Agriculture must be sustainably intensified to meet Africa’s needs
Faced with a young and growing population, which is projected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050, Africa must produce more food in the context of diminishing natural resources and climate change impacts, such as shifting seasons, droughts, and floods. It is imperative that Africa’s food production systems not only produce more, but also do it in a more sustainable, carbon neutral way, which does not contribute to further environmental degradation and global warming. For the continent to achieve food security, production systems need to be integrated to fully utilise available evidence and capacities to drive sustainable production and build the resilience of farmers and the systems that support them.
Given the pressure to increase agricultural productivity, is it possible for farmers to improve their resilience to climate change without increasing global emissions? Is it possible for Africa to feed itself while also meeting its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Evidence tells us that it is indeed possible, but it will require deliberate and planned action.
Growing more, using less
Agriculture by its very nature alters the natural environment through the clearing and cultivation of land for food production; this has been one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in Africa. The pursuit of sustainable agricultural intensification is, in part, to reduce the environmental footprint of the expansion of agricultural land. Sustainable agricultural intensification demands a concentrated approach to maximise the outputs of existing cultivated spaces without necessarily cutting down more trees. This approach relies on the introduction of technologies and practices that increase efficiency and catalyse higher productivity in agriculture. The use of multi-nutrient fertilisers or improved and certified seed are typical examples of such technologies, which are used to promote efficient crop growth.
From 2010 to 2015, the rate of deforestation in Africa was 2.8 million ha per year (FAO, 2016). Researchers estimate that approximately 95 million ha of land in Africa has been degraded, leading to declining agricultural productivity as soils continue to lose nutrients (AGRA, 2016). The booming population and increasing demand for food exacerbates this situation, as African farmers continue farming crops in degraded soil without efforts to counter the drain of nutrients. This has led to an expansive agricultural system, which causes severe and lasting damage to the environment, creating a vicious cycle of adverse climate and economic impacts on the most vulnerable rural populations.
Healthier soils, on the other hand, not only increase productivity but also have considerable capacity to store carbon. The promotion of technologies to improve soil health, such as biofertiliser microdosing, therefore have the potential to increase carbon sequestration, as well as boost yields and food security. Sustainable agriculture intensification will not stop the continued demand for more agricultural land; it can, however, reduce the rate at which it is being degraded.
Transforming Africa’s agricultural systems
Africa can adapt its agricultural practices to become more climate-resilient, while at the same time following a path of low emissions through a sustainable approach to agricultural intensification. Certainly, in the near future, both the expansion and the intensification of agricultural practices will continue in Africa. However, with current limitations on biodiversity stock and increasing global temperatures, which are causing climate change, there is an urgent need to integrate an evidence-based approach that will usher in sustainable agriculture intensification approaches to food production systems.
Through its work in Africa, AGRA is supporting countries to catalyse the transformation of agricultural systems, which will see increased productivity, food security, and incomes for famers, in an ecological and sustainable way. The Alliance is promoting partnerships between the private and public sectors, in the development of capacities for end-to-end systems in both input and output markets. It is envisioned that through the promotion of improved seed, the judicious use of fertilisers, and the integration and mainstreaming of youth, gender, market access and resilience-building approaches, Africa’s agricultural systems can be transformed via low carbon emission pathways to become productive, inclusive and sustainable.
Written by Assan Ng’ombe, Resilience Officer, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)