Stories tagged: agroecology

Yaouza’s Story: How Forest Conservation Can Boost Incomes in Niger

Barrett Alexander, Program Manager for Food Security and Livelihoods at World Vision, explains how Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration can help empower farmers and boost crop yields in the Sahel.

In Niger, the encroaching Sahel is a daily constraint for farmers – the wind, sand, dust, soil degradation, water scarcity, and recurring drought make it hard for farmers to provide for their families.

In the northeastern part of Niger, in the Maradi Region, World Vision works with local farmers on Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) to combat the encroaching Sahel. FMNR is part agro-forestry, part environmental conservation, part Disaster Risk Reduction, and part economic driver. It works by finding indigenous tree species, once abundant in Niger but decimated by drought and human population pressure in the 1970s and 80s, and teaching farmers about pruning methodologies to allow those trees to regrow. The regrowth of the trees has shown to reduce surface wind speeds, increase soil fertility, increase ground water availability, increase yields, and reduce surface temperatures.

Since the inception of FMNR in the 1980s, its growth throughout the country cannot be understated. Currently, there is roughly 5 million hectares of land re-greened through FMNR, with approximately 200 million indigenous trees. In some of World Vision’s project sites, there is a 250 percent increase in tree/shrub density on FMNR sites and the average tree density increased from 35.57 trees per hectare in 2014 to 123 trees per hectare in 2017. This increase in density is helping farmers increase their staple crop production, primarily millet, by 58 percent due to soil revitalization, increased ground water availability, reduced wind speeds that take top soil away, and reduced surface temperatures in this very arid environment.

Champion Farmer Model

One farmer stands out among the rest – Yaouza Harouna. After incorporating FMNR on his 4.5-hectare rain-fed and 0.5-hectare irrigated land in 2013, he now can fully provide for his family. Yaouza has re-grown roughly 310 new trees, including 60 Sahel apple trees. By implementing FMNR, Yaouza increased the productive capacity of his land and became a sustainable farmer. In the Guidan-Roumdji district where he lives, the average millet yield is 547 kg/hectare,—he produced 937 kg/hectare by planting nearest the bases of his trees. He also produced 450 kgs of peanuts, 250 kgs of cowpeas, 375 kgs of sorghum, 2,000 watermelons, and 833 kgs of Sahel apples from his new trees.

Yahouza Harouna showing his millet stock at his house in the village of Tambara-Sofoua Yahaya

All of this production provided Yaouza and his family with approximately $2,534 in income generation on the staple crops and $943 in income for the Sahel apples. Furthermore, roughly 70 percent of the millet and sorghum were used for direct consumption and to provide food for his extended family. With all this income, Yaouza has provided his household with sustainable food and firewood provision, put his children in private school, supported relatives, branched out into more income generating activities (small trading, sheep fattening), purchased a motorbike, extended his land by two hectares, and employed a local man to help watch the land and tend the crops. In effect, our Champion Farmer, based on initial interest in FMNR, has rightfully gained his moniker.

Recommendations for FMNR Implementation

Based on the current trend of FMNR as a sustainable agriculture model and the usage of World Vision’s Champion Farmer Model, there are several recommendations for agriculture implementers.

The first, is engaging the community at the start. A deep explanation of FMNR, the requirements (including community by-laws and enforcement mechanisms), economic benefits, and social cohesion should be the first actions for new implementers

Next, it is important to identify key community actors that will take on promoting FMNR in the community and use their skills, land, and leadership in the community to become “Champion Farmers” like Yaouza. Farmers learn best and incorporate new practices when they see and learn it from other farmers – use this to your advantage and encourage the free exchange of information and site visits between your Champion Farmers and new, doubtful farmers

For more information on how to implement FMNR initiatives, you can visit World Vision’s FMNR Hub for training resources, research, and technical guidance: http://fmnrhub.com.au/

Agroecology in Action: Harnessing the Power of Orphan Crops

Howard-Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer of Mars, writes on Farming First about how orphan crops can benefit African farmers and the wider world.

Africa has thus far missed out on having its own ‘green revolution’. One reason for this is that it has no large, homogenous ecosystem, such as India’s Deccan Plateau. Any approach to boost productivity and food security must fit Africa’s myriad, small and distinct ecosystems.

The term agroecology refers to using ecological processes in agriculture, and maintaining balanced and healthy ecosystems. Pursuing an agricultural revolution that makes use of African crops that are already adapted, already grown and eaten by local farmers, would therefore be a good place to start.

At the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) our goal is to improve these varieties –  “orphan” in that they have received very little scientific attention – so that they are more nutritious, higher yielding and hardier in the face of weeds, pests and the changing climate that is already altering Africa’s smallholder cropping systems. We do this by working to sequence the genomes of 101 of these important African orphan food crops and making the data publicly available, and training African scientists to make rapid improvements to them, benefitting smallholder farmers and consumers across the continent.

This plan was hatched back in 2011 by myself at Mars, Incorporated, Ibrahim Mayaki at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and Tony Simons, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). It quickly won the backing of the African Heads of State meeting at the African Union Assembly. Today the consortium contains 15 government organisations, scientific and agricultural bodies, universities, companies, regional organisations and NGOs, along with a network of 20 agricultural and horticultural organisations.

The AOCC’s African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA), based at ICRAF in Nairobi, will have trained 84 of its target 250 African plant scientists to work on the genome ‘maps’ by the end of 2018.

This approach could benefit the 600 million who constitute Africa’s rural population, most of whom grow much of their own food.

How does this relate to agroecology?

First, more than a quarter of the chosen species are trees, such as the baobab, the leaves of which contain twice as much calcium as spinach, three times the vitamin C of oranges and four times more potassium than a banana. Many of these tree crops are native to their ecosystems and provide other benefits, such as shade, water management and food for wildlife. Our work serves to preserve and improve these species, so they can continue to perform these important natural functions.

Second, many of the crops being sequenced have been in their given regions for a few centuries, are non-invasive and do not harm the local ecosystems. A cornerstone of agroecology is to maintain balance in ecosystems. Protecting and improving native crops will lead to increased diversity on farms, which will contribute to this goal.

Finally, using genetic interventions to make these crops more resilient and adaptable to a changing environment often means farmers need to apply fewer additional inputs to them in order to harvest a bumper crop.

Africa seems unable to get enough of the orphan crops approach. Two members of the 2017 class have started a continuing education program for MS-level scientists in their home country of Ethiopia.  Four graduates from West Africa are collaborating to raise funding for training more than 70 graduate students on breeding of orphan crops. Members of the 2017 class are establishing an African Plant Breeders Association to cover the whole continent.

The benefits of orphan crops

The AfPBA and its lab have some of the best sequencing equipment in the world, certainly the best in Africa. Students – and these students are already among the best plant scientists in their countries – can use the equipment, but graduates also continue to have access to it.

One great benefit of this approach to education is that it is either done locally by AfPBA graduates or in Nairobi. The plant scientists are not taken to Europe or the United States, only to stay and contribute to Africa’s brain drain.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) decided recently to join the consortium. This has led to an ambitious letter of intent between the two organizations. It calls upon the two to work together to assist FAO member countries to develop and implement appropriate policies, regulations and laws that facilitate the genetic improvement of orphan crops; to strengthen institutional and human capacities of FAO member countries activities for research and development, especially in molecular genetics, plant breeding and seed delivery systems, and to advocate for enhanced crop diversification, crop rotations, associations and crop sequencing in a way that orphan crops are integrated and can become part and parcel of sustainable cropping systems.

We believe this could help spread the benefits of orphan crops throughout the planet. Already there has been talk of a Chinese Orphan Crop Consortium and an Indian Orphan Crop Consortium.  

As The Economist’s science editor commented after a visit to our facility last year:

“Bananas, mangoes, pineapples and pawpaws are all tropical fruit that have gone global. If some of Africa’s orphan crops, suitably improved by genetic knowledge, were to follow suit, the benefits to African farmers would be huge.”

This future is within grasp, and can be done by harnessing the power of what nature already has to offer.

 

Agroecology in Action: with Professor Pedro Sanchez

Where in the world are agroecological approaches building soil health, beating pests and helping farmers stay productive while protecting the planet? Professor Pedro Sanchez, Director of the Agriculture & Food Security Center at the Earth Institute at Columbia University continues our “Agroecology in Action” series with this guest post.

Simply put, agroecology is a form of agriculture that takes maximum advantage of ecological processes.

In some situations, nature is able to function as a closed system; take a tropical forest for example. When nutrients are finely balanced in the system, they are recycled, meaning there is no need for extra nutrient inputs to be added.

Agriculture however, requires a regular harvesting of crops. This results in large amounts of essential nutrients being removed from the soil. Agroecological approaches must return these vital components to the soil, to ensure the soil stays healthy and can continue to grow the crops we require. This can be achieved through efficient fertilization— mineral, organic, or for the best results, both. Continue reading

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.

Further reading:

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.

Further reading:

 

Agroecology in Action: with Professor Tim Benton

What is agroecology? How can farmers be encouraged to adopt its principles? Professor Tim Benton, Dean of Strategic Research at Leeds University and former UK Global Food Security Champion answers these questions in the second 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 scientific terms, “agroecology” refers to the application of ecological principles to agriculture – that is, harnessing nature to support agricultural production. Our planet depends on its ecological resilience, and it is important to find more sustainable methods of growing produce to allow production to be repeated time and time again.

Well known methods include crop rotation – planting a sequence of crops that will naturally improve soil fertility – or enhancing natural enemies to control pests on a farm.

From a science perspective, it is also credible to apply a “mix and match” approach, in which natural methods can work in synergy with more conventional farming methods. Using biology to control pests or rotations to grow fertility allows synthetic inputs to be used in more targeted ways, when, and where, they are most needed.  If you are enhancing natural pest control, pesticides can become a last, rather than first, resort. Continue reading