Diversity is just as important in food production as it is for healthy, nutritional diets, farmers from around the world told this year’s Committee on World Food Security meeting. Continue reading
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
Innovation and technology have critical roles to play if smallholder farmers across the world are to become more productive and sustainable.
This year’s FAO International Symposium on Innovation for Family Farmers in Rome brought together innovators, farmers and policymakers to discuss how we can best combine farmers’ knowledge with the latest technology to meet these goals.
A side event co-hosted by Farming First, the International Agri-Food Network and Government of Nigeria, explored some of the best transformative technologies making farming more efficient and productive, while achieving agroecological outcomes.
The recent UN General Assembly Resolution on Agricultural Technology for Sustainable Development recognized “the need to further enhance the linkages between agricultural technology and agroecological principles, such as recycling, resource use efficiency, reducing external inputs, diversification, integration, soil health and synergies, in order to design sustainable farming systems that strengthen the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment for food security and nutrition, enhance productivity, improve nutrition, conserve the natural resource base and attain more sustainable and innovative food systems.”
Following a successful prior event at FAO during the Committee on World Food Security, this event brought together a global panel of experts to discuss how innovation and agroecology can work together hand in hand.
Jack Froese, President of the Canadian Canola Growers Association, spoke about the role technology can play in helping reducing waste and helping increase farmers’ incomes. He outlined how new plant breeding has helped to reduce post-harvest losses by keeping plant pods intact and seed ready for harvest.
“Farmers need choices of innovations,” he commented.
He highlighted Self Help Africa’s work on conservation agriculture, in which farmers are supported to improve soil health through intercropping and minimum soil disturbance.
Shiv Kumar Agrawal, a lentil breeder at ICARDA, highlighted the importance innovation can play in helping to drive crop diversity and drive food systems change.
He highlighted ICARDA’s breeding work that has shortened the growing season for pulses and legumes, allowing them to fit into crop rotations with rice.
This innovation goes beyond simply increasing productivity. Agrawal added that innovation could bring other positive outcomes. ”This is good for the environment and for nutrition.”
The event also brought to the fore the role of next generation farmers in promoting the wider use of technology.
“As a farmers’ organisation, we have championed ecological farming, more direct marketing, and working with youth in cities,” Pulungan said, adding that young people as a generation are crucial in driving the partnerships that are needed to deliver systemic change.
“We need to boost acceleration, and boost partnerships, in order to accelerate innovation.”
Featured photo credit: Robynne Anderson
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.
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.
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-
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
Featured photo credit: FAO/Carlo Perla
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.
Addressing the challenges facing our global food system – from rising demand to rising temperatures – requires concerted action from across the agricultural sector and its value chain.
Agroecology has returned to the global spotlight, as one approach to bring farmers closer to meeting these challenges. Agroecology emerged as a science which supports food security and sustainable agriculture. In the 1960s, it was studied as the interaction between crops and the environment. In short, it can help us understand agriculture’s impact on our natural resource base.
Since then, many definitions of agroecology have evolved. Promoting farming systems that are beneficial to producers and society, as well as the earth’s ecosystems has become a central theme, prompting the concept of agroecology to become synonymous with outcomes such as resource use efficiency, optimizing external inputs and improving soil health.
Farming First’s supporters from around the world are working to incorporate agroecology with innovation hand in hand to achieve these outcomes. By using agroecology as a scientific and analytical tool to gauge agriculture’s impacts on economic, ecological and social dimensions, we can help farmers make good decisions towards sustainability and productivity, for people and the planet.
In this collection of essays from Farming First supporters and external experts, we explore
what agroecology looks like for farmers across the globe. How can technology and innovation
support farmers? How can we balance the need to produce food for an ever-growing population
with the need to protect the planet? How can we put farmers at the heart of our decisionmaking?
From tackling pests in Africa, to improving soil health in Latin America, these essays demonstrate the role innovation can play in achieving agroecological outcomes, that will bring us closer to meeting the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals.
Join us, as we take a look at agroecology in action.
Forest-friendly farming in Ethiopia
Harnessing Nature for Improved Ecological Resilience
What is agroecology? How can farmers be encouraged to adopt agroecological principles? Professor Tim Benton, Leeds University and former UK Global Food Security Champion answers these questions. Read the blog >>
Keeping Pests at Bay in the Safest Way
Agroecology is all about helping farmers to be good environmental stewards. Claire Starkey, President of Fintrac speaks about how her Farming First how her team works with farmers to create maximum pest resistance with minimal environmental impact using Integrated Pest Management. Read the blog >>
Harnessing the Power of Orphan Crops
Africa has thus far missed out on having its own ‘green revolution’. Howard-Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer of Mars, looks at why this is the case and how any approach to boost productivity and food security must fit Africa’s myriad, small and distinct ecosystems. Read the blog >>
Building Healthier Soils and a Healthier Planet
Fertile and productive soils are vital components of stable societies. 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. Read the blog >>
Promoting Balance and Complementarity in Global Agriculture
Where in the world are agroecological approaches building soil health, beating pests and helping farmers stay productive while protecting the planet? Professor Pedro Sanchez, University of Florida, continues our “Agroecology in Action” series with this guest post. Read the blog >>
Science-Based, Smarter Farming for Africa
Farming has become more information and knowledge intensive and data-driven. Ishmael Sunga, CEO of Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU) talks to Farming first on how improving African farmers’ access information and technology can help them overcome climate-related shocks to their livelihoods. Read the blog >>
Investing in Technology Transfer to Ensure No Farmer is Left Behind
From the Ivory Coast to Austria, farmers are putting innovations to use that contribute to both productivity and sustainability. Making technologies financially viable for farmers will be critical to achieving sustainable development, explains Arianna Giulodori, Secretary General of the World Farmers’ Organization. Read the blog>>
Using Innovation as a Pathway to Sustainability
Can innovation and agroecology work together to improve food security and sustainability? Chair of theInternational Agri-Food Network, Robynne Anderson, thinks so. Read the blog >>
Conserving Africa’s Precious Resource Base While Fighting Hunger
Kalongo Chitengi, Zambia Country Director of Self Help Africa, discusses the innovations farmers in her region are putting to use – from conservation farming to improved seed. Read the blog >>
Agroecology According to Generation Y
As the incoming custodians of the land, young farmers tell Farming First about the importance of practising agroecology to benefit today’s generation and those to come. Read the blog >>
Featured photo credit: Adam Ojdahl / IWMI