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
In this guest post, Bart IJntema, Senior Vice President, Food & Agricultural Development at Rabobank International, explains how African agriculture’s current yield gap can be narrowed by investing in supportive initiatives across the supply chain.
In Future of Farming, a book recently published, Rabobank asserts that productive agricultural areas aren’t simply those with the best climate or soil quality, but rather those with the best social enabling environment. In other words, if famers are to achieve the full potential of the soil and the climate, they need to farm in countries that have supportive government policies, functioning agricultural markets, access to finance, access to knowledge, and public expenditure on agricultural R&D.
But does this really matter? Yes is the short answer. With the UN predicting that by 2050 the world’s population will have grown to nine billion people, it matters to all of us. And if we’re to successfully feed the additional two billion people sharing the planet with us by 2050, we need to help empower the pockets of the world that are not yet producing as much food as they could: a prime example being sub-Saharan Africa.
The African continent combines the greatest need with the biggest potential. Population growth in sub-Saharan Africa is set to outweigh growth in developed regions significantly, which simultaneously demands more food yet provides more young farmers to produce it. This requires global Food & Agriculture (F&A) companies to engage more with the region, by acting as catalysts in Africa’s F&A development.
The soil and climate of northern Europe are not of the highest quality, but, thanks to access to knowledge and finance, the actual yield is very high. In Africa, which has abundant fertile soil and a good farming climate, it is quite the reverse. According to Rabobank research (see graph below), sub-Saharan countries could increase their yields by a factor of four, given the right support.
The time has come for Global F&A companies to act on this opportunity. Investing in Africa has long been considered a risky choice and has been set aside in favour of other opportunities elsewhere in the world. Global companies now need to take another look at the continent, with a fresh mind-set and a realistic long-term perspective. By partnering with regional and local players to make key investments, the continent can be helped to grow more rapidly and realise its unquestionable F&A potential. In return, companies that make this commitment and get it right have much to gain in terms of increased profits and a new market.
To be successful, however, companies will need to adapt their business models to the circumstances on the ground. They will also need to focus their efforts on key initiatives, including:
- Increasing production sustainably: addressing the yield gap in existing farming operations, expanding operations where possible and developing new land resources
- Adding value by building sustainable supply chains for all players: reducing risk, improving productivity and access to capital and markets; minimising waste and locating processing close to production
- Becoming regionally and globally competitive in their exports: utilizing market access and insights; unblocking infrastructure bottlenecks
- Addressing African consumers’ increasing and changing requirements: the local market will be the key to success as African nations become self sufficient and trade surplus food from increased yields
While developing and implementing a viable strategy for entering the African market may not be straightforward, it will provide vast rewards if done correctly. Companies will need to identify the opportunities that fit with their capabilities and ambitions, and find the right partners in order to adopt an Africa-centric approach to the market. It will also require confidence in order to develop a presence in the African market. This will require time, effort and capital.
Yet the opportunities are there. Rapid urbanisation is leading to consumers’ growing and changing needs. Africa’s enormous untapped agricultural potential is unmatched in the rest of the world and could be the key to making Africa prosperous, resilient and a source of food for the rest of the world.
By acting together with all parties in the chain we can make this happen.