“Involve the users in developing and disseminating technologies”

Jacques Diouf

Faced with mounting pressure on the world’s available land, any new agricultural revolution has to be about producing more from the same resource base, stresses Jacques Diouf. The main priorities for developing countries will be access to modern technologies, water, rural roads, storage, credit and extension services, and agro-industry. He tells Global it is essential that the farmers who will be using new technologies are involved in the decision-making.

Global: With the world population growing rapidly, there is a clear need to boost food production from the existing available land resources, especially given the importance of avoiding further deforestation. Do you see any prospect of a new Green Revolution, like India’s in the 1960s and 1970s, to make it possible to avoid famine in the coming decades? If so, which regions are showing the most promise?

Jacques Diouf: The world population is expected to increase from 6.9 billion currently to 9.1 billion in 2050. In addition, developing countries are projected to achieve rapid economic growth during this period. This will result in a considerable increase in the demand for food. In fact, agricultural production will need to increase by 70 percent in the world and 100 percent in the developing countries in order to meet those future needs.

Our work at FAO shows that the world has the resources and technology to feed itself. But any technology that will help to overcome these challenges is welcome. In this regard, any new agricultural revolution has to be about producing more from the same natural resource base. It must also be sustainable, which means that we can produce enough food today and in the future.

The backbone of this new revolution will be plant varieties that are high-yielding, as in the last one, and also climate-change resilient. Farming practices must focus on resource-use efficiency and the protection of ecosystem services. In parallel, the technical empowerment of the people, of the farmers, of the rural, should be a policy priority.

Africa is one place that is rich in natural resources that could be put into productive use, like land in the Guinea Savannah. Africa has huge water resources as yet untapped, with only about 7 percent of African agriculture under irrigation. There is also some room for area expansion in Latin America, especially in the south. But our analysis at FAO shows that most of the food produced by 2050 will come from yield improvement rather than the expansion of cultivated land.

There have recently been calls for the global food system to be redesigned with a greater focus on sustainability so that resources are not consumed faster than they can be replenished. What is FAO’s position on this?

For several decades now, FAO has been arguing for sustainability, which means producing more with the same resources now and in the future, and it has been warning of the consequences – land degradation, floods, drought and hunger – if this principle is not applied. We currently have almost €800 million of projects ongoing in the world designed to protect the natural resource base and the environment, improve rural livelihoods and increase agricultural production in the poorest countries through the adoption of practices that are not only economically sound but also environmentally friendly.

In support of the international effort to deal with climate change, FAO created, in 2002, the National Forest Programme Facility, which is presently supporting 70 countries and regional organisations. In another major initiative, FAO helped establish, in 2008, the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, known as UN-REDD. It is being implemented in nine pilot countries. A global forest monitoring system has just been launched in support of carbon accounting and payments under REDD.

In addition, FAO is publishing a book for policy-makers and senior technology leaders on proven technologies and policies for producing more food in a sustainable manner. Some of these technologies include, high-yielding climate change resilient varieties, improved soil health, conservation agriculture, integrated pest management, and more efficient water use for more crop-per-drop.

What is needed for a concerted effort to increase overall investment in research and development in new agricultural techniques and practices?

There has been a major decline in research and development in agriculture in developing countries and we really need to re-target funds again on education and research. It is particularly important that developing countries themselves invest more in this, and don’t just wait for donor aid. Around 400 to 500 million smallholder famers produce 80 percent or more of the food consumed in developing countries. So we need to ensure that the investments we make are in technologies that will help these farmers to increase production. The public sector and civil society have a major role to play in this, while every effort should be made to foster partnerships with the private sector in this field.

Appropriate new technology could be valuable for the poorest people in developing countries. Is it possible and practical to involve the beneficiaries more in the decision-making?

For most, if not all of the technologies we are talking about, it is absolutely essential that the farmers who will be using them are involved in the decision-making. Take plant-breeding. Plant breeders in laboratories can mix and match, select and reject as much as they like, but at some point these plants will have to be grown on a farm. In many parts of Africa for example, the soil and climate can vary to an extent that growing conditions can change between neighboring farms, so the varieties that are required are different. The sooner we involve the users in the development and dissemination of technologies, the better. FAO recently published a policy document that showed that the creation of smallholder seed enterprises is the best way to ensure very poor farmers have access to improved, climate-adapted, non-hybrid seed varieties.

How much progress is being made towards achieving increased agricultural yields in poorer countries?

Improved seed and plant varieties were the foundation of India’s Green Revolution, and the irrigation and fertiliser package that went with them. Food production doubled in India between 1970 and 1995 with just a 4 percent increase in the land cultivated. Wheat yields went from 800 kg per hectare in the 1960s to 4.5 tonnes now. There are similar examples from several crops all over the world. The use of integrated pest management techniques can also improve yields. At the moment crop yields are increasing at around 1.5 percent a year globally, at least half of that increase is coming from improved seed varieties.

Do you see signs of progress in introducing new seed varieties that can boost production as well as rural incomes in poor countries?

Yes, in many FAO projects we are doing this, with improved varieties. In one African country, for example, FAO introduced the new ER-376 rice variety, helped farmers to organise together to make successful seed companies, reproduce and then distribute the improved seeds. Coupled with improvements in fertiliser and irrigation techniques, yields grew from 2 tonnes to 7 tonnes per hectare. The 500 or so certified seed farmers now report an annual income from these activities of more than $2,000 a year. But the real problem is not limited to developing new seed varieties. The priorities for developing countries, like those in Africa, are access to modern inputs, water, rural roads, storage, credit and extension services, and agro-industry.

Do you expect genetically modified varieties to play a greater part in meeting the world’s food requirements in future?

Presently, not many GM technologies are available that would help smallholder agriculture, as they do not exist for the major food crops eaten by most of the world’s poor such as wheat, rice, sorghum and cassava. Furthermore, GM crop seeds currently on the market do not contain traits that address the needs of smallholders, such as drought or flood tolerance, enhanced fertiliser use efficiency and resistance to pests found in developing countries. Also, while such technologies have a role to play, they are not essential to feed the world today.

More helpful for fighting hunger at the current time is to boost yields and increase production using conventional plant-breeding techniques. Farmers in low-income food-deficit countries can use the already available seeds from the green revolution. Those seeds are very efficient and can be adapted to local conditions by the national research institutions. Developing countries should, however, master the scientific basis of biotechnology by training their experts in molecular biology techniques, mapping and gene transfer, but also in less controversial methods like tissue culture and varietal improvement through the use of markers.

Can more be done to reduce losses through the improvement of existing storage and transportation networks?

Post-harvest losses are a major problem for developing countries. It is estimated that as much as half of crops in these countries are lost because of poor storage or in transport through pests, damp, too much sun exposure or spillage. Another issue is that the farmer may have produced the crops but, in the absence of a vehicle or roads, has no way to take them to market. India in the 1970s had about 388 km of roads per 1,000 sq km. In 2010, Ethiopia had only about 39 km and Senegal 71 km of roads per 1,000 sq km.

Following the 2008 food crisis FAO has been rolling out a programme of metallic silos, mainly made by local craftsmen, that are hermetically sealed, thus protecting the food stored within from pests, rodents, birds and fungi. These silos have already had a huge success in 16 countries, including Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, with mor than 45,000 silos installed and more than 1,500 professionals, technicians and craftsmen employed in constructing and handling them.

Is there a serious international commitment to focusing policy on the ongoing depletion of water resources? Are there any promising new technological solutions to this problem?

Whilst the depletion of non-renewable groundwater resources is an issue in some locations, the bigger international commitment is to roll back environmental degradation such as deforestation, which is why water recently came up in the Biodiversity Convention. Forests not only house species but, as water shortages spread, they are the most economic means of recapturing water. Protected forests also serve as filtration devices for the water they collect, and deposit it back in underground aquifers rather than into rivers which flow to the ocean.

Net water depletion is an issue in some large river basins such as the Aral Sea [in Central Asia] and Lake Chad, but the overall concern is the variability of the hydrological cycle in relation to rising human demand – which leads to scarcity.

We also need to conserve the water we have whilst at the same time producing more food. Agriculture is the biggest user of water in the world, accounting for 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals. It takes one litre of water to produce one calorie of food energy. But meanwhile we should remember that no food means no life.

Yet, as a result of climate change, agriculture will increasingly have to cope with less arable land and changing rainfall patterns while at the same time sharing more water with other sectors such as health and industry, all the while increasing production significantly.

We need better management of water supplies at all levels, and we need more investment in irrigation and water harvesting, including a huge scaling-up of water efficient technologies such as drip irrigation. Water should be the key priority for any successful strategy for agricultural development.

About the author:

Dr Jacques Diouf, Director-General Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)


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