The Montpellier Panel launch their latest report at the Houses of Parliament. Ramadjita Tabo reports.

Ramadjita Tabo

Only one country in Africa, Ghana, will meet the first Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger and poverty by 2015. New solutions to Africa’s food and resource scarcity challenges are thus being sought as the world develops the next set of global development goals post-2015.

One such solution, sustainable intensification, has proved controversial yet offers real promise, even to small-scale farmers, if it can be redefined and adapted to suit these farmers’ local contexts.

Sustainable intensification, an agricultural development pathway that aims to reconcile food production and environmental protection, is a highly politicised term that divides academics and practitioners alike. Although, when first coined by Jules Pretty, the term was a way of bringing often divergent priorities such as addressing declines in land and agricultural productivity, pollution and food insecurity together under a new paradigm, it has been since accused of being a ruse for big, industrial agriculture.

Redefining sustainable intensification

Now a new report, Sustainable Intensification: A New Paradigm for African Agriculture, authored by the Montpellier Panel, aims to revisit the paradigm of sustainable intensification as a practical approach for smallholder African farmers to tackle food insecurity. The Montpellier Panel, a group of African and European experts in the fields of agriculture, sustainable development, trade and policy, define sustainable intensification as “the goal of producing more food with less impact on the environment, intensifying food production while ensuring the natural resource base on which agriculture depends is sustained, and indeed improved, for future generations.”

The report breaks down the definition into two parts: intensification and sustainability. Intensification is defined as increasing farm outputs, production, income and/or nutrition, per unit of input (e.g. land, water, labour, fertiliser, pesticides or biodiversity). By qualifying the inputs and outputs to encompass this broader range of factors, the report seeks to expand the definition away from the perhaps more typical form of intensification of increasing crop yields through heavy chemical use.

But intensification alone is insufficient to address both resource scarcity and difficulties in accessing inputs. Intensification must also be sustainable. It must be prudent in its use of inputs, efficient in seeking returns and reducing waste, resilient to future shocks and stresses, and equitable to producers and consumers. Sustainable intensification thus encompasses a range of goals that must be achieved simultaneously.

Achieving sustainable intensification

Realising sustainable intensification at scale may seem a tall order, but the report outlines a variety of practical (and achievable) examples of sustainable intensification, many of which are generated by farmers themselves, under three headings:

  • Ecological intensification is the utilisation and intensification of ecological processes to create sustainable forms of crop and livestock production. One such form of ecological intensification is intercropping, which grows two plants together in a way that reduces competition and increases mutual benefits between them.For example, Faidherbia trees are a leguminous species which, curiously, shed their leaves in the wet season – providing a natural nutrient source to crops such as maize planted underneath – which allows sunlight to pass through. Maize yields are boosted by the increased access to nitrogen from the legumes nitrogen-fixing bacteria, while the decomposition of the tree’s leaves into the soil also sequesters carbon. It is these win-win examples that sustainable intensification encompasses for smallholder farmers.
  • Genetic intensification is the concentration of beneficial genes within crop varieties and livestock breeds. If sustainable intensification is to meet both current and future food and resource needs we will need to utilise existing methods, such as Faidherbia, as well as develop new game-changing technologies.One ongoing project, Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), aims to develop some 15 new drought-tolerant maize varieties, which will be marketed royalty-free to smallholder farmers in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Uganda and Tanzania. Developed through conventional breeding, marker-assisted selection and genetic engineering, the next phase of the project is developing maize varieties also resistant to pests such as stem borers, which may present even more of a barrier to increasing agricultural productivity under a changing climate.
  • Socio-economic intensification is the process of developing innovative and sustainable institutions on the farm, in the community and across regions and nations as a whole. African smallholders require equitable access to input and output markets and help with joining remunerative value chains. Markets can offer poor farmers better access to inputs, knowledge and credit while also helping to increase their income from selling surplus crops. Yet, most poor farmers are not linked to markets. Smallholders, in particular, often have little contact with the market and hence a poor understanding of, and ability to react to, market forces.One solution is to work with farmer associations to create and run village-level ‘grain banks,’ where farmers can safely deposit their grain. The store is usually fumigated against pests, some grain is kept in case the owner needs it later in the year, and the rest is sold when market prices seem right rather than immediately after harvest. In such a system in Kenya, the marketing depends on having a countrywide network of small and large markets. This network is supported by the Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange (KACE), a private sector firm that provides farmers with prices and other market intelligence accessible to smallholders using simple mobile phone texts.

It is the combination of all three groups of practical approaches to sustainable intensification around both technical and socio-economic interventions that makes this new paradigm radical in its thinking.

The way forward

Despite the variety of examples described, many are small in scale and scope and geographically isolated. What we need now is to link, combine and take to scale existing proven technologies, processes and systems while investing in new solutions for the future.

Although many African countries have experienced significant growth in agriculture and the wider economy in the past decade, the process of sustainable intensification, can help farmers to reduce hunger and poverty much further while managing environmental resources prudently in the long-term.

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About Ramadjita Tabo

Dr Ramadjita Tabo is a member of The Montpellier Panel and Deputy Executive Director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA).

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