A new FAO book out today takes a close look at how the world’s major cereals maize, rice and wheat - which together account for an estimated 42.5 per cent of human calories and 37 per cent of our protein - can be grown in ways that respect and even leverage natural ecosystems.
Drawing on case studies from around the planet, the new book illustrates how the “Save and Grow” approach to agriculture advocated by FAO is already being successfully employed to produce staple grains, pointing the way to a more sustainable future for farming and offering practical guidance on how the world can pursue its new sustainable development agenda.
“International commitments to eradicate poverty and tackle climate change require a paradigm shift towards a more sustainable and inclusive agriculture able to produce higher yields over the longer term,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.
The two recent landmark global agreements, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - which require eradicating hunger and putting terrestrial ecosystems on a sound footing by 2030 - and the Paris Climate Change Agreement (COP21), only underscore the need for inclusive innovation in food systems, he adds.
While the world’s cereal harvests may be at record levels today, their productive base is increasingly precarious amid signs of groundwater depletion, environmental pollution, loss of biodiversity and other woes marking the end of the Green Revolution model.
Meanwhile, global food production will need to grow by 60 per cent - mostly on existing arable land and in the face of climate change - to feed the future population in 2050, making it all the more urgent for the smallholders who grow the majority of the world’s crops to be enabled to do so more efficiently and in ways that don’t further increase humanity’s ecological debt.
Save and Grow is a broad-based approach to environmentally friendly, sustainable agriculture aimed at intensifying production, protecting and enhancing agriculture’s natural resource base and reducing reliance on chemical inputs by tapping into the Earth’s natural ecosystem processes, and to increase farmers’ gross income. As such it is an approach intrinsically crafted to contribute to the SDGs and foster resilience to climate change.
Viable Save and Grow practices range from growing shade trees that shed their leaves when adjacent maize crops most need sunlight, as tried with success in Malawi and Zambia, to scrapping tillage and leaving crop residues as soil surface mulch, a method applied on a massive scale by wheat farmers on the Kazakhstani steppe and increasingly by innovative slash-and-mulch practices adopted by farmers in the highlands of Central and South America.
The time has now come for ideas that have proven themselves in farmers’ fields to be upscaled in more ambitious national programmes, FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva says in the foreword to Save and Grow in Practice in Practice: A Guide to Sustainable Cereal Production, a book he described as “a contribution to creating the world we want.”
Understanding Save and Grow
Save and Grow refers to an array of techniques that share the trait of trying to capitalize on natural biological and ecosystem processes to “produce more with less”.
Five complementary elements form the core of the Save and Grow paradigm: conservation agriculture, which minimizes tillage and uses mulches and crop rotation; soil health enhancement, such as growing nitrogen-fixing plants that replace costly mineral fertilizers; selection of crops with higher yield potential, greater resistance to biotic and climate stress, higher nutritional quality; efficient water management; integrated pest management, often relying on exploiting natural enemies to minimize the need for chemical pesticides.
One classic example, now widely adopted in China, is the rice-and-fish system, wherein farmers stock flooded paddy fields with fish. These can eventually be sold for income or eaten for better nutrition but while being raised also eat insects, fungi and weeds that would otherwise damage the crop, reducing the need to spend on pesticides.
A one-hectare paddy field can yield up to 750 kilograms of fish while still supporting rice yields and leading to fourfold gains in rural household income. Extra benefits include sharp drops in mosquito populations, thus reducing a serious disease vector.
FAO estimates that 90 per cent of the world’s rice is planted in habitats suitable for rice-fish farming, but outside of China only one per cent of Asia’s irrigated rice areas use the system. Indonesia’s government has just launched a plant to shift one million hectares to the integrated technique.
The ecosystem approach at the heart of Save and Grow is exemplified in the way some smallholders in Africa have tackled the problem of an indigenous moth whose larvae devour maize at an atrocious rate. Intercropping maize withDesmodium, a leguminous plant, in fields surrounded by Napier grass, a livestock fodder crop, catalyzes a system wherein the Desmodium produces chemicals that attract predators of maize pests while also sending a false distress signal that prods egg-laying moths to seek habitats in the Napier grass, which in turn exudes a sticky substance that traps the stem borer larvae.
On top of that Desmodium - which also fixes nitrogen in the soil - appears to encourage germination of Striga, a parasitic weed that routinely devastates African farms, while at the same time impeding the weeds’ root growth. While this approach to farming entails devoting less acreage to maize than monocropping, it is far more productive, with 75 percent of farmers who adopted it around Lake Victoria reporting their net yields at least tripled. Growing more Napier grass also allows for more cows and dairy production, leading to increased supply of milk.
High tech tools
While a global shift to sustainability entails “striking a balance between the needs of both human and natural systems”, advanced technology also has a role to play in enhancing the flow of ecosystem services.
Hand-held optical sensors can determine, in real time, how much nitrogen fertilizer a plant needs. Laser-assisted precision land levelling has led to productivity gains across India while reducing water applications by as much as 40 percent compared to levelling land with traditional wooden boards.
Save and Grow is a flexible approach. As ecosystems and farm needs vary, there is ample scope for innovations related to carbon sequestration, nutrition, innovative fertilizers and new crop varieties, as well as the identification of just how seeds, animals and agricultural techniques interact.
FAO also underscores that “Save and Grow” farming systems are knowledge-intensive, and need to be built on local knowledge and needs, recognizing the important role of farmers as innovators.
Smallholders who embrace such a paradigm shift often find that, while benefits are clear, they are not always immediate. For this reason, Save and Grow needs strong institutional commitment for a sustained period.
To enable the transition to sustainable crop production intensification, policy makers should create incentives for farmers to diversify - by supporting markets for rotational crops - while devising tools -crop insurance, social protection schemes and credit-easing facilities -to reduce the risk they may face in making the change. Low-till agriculture, for instance, is often hampered by inadequate access to the machinery it requires.
While there is no single blueprint for the ecosystem-based Save and Grow approach, promoting its widespread adoption requires concerted action at all levels, from governments and international organizations to civil society and the private sector.
Kazakhstan’s experience with conservation agriculture suggests the rewards warrant taking up the challenge on a grand scale. Initially used as a battle against wind-driven soil erosion back in the 1960s, FAO began in 2000 helping upscale the no-plough approach, which helps keep melted snow and rain water in the soil and led to 25 percent higher wheat yields and lower labor and fuel costs. In 2011, the government introduced substantial targeted subsidies to promote adoption of the practice, and today, half of the country’s 19 million hectares of crop land are under full conservation agriculture.
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