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Farming Must Change to Feed the World

by 5m Editor
4 February 2009, at 10:56a.m.

INDIA - An expert from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) urged a more sustainable approach to farming at an international farm conference in New Delhi today.

The world's farmers must quickly switch to more sustainable and productive farming systems to grow the food needed by a swelling world population and respond to climate change, FAO's top crops expert told an international farm congress here today.

In a keynote speech to 1,000 participants at the IVth World Congress on Conservation Agriculture (CA) in New Delhi, Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division, endorsed CA as an essential part of that change.

"The world has no alternative to pursuing Sustainable Crop Production Intensification to meet the growing food and feed demand, to alleviate poverty and to protect its natural resources. Conservation Agriculture is an essential element of that Intensification," Mr Pandey said.

Conservation Agriculture is a farming system that does away with regular ploughing and tillage and promotes permanent soil cover and diversified crops rotation to ensure optimal soil health and productivity. Introduced some 25 years ago, it is now practiced on 100 million hectares of land across the world.

Environmental Damage

Conventional intensive farming methods had often contributed to environmental damage, resulting in declining rates of agricultural productivity just as the world needs to double its food production to feed nine billion people by 2050, Mr Pandey said.

"In the name of intensification in many places around the world, farmers over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated, over-applied pesticides," he declared. "But in so doing we also affected all aspects of the soil, water, land, biodiversity and the services provided by an intact ecosystem. That began to bring yield growth rates down."

On current trends, the rate of growth in agricultural productivity is expected to fall to 1.5 per cent between now and 2030 and further to 0.9 per cent between 2030 and 2050, compared with 2.3 per cent per year since 1961.

In developing countries, growth in wheat yields has gone down from about 5 per cent in 1980 to 2 per cent in 2005. Growth in rice yields went down from 3.2 per cent to 1.2 per cent during the same period while maize yields dropped from 3.1 per cent to 1 per cent.

Smaller Footprint

Conservation agriculture could not only help bring yields back up but also deliver several important environmental benefits, Mr Pandey continued. Aside from restoring soil health, it also saved on energy use in agriculture, reducing the footprint of a sector which currently accounts for some 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas(GHG) emissions.

It could further mitigate climate change by helping sequester carbon in the soil and also potentially save 1,200 cubic kilometres of water a year by 2030 since healthy soil retains more moisture and needs less irrigation.

Only with sustainable intensification of crop production can serious progress be made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals on hunger and poverty reduction and on ensuring environmental sustainability, Mr Pandey warned. "We are currently headed in the wrong direction for both of them," he added.

He urged governments, donors and other stakeholders to provide policy and financial support to ensure early, wider uptake of CA. Training, participatory research and building strong farmers' organizations should be accelerated while newly-developed CA equipment should be made widely available and/or manufactured locally.

Delegates to the four-day Congress include farmers, experts, and policy makers from all over the world. The meeting is hosted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS). FAO, along with IFAD and other Indian and international organizations are among the sponsors and co-organizers of this largest global gathering of the Conservation Agriculture community.

Key Facts on CA

FAO offers the following key facts on Conservation Agriculture:

  1. In 1960, the average hectare of arable land, globally, supported 2.4 persons. By 2005, this figure had increased to 4.5 persons per hectare and by 2050 the estimate is that a single hectare of land will need to support between 6.1 and 6.4 people. Obviously each hectare will need to produce much more food.
  2. But the rate of growth in agricultural productivity is declining instead of rising. Whereas this has averaged 2.3 per cent a year since 1961, it is expected to fall to 1.5 per cent between now and 2030 and drop further to 0.9 per cent between 2030 and 2050.
  3. One reason for declining productivity growth rates lies in over-reliance by farmers on increasing levels of inputs to raise production, which harms soils and ecosystems and brings diminishing returns.
  4. Crop yields from Conservation Agriculture are at least equal to those from conventional intensive farming but are more stable and need diminishing applications of chemical inputs where conventional systems often require higher doses to obtain the same results. CA is much more environmentally sustainable.
  5. By doing away with regular tilling and ploughing, CA also reduces the workload on farmers by some 50 per cent on average. It is also cheaper since fewer inputs are used, and mechanized farmers can save up to 70 per cent in fuel costs.
  6. CA's three basic principles - avoiding continuous mechanical soil disturbance, maintaining permanent organic soil cover and ensuring proper crop rotation - result in healthier soil which can produce more under drought and excess water conditions and has the potential to save 1,200 cubic kilometres of water a year by 2030.
  7. It can help mitigate climate change not only by reducing the greenhouse gasses produced by agricultural land use - which accounts for some 30 percent of total emissions - but by helping sequester carbon in soil at an average of some 0.5 tonnes per hectare per year. This currently adds up to 54 million tonnes but will increase with the number of hectares under CA.