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Feeding a growing population

by Lennart Båge
Reisfeld in Bangladesch

Reisfeld in Bangladesch

Agricultural progress in Africa must not happen at the expense of the continent’s rich heritage of genetic resources. It must rely on Africa’s knowledge, Africa’s experience, and above all, the skills and energy of Africa’s smallholder farmers. [ By Lennart Båge ]

In 2004, Kofi Annan, then-Secretary-General of the United Nations, called for a Green Revolution in Africa because he believed that nothing less than a revolution was needed to increase agricultural productivity and lift hundreds of millions of African farmers and their families out of grinding poverty.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than 75 % of the world’s ultra poor: those living on less than $ 0.50 a day. More than 200 million people in the region are undernourished.

Annan gave voice to what IFAD and others working in development in Africa have recognised for years: that a uniquely African Green Revolution is needed to respond to challenges that are profoundly different from those confronted by Asia at the dawn of its Green Revolution 40 years ago.

The nature of agriculture in Africa differs significantly from agriculture in Asia. It is more diversified; and land, soil, natural resources and climatic conditions are more differentiated. In Africa, about 50 % of farmland suffers to some extent from soil erosion; as much as 80 % of pasture and rangelands exhibit some form of degradation. More than 95 % of African agriculture is rainfed. In Africa, as in Asia, agriculture is dominated by small-scale farmers. In Sub-Saharan Africa, most of these farmers have less than ten hectares of land. To make a living, they must have diversified sources of income; they cannot afford to depend on a single crop or a single economic activity.

In the past, it was assumed that there had to be trade-off between boosting agricultural productivity and maintaining biodiversity. But this assumption does not hold true. While Green Revolutions in the past have been detrimental to native biodiversity, there is now widespread recognition that productivity must not, and need not, come at the expense of biodiversity. A successful African Green Revolution will take as its starting point the diversity of farming conditions on the continent. In many cases, this will mean renewing efforts to support and promote biodiversity.

A special power

While it is clear that a Green Revolution in Africa is needed urgently, it is equally clear that it will not happen without major additional investments, and better policies that support agricultural growth.

Agriculture plays a crucial role in eliminating poverty and hunger. This was highlighted by the World Bank’s “World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development”. At the heart of the report is the assertion that agriculture has a “special power” to overcome rural poverty. Yet support for agriculture in developing countries remains disappointingly low. Agriculture’s share of official development assistance (ODA) has declined sharply, from 18 % in 1979 to 2.9 % in 2006. For many years, African governments’ spending on agriculture was also in decline.

Still, there are some encouraging signs. Today, African governments are serious about rural poverty reduction. The African Union, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, and the 2003 Maputo Declaration, which aims to revitalise the agricultural sector, are all testimony to this new commitment. Meanwhile, new technologies are spreading. In Western Africa, for example, NERICA rice is making an enormous difference, and so are high-yielding varieties of maize in Eastern Africa.

But much remains to be done – and urgently so. Africa’s Green Revolution must be built by Africans. It must rely on Africa’s knowledge, Africa’s experience, and above all, the skills and energy of Africa’s smallholder farmers.

Biodiversity forms the basis of agriculture. It enables the production of foods, both wild and cultivated, contributing to the health and nutrition of all people. And biodiversity plays a critical role in safeguarding the livelihoods of poor rural people.

In the years since the first Green Revolution, the idea of sustainable development has taken root. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development produced a pivotal report, named after its Chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland, which laid out the concept of sustainable development. Sustainability was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The Green Revolution that transformed Asian agriculture in the 1970s focused on reducing the number of crops and increasing reliance on improved seeds, fertilisers and irrigation. The goal was to maximise yield and commercialisation. It was remarkably successful in transforming agriculture, producing more food and reducing the threat of famine on the continent. But it also came at a cost to the environment, and to local species.

The Asian Green Revolution concentrated on just a few crops: rice, wheat and maize. Certainly, these crops have value for poor farmers, but there are many other species that are essential to the lives of millions of poor people. These crops include millets in India and Africa, palm fruits in Brazil, and leafy vegetables, roots and tubers in Africa. They may have limited reach on a global scale, but they are locally relevant. They offer many long-term benefits: they are adaptable to low-input agriculture and marginal lands, and provide a source of food or cash during lean periods in the growing cycle.

Similarly, with livestock, native breeds are far more likely to be productive in a difficult environment than imported industrial breeds. For poor farmers, an animal’s most essential quality is not its rate of growth or yield of milk, but its basic ability to survive and reproduce.

Agricultural development must preserve local species as well as introducing new, higher-yielding crops or breeds. Many of the benefits of maintaining diversity are not captured by market prices alone. One lesson learned in agricultural development over the years is that farmers in subsistence and semi-subsistence agricultural systems are interested in multiple traits. These desirable characteristics may not be related to production but to consumption, with particular emphasis on taste, processing requirements, storage and appropriateness for particular dishes. Farmers might want grain and straw from wheat cultivation, for instance, or a special flavour for a local food recipe. The absence of some of these traits can make a variety unattractive to poor farmers.

Agricultural research and development institutions have made significant strides in integrating conservation with development to mitigate loss of biodiversity, reverse land degradation and foster environment sustainability. IFAD has long recognised the importance of taking the environment into consideration when planning and implementing agricultural projects.

The value of indigenous trees

Small changes in farmers’ behaviour, along with using and valuing of their local knowledge, can contribute significantly to restoring the environment and biodiversity, while feeding a growing population.

Many studies have stressed the importance of indigenous trees to rural livelihoods and the environment. For example, in Cameroon and Nigeria, African plums (safou or Dacryodes edulis) is an accompaniment to staple foods for three to four months a year, providing a cheap source of energy, proteins, essential amino and fatty acids and substantial amounts of potassium, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium. Revenues from the sale of safou fruit coincide with the period when school fees are due.

An IFAD-supported tree domestication programme at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) has helped farmers in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Nigeria integrate and mange high value indigenous trees, including safou, into their farming systems. As a result, income, nutrition and health have all improved for families involved with the programme. At the same time, local biodiversity is being preserved. Moreover, roots from the trees are helping to stabilise the soil, reducing the risk of landslides, while the leaves and fruit provide a natural fertiliser.

IFAD has also made a significant contribution to halting loss of soil fertility and biodiversity through its support of a programme in Burkina Faso and Niger that helps Sahelian farmers adopt sound, but simple soil conservation and agroforestry practices. In the Aguié Department of Niger, poor people used to cut down trees for fuel, building and other uses. With each year’s rains, tiny tree shoots would emerge from the soil. Animals grazed on the shoots and farmers cleared them to make way for crops. But without the trees, the land became unproductive and the crops failed.

In 2000, an assisted natural regeneration programme was implemented on more than 100,000 hectares of land. Changing the behaviour of farmers has resulted in a massive change in the ecology of the region. An evaluation found there were 50 new trees per hectare in the programme area. Reforestation rates were lower in non-programme areas. Vast zones of the programme area are now protected from sandstorm damage. Assisted natural regeneration has also contributed to restoring soil fertility.
Farmers first

For a Green Revolution to be sustainable and preserve biodiversity, farmers need to be in the driving seat. In Asia’s Green Revolution, farmers were presented with improved seeds and told to plant them. A Green Revolution in Africa would approach things differently, as illustrated by the Programme for Empowering Sahelian Farmers to Leverage their Crop Diversity Assets for Enhanced Livelihood Strategies, supported by IFAD and managed by the Bioversity International office for Sub-Saharan Africa.

The programme is creating organisations of poor farmers in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. These local organisations are able to test, systematically, a range of different crops including traditional and modern varieties. Farmers are able to see how the seeds grow in the real world conditions of their own fields. They will then be able to choose the best crop varieties for their social, geographic, food and economic needs.

In Africa and elsewhere, IFAD promotes learning and knowledge sharing by working with farmers’ organisations and establishing farmers’ field schools, where smallholder farmers receive hands-on training, allowing them to conduct their own research and be active participants in their own development.

If there is one thing we have learned in our 30 years of working in rural development, it is that farmers must be at the centre of any action. Small changes in their behaviour can result in huge benefits for local societies, and for humanity as a whole. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to rural poverty. Each effort must be tailored to the specific context. In the case of Africa, this means that farmers will work to maintain variety and in-situ diversity in the face of uncertainty caused by climate variability (see page 192) and technological change.

If implemented intelligently, a Green Revolution in Africa will be able to tackle poverty and hunger on the continent, while preserving biodiversity for generations to come. We need to feed the world, and preserve the planet.