Stories tagged: food security

OCT172018
Borlaug Dialogue

17th – 19th October 2018

Iowa, USA

The Norman E. Borlaug Inetrnational Symposium, known informally as the “Borlaug Dialogue,” each year brings together over 1,200 people from more than 65 countries to address cutting-edge issues related to global food security and nutrition. The three-day conference convenes a wide array of scientific experts, policy leaders, business executives and farmers. Through the Borlaug Dialogue, the World Food Prize Foundation helps build alliances in the struggle against world hunger and malnutrition. The theme for 2018 is “Rise to the Challenge”.

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Hashtags: #FoodPrize18

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 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

SDG2.5 in 2 Minutes: Debisi Araba, CIAT Africa

There’s a unique type of grass that when fed to livestock, it not only makes the animals more productive, but it lowers the greenhouse gases they emit. Because this grass was preserved in CIAT’s genebank, scientists have been able to transform the lives of farmers in Latin America, and hope to bring the innovation to Africa as well.

Filmed as part of Farming First’s #SDG2countdown campaign, exploring SDG2.5 on protecting genetic diversity.

Music: Ben Sounds

Nicolas Mounard: British and African Farmers Face Similar Challenges and Opportunities

In this guest blog post, Nicolas Mounard, CEO of Farm Africa, discusses the similar challenges faced by British and African farmers associated with uncertain trading conditions as well as growing and increasingly complex global demands.

Never before has the world asked so much from its farmers. The challenge of feeding a rapidly expanding global population in a changing trade and environmental landscape is a daunting task. Farmers are up to it but to succeed, they need support to sustainably increase production as well as certainty on trade agreements.

A recent meeting in London organised by Farm Africa, an international NGO working to grow farming in eastern Africa, and the UK’s National Farmers’ Union highlighted the importance of well-functioning supply chains to global food security.

Growing population

With the global population set to get bigger and more affluent, the world will inevitably continue to see a rapidly rising demand for food, begging the question whether the supply of food can keep pace.

Britain’s food self-sufficiency is projected to fall from 60 to 50% by 2040, whilst the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa reports that the continent imported 83% of its food in 2013, despite the majority of the population working in subsistence agriculture.

Agneta Mbithe, 25, of Kyakya Youth Group Kitui, Kenya tends to Sorghum crops. (Farm Africa/Mwangi Kirubi)

Agneta Mbithe, 25, of Kyakya Youth Group Kitui, Kenya tends to Sorghum crops. (Farm Africa/Mwangi Kirubi)

These statistics could easily set alarm bells ringing when it comes to outlook for food security here in the UK and in Africa. Indeed, commentators have long feared that the global demand for food will outstrip supply. But as Tim Smith, Group Quality Director at Tesco and Farm Africa’s latest board member, noted at the event: “Fifty years ago, commentators said it would be impossible to feed the population we have now. Yet between everybody working up and down the supply chain those naysayers have been proved wrong”.

Farmers and the agriculture sector as a whole are up to the challenge but the stakes have never been so high. Both the UK and Africa need a clear roadmap on how to achieve long-term, sustainable food security.

Pushing aside important caveats about scale, landscape and context, British and African farmers are facing similar food security challenges: the need to grow more, grow better and secure access to high-value markets.

A participant in Farm Africa’s climate-smart agriculture project in Ethiopia. (Farm Africa/Medhanit Gebremichael)

A participant in Farm Africa’s climate-smart agriculture project in Ethiopia. (Farm Africa/Medhanit Gebremichael)

Growing more, growing smarter

At Farm Africa, every day we see first-hand how ensuring farmers are equipped with the right agronomic skills and high-quality inputs can boost harvests and profits. From our sesame project in Tanzania to our fish farming programme in Kenya, we’ve seen how yields can increase by 200 or 300% within the space of a year. These are much needed gains, given that African farms are performing at only about a quarter of their potential.

Meanwhile, British farmers’ productivity is failing to keep pace with other developed countries: the UK’s agricultural productivity is achieving an average annual growth of just 0.8%, highlighting the need for increased investment and innovation to enable agriculture in the UK to realise its potential.

In Africa, increasing volume only represents one side of the coin, quality is the flipside. Improving the quality of crops to meet the standards needed to penetrate export markets can provide poor farmers with a sizeable and steady income; a vital food security ingredient.

Yet smallholder farmers often need specialist support to make the step-change from subsistence to commercial agriculture. Across many of our projects we are supporting smallholders in developing the business and marketing skills they need to work with international buyers, as well as improving their access to high-quality inputs, such as certified seeds, necessary to meet export standards.

In a project we run in south-eastern Ethiopia helping forest communities to earn a living from the coffee that grows naturally under the shade of trees, we’ve helped 15 out of the 21 coffee cooperatives we work with to export directly to the international market, where their coffee beans will fetch a much higher price.

By making sure that the post-harvest handling, processing and marketing of coffee is the best it can be, we can make sure that coffee farmers can earn a better income from the coffee they produce, helping to bolster livelihoods and protect against food insecurity.

Providing trade certainty

Restrictive trade agreements, as well as poor infrastructure such as inadequate roads, can mean that even when yields are good and quality is high, farmers face challenges getting their goods to market.

Market access is of course of prime importance to British farmers with Brexit negotiations underway. With 73% of British agri food exports currently going to the EU, there’s no doubt that farming will be the most affected sector when the UK leaves the EU.

The lack of certainty about the markets to which British farmers will have access highlights the importance of a stable trading environment to both food security and farmers’ livelihoods.

“Farming is a long-term business. I, like many farmers, am making decisions now for beef products hitting the market in early 2020. Even with the best will and planning, I’m making these decisions not knowing the trading environment I’ll be operating in,” commented Minette Batters, Deputy President of the NFU at the recent Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum.

Regional trade is also high on the agenda in eastern Africa. While Tanzania and Uganda produce a surplus of staple crops, such as rice and maize, every year, Kenya only grows enough maize to feed itself one year in every five.  Until recently, high tariffs on trade within eastern Africa have meant that it has been cheaper for Kenya to import crops from outside Africa. These policies have now changed, opening up new opportunities for regional trade.

Farm Africa is helping rural Ugandan and Tanzanian farmers make the most of this new export market, providing communities with the resources and knowledge to produce high-quality grain, store it safely and get top prices from the market. This not only helps boost the incomes of Tanzanian and Ugandan farmers, but helps secure affordable food for Kenyan consumers year-round.

While a prolonged drought has forced Uganda to employ short-term measures that halt the export of staple crops, Farm Africa is working to ensure that when farmers do achieve a surplus, they will be able to sell their crops regionally.

Degrading the environment degrades food security

It is common knowledge that mankind’s ability to feed itself is inextricably linked to the environment. Less widely recognised is that agriculture is also a major driver of climate change and environmental degradation. Resolving this tension through the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices will prove vital to ensuring the world’s long-term food security.

Both Africa and the UK face environmental problems driven by unsustainable agricultural production, ranging from water scarcity to soil erosion to deforestation and degradation of grazing lands, which threaten future agricultural productivity.

To secure agricultural productivity and livelihoods farmers must focus on sustainable agriculture that conserves the vital natural resources they rely on, as well as support and strengthen existing conservation efforts made by local rural communities.

Going forward

The British and African food and farming industries have more in common than first meets the eye. Global food security has much to gain from players at every stage of supply chains working ever more closely together to increase production, protect the environment and, crucially, ensure access to markets.

Learn more about Farm Africa’s work here or follow @FarmAfrica on Twitter. This post originally appeared in the March edition of the WFO’s F@rmletter.

Cover photo: Farm Africa/Stephanie Schafrath

Global Food Security Symposium 2017: Making Food Security the Focus in Uncertain Times

Amid recent turbulent political shifts around the world, a new report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs puts food security at the heart of global peace and prosperity. Launched at the Council’s two-day Global Food Security Symposium in Washington DC, the report – Stability in the 21st Century – calls on political leaders to make food security a pillar of national security policies.

The authors highlighted links between high food prices and unrest, and said commitments to end hunger and malnutrition were more important than ever to address the challenges of instability, climate change and a growing young population.

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