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Farming ecosystems on the edge

Source: CGIAR - Mon, 25 Jun 2012 07:53 GMT
Author: CGIAR Consortium
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In our RIO+20 Call-to-action, CGIAR urged to support the wide range of options currently available to restore and better manage degraded environments and ecosystems. CGIAR calls to scale out these options and encourages the adoption through community-designed programs. We interviewed three senior CGIAR staff to get practical examples of their work in “ecosystems on the edge”: William Dar (Director General, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics - ICRISAT), Mahmoud Solh (Director General, International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas – ICARDA) and Bruce Campbell (Director, The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security - CCAFS). Each of you works extensively in degraded environments, or ecosystems under threat. William Dar: Yes, our work is focused on degraded lands in the semi-arid –dryland- tropics of South and Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Bruce Campbell: Likewise, CCAFS works in East and West Africa, and South Asia, areas likely to be highly affected by climate change. Mahmoud Solh: ICARDA’s work is focused on the world’s non-tropical dry areas, which extend from large parts of Asia, through the Middle East to North Africa and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. We also have global mandates for developing specific crops that originated in those areas, including barley, lentil and faba bean. How can agriculture degrade the environment, in those areas? William Dar: In sub-Saharan Africa, land degradation is a chronic cycle where poor and landless farmers clear forests and tiger bush to plant food crops. This starts a negative cycle as the soil becomes degraded over time and these areas are eventually abandoned by farmers to clear new land. This is further aggravated when livestock grazes in areas with little, or threatened vegetation. These practices account for an estimated 70% of land degradation and desertification in sub-Saharan Africa. Bruce Campbell: Yes, and this cycle can go very fast. In Northern Burkina Faso, farmers told me the story how two generations ago, forests were still abundant, but due to intensive farming, overgrazing and the over-use of wood as the sole source of fuel, the landscape has now turned into an arid area. The fertile topsoil is washed away. Mahmoud Solh: And it is not only a problem of soil degradation. At least 15 countries in the dry areas have the world’s lowest per capita water supplies. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the share of water allocated to agriculture, currently over 75%, is likely to decrease with increased competition from the expanding domestic and industrial sectors. Uncontrolled exploitation of groundwater has led to falling water tables, abandoned wells, dried-up springs, and salt-water intrusion. Our research is focused on improving the productivity of the water -rainfall and irrigation- used in agriculture. As opportunities for expanding cultivated lands are minimal, new productivity will come from what we call ‘sustainable intensification’ of food production systems. This means combining innovative technologies and policies to produce more food on the same amount of land, and faced with constraints of degraded ecosystems. And doing this in a way that does not harm the environment. This is our challenge. These all sounds like bleak prospects. It is hard to imagine this vicious circle can be reversed. Mahmoud Solh: Sustainable increases in food supplies must come from increased productivity of both rain-fed and irrigated agriculture, in other words: getting the most out of each unit of land and water – combining new crops that are resistant to temperature extremes -cold and heat- and resistant to drought and disease.We also need to improve the productivity of water and land use in agriculture. This is not only vital for agricultural productivity but also for ecosystem health in dry areas. ICARDA’s work with partners contributes to improving the performance of their existing crops, but also to encouraging farmers to diversify their cropping systems, by adding new crops in their rotation, for instance legumes in cereal cropping systems. This enhances soil fertility, reduces the risk of poor yields due to climate shocks, and also improves nutrition of farm households. William Dar: Prospects might look bleak, but actually, there are plenty of science-based solutions to conserve the environment, or make better use of the limited resources, without depleting what is left. For instance, in sub-Saharan Africa, we are implementing bioreclamation of degraded lands involving women and improving the productivity of degraded lands through fertilizer microdosing. Our work there also includes rebuilding the fertility of degraded soils, water management and general land reclamation using drought-tolerant trees. ICRISAT and partners have taught women how to create a favorable medium for planting crops that will enable effective rooting, as well as managing soils to prevent water-logging. Women farmers have learned how to harvest rain water in the farm using micro-catchments or planting pits known as zai holes, which are able to hold water for prolonged periods after the rains. The zai holes also hold soil and compost to support the growth of locally adapted, deep-rooted and highly nutritious fruit and vegetable trees such as the Pomme du Sahel, Ziziphus Mauritania, and the Moringa. These look like quite simple solutions. Are these new technologies? Bruce Campbell: Not at all. Farmers often have the tools to adapt to changing conditions, they’ve been doing it for tens of thousands of years, but “climate change” means that there is a whole new level of risk and unpredictability to deal with. Some climatic changes may completely alter the characteristics of a certain region. We’ve developed a tool to help overcome the difficulty of imagining what the future climate in a particular area will look like. The analogues tool will help us ‘travel in time’ and will help us identify, test and validate meaningful adaptation practices and policies in sites around the world. Mahmoud Solh: In some areas, in the Near East and North Africa for example, we have exploited indigenous knowledge where ancient water harvesting systems, such as the “qanat” date back hundreds of years. In other cases, simple interventions like contour ridges - small earth rows constructed with a furrow that catches runoff – and micro water harvesting for trees have been introduced. Most people see water harvesting as the well-known rainwater harvesting stories from South Asia.ICARDA has taken this thinking a step further and worked with countries where there is minimal rainfall, Jordan, Libya and parts of Syria and Egypt. We develop methods that combine satellite mapping with ground observation and soil measurement to identify new ‘micro-catchments’ that provide new water sources in remote areas near where communities live. This is an important new food security strategy for people living on marginal lands in the world’s driest areas. Bruce Campbell: Indeed, similar techniques to hold water are used in the Sahel, e.g. the zaï technique, where water and topsoil is protected... Mahmoud Solh: We also do research on new plantations and regeneration of forage, grasses, shrubs and trees on mild to steep slopes, the use of small basins surrounded by earth bunds with infiltration pits, to grow small trees in moisture-deficit areas. Spineless cactus -Opuntia- has been used to provide additional forage in rangeland areas, as well as protecting the land from further erosion and degradation. These are just a few examples. With our partners in the national programs we work with, we have developed and optimized supplemental irrigation packages for different crops and cropping systems, in Ethiopia, Iran, Jordan and Morocco - and several countries in sub-Saharan countries. ...Supplemental irrigation packages? Mahmoud Solh: Irrigation to apply small amounts of water to essentially rain-fed crops during times when rainfall fails to provide sufficient moisture for normal plant growth, in order to improve and stabilize yields. It allows farmers to obtain optimal yields using minimal irrigation water. . Crops may be planted rainfed, and irrigation applied at critical periods and only when needed to maintain yields. This is one method for adapting to shifts in rainfall patterns associated with climate change. Did this bring any results yet? Mahmoud Solh: In those countries I mentioned, on-farm water productivity is 2.5 kg/m3 under supplemental irrigation compared to 1 kg/m3 under rain-fed conditions, and 0.75 kg/m3 under full irrigation. Field trials have produced significant increases in barley and wheat yields: increasing from 1.25 to 3 tons per ha in Syria; 4.6 to 5.8 tons per ha in Morocco; and 2.2 to 3.4 tons per ha in Iran. William Dar: It should be said that often, it is not only an issue of increasing the productivity of an existing crop. Markets should also be developed for crops that are not usually grown in certain areas. For instance, in eastern and southern Africa, where maize is the traditional crop, we are re-introducing sorghum and millets, which are drought resistant. Along with this, we are improving these crops to be more high yielding and resistant to diseases and pests with higher grain and nutritional quality. This way, these crops will have higher demand and a better price in the market. Switching from for example maize to sorghum and millets, as a crop of choice in semi-arid areas, is it as simple as it sounds? William Dar: Of course this issue is more challenging than it sounds. Farmers will not cultivate a crop they can’t sell; it is as simple as that. In our paradigm of inclusive market oriented development, we recognize that it is vital to identify and develop markets for crops grown by dryland farmers. Market linkages and value-chain development for the poor are central to our work to help bring about prosperity in the dryland tropics.   At RIO+20, CGIAR advocates for a sustainable agriculture. It is vital for our future to grow more and better food, but without wrecking the planet. With two billion hectares of land under threat of irreversible degradation worldwide, agricultural practices should be adapted to a much more eco-friendly approach. Agriculture needs to conserve and restore, rather than deplete natural resources. With our partners, we provide the research, the essential knowledge and tested practices to smallholder farmers. We need to scale out these options and encourage their adoption at a much higher rate than today. CGIAR is a global partnership that unites organizations engaged in research for a food secure future. CGIAR research is dedicated to reducing rural poverty, improving human health and nutrition, and ensuring more sustainable management of natural resources. It is carried out by the 15 centers who are members of the CGIAR Consortium in close collaboration with hundreds of partner organizations, academia and the private sector. Read more about CGIAR’s participation at RIO+20 With thanks to Rex Navarro, Vanessa Meadu and Michael Devlin Picture courtesy Peter Casier (CCAFS/CGIAR)

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