The Committee on Agriculture (COAG) is one of FAO’s Governing Bodies providing overall policy and regulatory guidance on issues relating to agriculture, livestock, food safety, nutrition, rural development and natural resource management. The Committee has over 100 Member Nations and generally meets every two years. The 26th session of the Committee on Agriculture will take place on October 2018.
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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.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition are delighted to invite you to the launch of the policy brief: “Improving diets in an era of food market transformation: Challenges & opportunities for engagement between the public and private sectors”.
This discussion, framed by the six questions posed in the Global Panel policy brief, seeks to explore opportunities to build much more ambitious and effective links between the public and the private sectors to help improve the food environment, and enable better dietary choices.
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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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On the International Day of Forests, Nicolas Mounard, CEO of Farm Africa, urges action to rescue the ailing voluntary carbon market that forest communities in Ethiopia are counting on. Building farmers’ incomes from forest-friendly businesses and the sale of carbon credits is the first approach profiled in our new blog series “Agroecology in Action”, produced ahead of the Second International Symposium on Agroecologyheld by the FAO in Rome from 3-5th April 2018.
The tension that exists between agriculture and environmental conservation is one of the oldest on record. Balancing the needs of rural people to utilise natural resources to eat and earn an income with the global need to protect the environment is a tall order – but there are many ways it can be achieved.
At Farm Africa, finding the equilibrium between these two priorities is in our DNA. In Africa, where hunger levels are high and productivity is low, boosting the productivity of smallholder farmers is vital. But its environmental cost must be minimised. Future generations depend on the continent’s vast forests and watersheds remaining intact. Continue reading →
From 12-14 December the GACSA Annual Forum will take place in Rome at FAO Headquarters, sharing experiences and setting out strategic goals for the future to make Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) a reality.
The Annual Forum will focus on promoting and showcasing CSA with a view to revitalizing efforts to scale up the implementation of CSA in various ecosystems and regions of the world, taking into account lessons learned. Particular attention will be given to results achieved by GACSA through its Action Groups and its members as well as through increased regional engagement.
The three-day event will explore the following themes:
CSA in action across scales: local, regional to global