to only apply nutrients from the right source, in the right place, at the right time and the right rate (known as the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship). This results in less cost for the farmer, less runoff into the environment, and also allows the plant to use the nutrients that are applied more effectively. Planting cover crops to absorb nutrients before they reach the bay has also gone a long way to solving this challenge.

Pleasing the Wizard and the Prophet

Agroecology seeks to merge two visions of farming: one that seeks to grow the right quantity and quality of food, with one that protects natural resources. These two visions can, and should be balanced to create approaches that can deliver on both objectives.

In Charles C. Mann’s bestselling book “The Wizard and the Prophet”, he personifies these two approaches as scientists Norman Borlaug, hailed as the man who saved a billion lives through his high yielding wheat variety, and William Vogt, the intellectual forefather of the environmental movement, who was fiercely cautious of using more than the environment had to give.

Although the book was unable to reconcile the perspectives of these two men, it is not only possible, but essential that we as global community are able to. We need to produce more food for our growing population – that is an undisputed fact. We will have ten billion people on the planet by 2050, but no additional land or water. So it is agriculture’s job to harness approaches from the environmental community, such as organic or conservation farming that can be integrated into more traditional agriculture.

Integrated Soil Fertility Management: When Organic Meets Mineral

A great example of this is Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM), which relies on application of both organic and mineral fertilizer to achieve optimum soil health. Improving soil health so it can perform natural functions such as carbon capture and water retention is a cornerstone of agroecology. Organic fertilizer is incredibly important, as it is a natural source of nutrients and organic matter. Unfortunately, there is just not enough of it. To have enough manure to produce enough food for the growing population, we would need a great deal more animals on the planet, which have their own impact on the environment. Therefore, farmers should be encouraged to use all the organic matter that they can, and then supplement it with mineral fertilizers. This is Integrated Soil Fertility Management.

Mineral fertilizer can be more precise in directing nutrients to the plant. Custom blends can be produced that address the exact soil deficiencies in the region. They can be coated, to ensure that the nutrient is released slowly over time, in a way that allows the plant to absorb it effectively. They can be compacted into briquettes and placed deep near the roots, which also improves its efficiency.

Fertilizer is in fact responsible for 50 per cent of the food grown worldwide. In regions like Africa, where up to 60 per cent of soils are estimated to be degraded, it is possible to double, if not triple or quadruple yields through the judicious use of the right fertilizer.

But it is not only the crop that can be harvested and eaten or sold that benefits. Crops that have been nourished adequately also have a much larger root system. These are made from carbon dioxide that was pulled out of the atmosphere by the plant, and then incorporated into the soil as soil organic matter. It can be argued, therefore, that the proper use of fertilizer can actually become a solution to the problem of excess greenhouse gases, as it helps us capture carbon out of the atmosphere and tie it up in the soil. When soil has more organic matter, it has greater water holding capacity, it can store more micronutrients and supress disease, but crucially it is able to hold carbon in the soil for tens of thousands of years that would otherwise exist in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

It is very important to manage the application of these products appropriately. We would struggle to eliminate them completely, because we have to grow the food we need. The goal instead should be to use them in a way that maximizes their efficiency, which ISFM promotes.

Other ISFM strategies include crop rotation, legume introduction, and crop-livestock integration systems.

For Sunday Oyo, who has benefitted from our 2Scale project in Nigeria, the use of ISFM has unlocked much needed credit to expand his farming business. He gained access to hybrid seeds of tomato, and was educated on good agronomic practices such as trellising the tomatoes to avoid rotting. Thanks to a combination of fertilizers applied in the right quantities and in the right time and place, Sunday was able to quadruple his yields – a feat previously unthinkable.

Sunday Ojo and his family show off their produce.

Fertile and productive soils are vital components of stable societies, and ISFM strategies protect these. As one ancient Sanskrit text states, “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it, and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.” Our reliance on the soil is as strong today as it was then, and we need to adopt agroecological practices that will help us protect it for future generations that will rely on it too.

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