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Before croplands turn into dustbowls

NAOKO ISHII | Updated on March 08, 2018 Published on March 10, 2015

African crisis: How to feed the millions Pal Teravagimov/shutterstock

The world, and Africa in particular, needs to grow more food without increasing the environmental footprint

The challenge of 2015 is for the global community to find a way to pursue today’s aspirations for prosperity without undermining the opportunities for tomorrow. We have realised that we’ve been living for years with a serious threat to this prospect; we are pushing to their limits the carrying capacity of natural capital and the earth’s ecosystem, fundamental to sustainable development.

We may have already exceeded some tipping points or planetary boundaries which define a safe operating space for humanity. Climate change is one of those boundaries being almost crossed.

The challenges are mounting. The world population will grow from 7 billion to 9 billion, with 3 billion more in the middle class by 2050. This demands more energy, transport, building and food. Agriculture is expected to meet the growing demand for food. However we cannot ignore the fact that agriculture as we know it today has a huge environmental footprint across many domains.

Footprint in Africa

First, the expansion of agricultural lands is the dominant driver of land-use change including tropical deforestation, causing a negative impact on biodiversity. Second, agriculture accounts for a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Third, agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of all freshwater drawn from rivers, lakes, and aquifers. And finally, agriculture is the primary source of nutrient runoff from farm fields, which creates ‘dead zones’ and toxic algal blooms in coastal waters and aquatic ecosystems.

The global challenge ahead of us is how to feed the growing population while reducing the footprint, thus ensuring we will not overstep the safe planetary boundaries.

The challenge is even more acute in Africa which has a significant food deficit: about a quarter of Africa’s population is undernourished even today. Crop yields are lowest in the world. Soil quality is poor. Climate change will further exacerbate vulnerability and food insecurity. Meanwhile, the demand for food in Africa will grow far more rapidly in the coming decades, due to the population doubling by 2050. In a sense, agriculture in Africa is facing the perfect storm.

At the recent African Environment Ministers’ Conference in Cairo, the challenge of food security was well highlighted and solutions were discussed. The Cairo Declaration specifically recognised the nexus between land productivity, food security, and poverty eradication.

In my view, agriculture in Africa presents a huge opportunity to cope with this problem. I believe there is a clear way that agriculture can meet the sharp increase in demand for food, without compromising natural capital and the ecosystem.

To test our thinking, we at the Global Environment Facility are launching a new flagship programme on food security in Africa by taking an integrated approach.

New integrated approach

The focus is to help small holders manage their natural capital in a sustainable manner — this includes land, soil, water, vegetation and genetic resources that are vital for continued and increased agricultural productivity. For example, the programme will help small holders get improved access to drought-tolerant seeds, strengthen the management of soil health, adjust planting periods and cropping portfolios, and enhance on-farm agro-biodiversity.

We will also support governments to strengthen policies and institutional frameworks that promote sustainable intensification of small-holders’ agricultural production. The goal is to create a multi-stakeholder platform which unites small holders, private sectors including seed and fertiliser companies, governments, and scientists who can tailor the state-of-the-art technology to local conditions.

These measures are essential to foster long-term sustainability and resilience for food security. They are essential to reduce land degradation and recover natural vegetation, to reduce biodiversity loss, and increase soil carbon — all of which are good for the global environment.

Serious new thinking is needed to ensure that the agriculture of tomorrow can both feed the world and reduce its harmful footprint on the environment. A paradigm shift is needed in agricultural development that places natural capital at the heart of investment decisions for long-term sustainability and resilience. Agriculture must reform into ‘climate smart’ agriculture.

The writer is the CEO and chairperson of the Global Environment Facility and a former deputy vice-minister of finance, Japan

Published on March 10, 2015

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