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Promoting a "save and grow" approach to agriculture

07-01-2011 17:09 BJT

Given the current and future challenges to our food supply and to the environment, sustainable intensification of agricultural production is emerging as a major priority for policymakers and international development partners.

Sustainable intensification, or "Save and Grow", has been defined as producing more from the same area of land while reducing negative environmental impacts and contributing more to natural capital and the flow of environmental services.

Sustainable crop production intensification is the first strategic objective of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In order to achieve that objective, the FAO has endorsed the "ecosystem approach" in agricultural management. Essentially, the ecosystem approach uses inputs, such as land, water, seed and fertilizer, to complement the natural processes that support plant growth, including pollination, natural predation for pest control, and the action of soil biota that allows plants to access nutrients.

There is now widespread awareness that an ecosystem approach must underpin intensification of crop production. A major study of the future of food and farming up to 2050 has called for substantial changes throughout the world's food system, including sustainable intensification to simultaneously raise yields, increase efficiency in the use of inputs and reduce the negative environmental effects of food production. Assessments in developing countries have shown how farm practices that conserve resources improve the supply of environmental services and increase productivity. A review of agricultural development projects in 57 low-income countries found that more efficient use of water, reduced use of pesticides and improvements in soil health led to average crop yield increases of 79 percent. Another study concluded that agricultural systems that conserve ecosystem services by using practices such as conservation tillage, crop diversification, legume intensification and biological pest control, perform as well as intensive, high-input systems.

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Sustainable crop production intensi-fication, when effectively implemented and supported, can meet the dual challenges of feeding the world's population and saving the planet. Save and Grow will allow countries to plan, develop and manage agricultural production in a manner that addresses society's needs and aspirations, without jeopardizing the right of future generations to enjoy the full range of environmental goods and services. As well as bringing multiple benefits to food security and the environment, sustainable intensification has much to offer small farmers and their families who make up more than one-third of the global population - by enhancing their productivity, reducing costs, building resilience and strengthening their capacity to manage risk. Reduced spending on agricultural inputs will free resources for investment in farms and farm families' food, health and education. Increases to farmers' net incomes will be achieved at a lower environmental cost, thus delivering both private and public benefits.

Ecosystem approaches to agricultural intensification emerged over the past two decades as farmers began to adopt sustainable practices, such as integrated pest management and conservation agriculture, often building on traditional techniques. Sustainable crop production intensification is characterized by a more systemic approach to managing natural resources, and is founded on science-based environmental, institutional and social principles.

The ecosystem approach needs to be applied throughout the food chain in order to increase efficiency and strengthen the global food system. At the scale of crop systems, management should be based on biological processes and integration of a range of plant species, as well as the judicious use of external inputs such as pesticides.

Sustainable crop production intensification (SCPI) is based on agricultural practices that include maintaining healthy soil, cultivating a wider range of species and varieties, using well adapted and high-yielding varieties and good quality seeds, integrated management of pests, diseases and weeds, and efficient water management.

For optimal impact on productivity and sustainability, SCPI will need to be applicable to a wide variety of farming systems, and adaptable to specific agro-ecological and socioeconomic contexts. It is recognized that appropriate management practices are critical to realizing the benefits of ecosystem services while reducing disservices from agricultural activities. It is unrealistic to hope that farmers will adopt sustainable practices because they are more environmentally friendly. Translating the environmental principles into large-scale, coordinated programs of action will require institutional support at both national and local levels.

For governments, the challenge is to improve coordination and communication across all subsectors of agriculture, from production to processing and marketing. Mechanisms must be developed to strengthen institutional linkages in order to improve the formulation of policies and strategies for SCPI, and to sustain the scaling up of pilot studies, farmers' experiences, and local and traditional knowledge.

At the local level, farmer organizations have an important role to play in facilitating access to resources - especially land, water, credit and knowledge - and ensuring that the voice of farmers is heard. Smallholder farmers also need access to efficient and equitable markets, and incentives that encourage them to manage other ecosystem services besides food production. Farmer uptake of SCPI is dependent on concrete benefits, such as increased income and reduced labor requirements. If the economic system reflects costs appropriately, the equation will shift in favor of SCPI.

SCPI requires more knowledge than that used in most conventional farming approaches. Significant strengthening of extension services, from both traditional and non-traditional sources, will therefore be needed to support its adoption by farmers. Mobilizing social capital for SCPI will require people's participation in decision-making, ensuring decent and fair working conditions in agriculture, and above all the recognition of the critical role of women in agriculture.

With policy support and adequate funding, sustainable crop production intensification could be implemented over large production areas, in a relatively short period of time. The challenge facing policymakers is to find effective ways of scaling up sustainable intensification so that hundreds of millions of people can benefit.

Editor:Wang Xiaomei |Source: China Daily

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