Is Ecological Sensitivity Good for Agriculture?

Tayitu 14th

opinion

Most of the improvement in global undernourishment figures over the past four decades has been concentrated in Asia, which reduced the proportion of undernourished by 32pc.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of reduction has been very limited, while the number of undernourished has risen from 91.9 million in 1971 to 244 million in 2012.

Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a significant decrease in both proportion and absolute numbers of undernourished in the 1970s, but has made little progress since.

In Near East and North Africa, the proportion fell significantly in the 1970s but by lately it was slightly above the level of four decades earlier, after having actually increased over the 1990s, although still at relatively low levels.

Rising food supplies and lower prices does not mean that everyone has access to enough food. The abundance of food suggested by world-wide figures and trends masks the fact that hundreds of millions of people do not have enough food to eat.

The most recent estimates indicate that 963 million people worldwide were undernourished in 2010, comprising 924 million in developing countries, 29.5 million in the countries in transition and 9.5 million in the industrialised countries.

One year is left for the first Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) – eradicating extreme poverty and hunger – to end.

Progress is assessed against the target of halving the proportion of people suffering from hunger and those living in extreme poverty and between 1990 and 2012. At the present pace of progress, the hunger reduction goal will be achieved in 2150.

The poverty reduction goal of halving the proportion of poverty between 1990 and 2015 is on track based on the World Bank poverty projections (less than one dollar per day). At the global level, poverty has declined both in absolute numbers (if only marginally and in relative terms).

The East Asia region met its poverty reduction target by 2001, 14 years ahead of the timetable. In China and East Asia, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita more than tripled and the proportion of people in extreme poverty fell from 56pc to 12pc over the past four decades.

South Asia, too, made considerable progress in percentage terms during the 1990s, and achieving the goal of halving one dollar per day poverty is feasible.

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In sub-Saharan Africa, poverty has, in fact, increased between 1990 and 2012. Recent report by United Nation Conference on Trade Development (UNCTDA) shows that, most of sub-Saharan African countries failed to meet the MDG poverty goal.

Very little progress will be achieved unless performance is significantly enhanced in the near future, and the absolute number of poor may in fact rise considerably. If these scenarios materialise, close to half the world’s poor will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Therefore, the policy agenda for food security in the 21st century, especially in sub-Saharan African should be to address the emerging challenges even as we pursue the unfinished business of the last century in the agriculture sector. To do so, focusing on ecological research rather than only on species productivity is one of the issues that needs to be addressed.

Agriculture is uniquely sensitive to, and dependent on, weather factors. It, therefore, is important to think of the ecology, while we work hard to figure out how we can cultivate our crops, raise our livestock, and do our fishing.

It is also important that we devise ways to protect our soil systems, watersheds, forests, hydrological cycles and agro-ecosystems, in addition to thinking how we can restore and replenish them.

As we try to understand, maintain and improve our ecology – an open system – we should be able to guard against mindsets and assumptions derived from, and are appropriate to, closed systems. While engineering concepts can be applied to agriculture, agriculture should be seen or managed simply as an industrial enterprise.

Although agricultural practice has many industrial characteristics and opportunities, it remains essentially biological. It even is much more important to gain a better understanding of some microbiological dimensions of agriculture.

Agro-ecologically informed methods, such as System of Rice Intensification (SRI), depart from the intensification strategy that relies only on new varieties with genetic improvement and then on greater external inputs.

By reorienting our focus to agro-ecological methods, we will be using engineering and chemical solutions to capitalize on more biological and ecological processes and potentials.

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Current agricultural development strategies are based on ever-increasing use of inputs in conjunction with making improvements in genotypes, with a species focus.

There is reason to explore more on how improving crop environments above and below ground through changes in plant, soil, water and nutrient management can elicit more beneficial expression of genetic potentials, recognizing that these are affected by ecological factors.

But the focus should be not just on producing more grain, but also on growing plants that can better resist the biotic and abiotic stresses that are likely to become more common as a result of impending climate changes.

Previously, agricultural researchers have focused separately on individual species of plants or animals in isolation from other species.

But it has lately become apparent that finding ways to capitalise on symbiotic relationships among various species, considering sets of species together in ecological perspective, can create multiple benefits at low cost.

Yet, there is no reason to think that agro-ecological systems, such as the SRI, will replace all other kinds of agriculture. After all, agricultural change does not proceed so discontinuously.

Various researchers, such as Norman Borlaug, have reasonably insisted that agricultural development need to be science-based.

This means that innovations should be examined and evaluated objectively and systematically. But this does not mean that all innovations must originate from the formal scientific community, or that knowledge and data coming from sources other than credentialed scientists should be excluded from consideration.

Scientific advances in the domains of microbiology, soil ecology and epigenetic could assist farmers in meeting production and income goals with resource economising methods.

It remains to be seen to what extent our agricultural development efforts are ready to deploy agro-ecologically-informed methods to help farmers meet expected agricultural production requirements to ensure nations and global food security. Nonetheless, this is a direction that deserves more attention and support.

Eidmon Tesfay has a Master’s Degree in Agricultural Economics Rural Development. He can be contacted at eidmondrdae@gmail.com.

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