We need to move toward more sustainable agriculture practices that use the best of all approaches – including organic, GM and non-GM biotechnology, says David Howlett.

David Howlett

In achieving global food security, agriculture is part of the problem and part of the solution to climate change.

While we need to better understand greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture we do know they are significant. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that direct emissions are about 14% of global emissions (similar to those from transport) and emissions from deforestation are 17% of global emissions – but because farming is a major driver of deforestation the majority of these are due to agriculture.

The total of emissions from agriculture is even higher when the indirect emissions from energy for fertilisers and other agrochemicals, irrigation, agro-processing and packaging, and transportation are taken into account.

While we don’t have accurate or definitive figures we can realistically say that over a third of global emissions are due to agriculture.

However, using our existing knowledge on better land practices and husbandry we sequester carbon into soils and plant biomass. Again, it is estimated that potentially agriculture could sequester up to 6000Mt CO2 per year, or 88%, of its total annual CO2 emissions.

We know that agriculture, especially in developing countries, will be seriously affected by climate change but on the degree and locations of these impacts we are less certain. But unless we put in place adaptation to climate change many millions of the poorest in the world will suffer the most.

Game plan

We therefore need to look for triple wins –mitigation, adaptation and food security benefits.

To achieve this we are going to need radical change. As Richard Jacobs mentioned in his post ‘Don’t write off organics’ on this blog, organic and ecological approaches can improve yields especially in places where yields are low.

However, while these approaches are essential we will need to marry these techniques with the best of the most modern scientific approaches to produce the food we need. We need to become more efficient in how we use energy to produce our food and consider emissions from the whole food chain, which is much more than simple food or air miles.

This is a common agenda for developed and developing countries even though smallholder farmers and their communities in the developing world have specific challenges and lower carbon footprints than their developing world counterparts.

We need to put aside polarised arguments on whether GM crops and ‘industrial agriculture’ or ecological and organic approaches are the solution. It’s time for a radical rethink on how we can feed the world and to do it sustainably this has to combine the best of all approaches.

Out of Africa

We are looking to help do this at the Africa College – a research partnership between the University of Leeds and research institutions in Africa that are working on food security and human health.

Africa College is tackling these problems in a number of ways. For example, at a ‘landscape scale’ what matters is production of both food and the level of biodiversity (especially for the services that help produce food such as pollination).

The optimal way to design a landscape that produces food and biodiversity depends on a number of factors. Sometimes, using the whole land farmed extensively does best (e.g. organic agriculture). Sometimes, you get both more food and more wildlife if you separate areas out for specialised conservation areas and conventionally farm the rest; this allows some areas to be farmed for high productivity.

This potentially gives a route forwards: we need both high productivity and sustainability. Moving to a greener agriculture is necessary for sustainability (e.g. precision farming, low-input, no-till) but this need not entail a wholesale conversion to organic methodologies.

At the scale of the plot, some of our research indicates that GM crops and those developing non-GM biotechnologies can help make farming more sustainable. Crops can be modified to enable them to grow in conditions they otherwise wouldn’t, places prone to drought for example, and be resistant to pests that would otherwise require spraying with insecticides. Such crops may provide high yields and also require less chemical and energy input.

GM crops will carry a risk that needs proper evaluation; however, not using them also carries a cost: more land will be required to grow the food needed, and conversion of the extra land to farming may impact heavily on the local environment.

We are also working with our African partners on the use of biotechnology, including GM, to benefit smallholder farmers. For example bananas are a staple food for over 60 million Africans whose food security is at threat when yields are reduced by plant diseases and pests. This includes nematodes, and the growth of bananas at high density for several years over large areas increases nematode populations and consequently the severity of the crop damage; it is estimated that losses exceed 35% in sub-Saharan Africa.

Most edible bananas are sterile and produce no seeds slowing their natural evolution and improvement by conventional plant breeding. Africa College partners are working together in public research using plant biotechnology to provide nematode resistant cooking bananas and plantains to benefit smallholder farmers in Africa.

About Mr David Howlett

David Howlett is Executive Director of Africa College and a visiting senior research fellow in climate change and agriculture at the University of Leeds. He is currently working with research scientists across different faculties at Leeds and with African research partners to increase the impact of their research. He is working to turn research results into evidence to inform agriculture and climate change policies.

Before joining Leeds, David worked for the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) where he worked on food and climate change policies. Prior to this he led DFID’s agriculture research team. David has lived and worked in Asia and Africa and most recently was a United Nations Development Programme adviser based in the Vice President’s Office in Tanzania. He has undertaken research on sustainable land management while working for international and national research organisations in Africa, Asia as well as the Pacific.

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