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Sustainable Intensification: Making Science the Solution for African Agriculture

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As the expiration date of the Millennium Development Goals draws closer, our promise to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty remains largely unfulfilled. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 200 million people (nearly 23% of the population) are chronically hungry and 40% of children under the age of five are stunted due to malnutrition. As a global community, we urgently need to establish new models for addressing these challenges.

Science-based agriculture offers such a solution - not only tackling food insecurity but also overlapping with multiple, interacting global threats, from managing scarce supplies of land and water to minimizing carbon emissions and post-harvest losses. Whilst no silver bullet exists to eliminate these threats, scientific approaches can go a long way to manage them. Across the agricultural value chain from agricultural research laboratories to agronomists and extension workers in the field and processors and exporters, scientific interventions can help people at each step to make African agriculture a great deal more productive and resilient, as well as more viable as a livelihood and business for the continent's farmers.

The Chicago Council's Global Food Security Symposium and its upcoming report, Advancing Global Food Security: The Power of Science, Trade, and Business, will discuss this very question of how to capitalize on the power of science to end hunger. Similarly, a recent report from the Montpellier Panel outlines a new paradigm for African smallholders focusing on 'sustainable intensification.' The term refers to equipping farmers with the innovations required to navigate the joint goals of producing more nutritious food and boosting incomes whilst preserving the environment, adapting to climate change and reducing food waste.

This concept is by no means new but has typically been associated with larger commercial farms and with other regions of the world. Conversely, crop yields in Africa have remained largely stagnant, only 4% of cultivated land in Africa is irrigated, and 75% of soils on the continent are classified as degraded. If African agriculture does not adapt, under current climate predictions, even current yield levels will decrease by 1.5% by 2050.

Happily, we need not accept these bleak projections as inevitable. Science-based solutions can give African smallholders access to the context-specific innovations they need to reverse this reality. They will allow African farmers to boost their productivity sustainably - balancing higher production and productivity with socio-economic realities (especially amongst smallholders) as well as sound environmental management.

The Montpellier Panel report divides the sustainable intensification process into three categories. The first is ecological intensification, in which natural ecosystems are managed more effectively. Practices include the planting of faidherbia trees, a leguminous tree species which sheds its nitrogen-rich leaves during the wet season, thereby providing nutrients to crops planted below, allowing sunlight in as well as fixing two tons or more per hectare of carbon to the soil.

The second category is genetic intensification, that develops crops and livestock better suited to various challenges, for instance, achieving higher yields, withstanding extreme temperatures, and also being more nutritious, such as in the case of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in Mozambique that have doubled citizens' daily intake of essential mineral Vitamin A.

The final facet is socio-economic intensification, which looks to create more of an enabling environment for farmers and others to learn, share, collaborate and support. This encompasses efficient farmer organizations and cooperatives and robust land rights as well as improved infrastructure for storing and transporting crops, and high quality extension services to provide farmers with the training they need.

In order to realize this vision of sustainable intensification in a way that will work for African smallholders, several concrete actions can be taken. First, the policy environment for the food and agriculture sector must become more socially inclusive and business-friendly in order to promote participation and cooperation. Local enterprises in Africa should be encouraged, by both streamlining yet pressure-testing current legal requirements and regional trading regulations.

Investment can also be facilitated by encouraging the private sector, public sector, civil society and knowledge institutes to collaboratively determine the outcomes they all desire, which should also enable strategic partnerships to grow. Providing fundamental inputs such as good quality seeds and the right amount of fertilizers must be prioritized, especially oriented to reach smallholder farmers. Public services such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation are also crucial for a healthy and empowered agricultural workforce.

The challenges are great, but the window of opportunity is greater. Science-based solutions for African agriculture have the potential to achieve synergistic outcomes for a more prosperous and resilient Africa.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its annual Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C., which will be held on May 21st. For more information on the symposium, click here. Follow @globalagdev and #globalag on twitter to join the conversation on May 21st.