Agriculture is the basic sector of economic and human development: from satisfaction of primary food requirement to the import and export of products.
Contemporary agricultural practice is nowadays facing a new challenge.
Extreme temperatures, dryness and frosts, have become more and more frequent, and monsoons period and process of desertification are grievously affecting agriculture productivity.
At the same time, it has been estimated that agriculture is responsible for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Agriculture is entering a vicious circle in which climate change negatively affect agricultural productivity and agricultural production is a factor of climate change.
New technology frontiers have rendered agriculture an important part of the solution, through mitigation of a significant amount of global emissions. Some 70% of this mitigation potential could be realized in developing countries.
Imagine: agriculture as resource not just for feeding, but also to achieve the mitigation of negative effects of climate change. Food security and climate change can be addressed together by transforming agriculture and adopting practices and policies that also safeguard the natural resource base for future generations. In a formula: climate-smart agriculture.
This project is not just science fiction. International organizations such as FAO, IFAD and WFP have been promoting and financing programmes for the research and implantation of these new technologies.
Programmes sponsored by IOs and NGOs have focused on the experiment and implantation of new production systems which involve in the cycle of sustainable development many factors.
Soil and nutrient management
The availability of nitrogen and other nutrients is essential to increase yields. The use of methods and practices that increases organic nutrient inputs such as composting manure and crop residues, more precise matching of nutrients with plant needs, controlled release and deep placement technologies have a double effect. On the one hand, they increase productivity; on the other, they reduce the need of synthetic fertilizers which, due to cost and access, are often unavailable to smallholders and that very often worsen the quality of the final product.
Water harvesting and use
Improved water harvesting and retention systems (such as pools, dams, pits, retaining ridges, etc.) and water-use efficiency (irrigation systems) are fundamental for increasing production and addressing increasing irregularity of rainfall patterns. At the same time, these water management systems have often minimum impact on environment.
Pest and disease control
If human beings face many difficulties in adapting their practices to climate change, pathogen cells seem to easily adapt to new environmental conditions. It has been estimated that distribution, incidence and intensity of animal and plant pests and epidemics is increasing in developing areas, due to higher temperatures and tax of humidity.
To face new diseases and pests, it seems essential not just to mitigate climate change effects, but also to rely on biodiversity. A growing variety of pests can be faced by addressing to seeds variety: the use of new seeds and tilling – pests resistant types – may be one of the immediate solutions.
Undoubtedly, main root of this issue is climate change.
Therefore, climate change seems to be an unrelenting phenomenon, above all for the implications on countries’ development. It seems thus that the solution should be sought on the one hand in the mitigation of climate change, on the other in the use of new practices which can adapt production to new environmental conditions.
The most immediate solution has appeared to be just one: Genetic resources.
Science has reached today a stage in which genetic make-up can determine plants and animals tolerance to shocksÂ such as temperature extremes, droughts, flooding and pests and diseases. It also may regulate the length of growing season/production cycle and the response to inputs such as fertilizer, water and feed. Besides, the use of new seeds can improve the quality of the final product since they can prevent the massive use of pesticides and illnesses
Think about drought tolerant maize, flood tolerant rice, drought, weeds and pests tolerant rice, or even biofortified crops, bred to be rich in nutrients.
Not all these solutions are immune from criticism. Modern technologies and advances in the agriculture sector, such as inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, feeds, supplements, high yielding varieties, and land management and irrigation techniques increase considerably production. However in certain circumstances these practices and techniques have caused ecological damage, degradation of soils, unsustainable use of resources; outbreak of pests and diseases and have caused health problems to both livestock and humans.
The result is exactly the opposite of what was expected: lower yields, outbreaks of pests and diseases, degradation or depletion of natural resources and forests encroachment.
In addition, there are many production systems in developing countries that due to a lack of finance, resources, knowledge and capacity are well below the potential yield that could be achieved.
A viable path
New seeds are not necessarily genetically modified, but may be just imported by another area and implanted in another. Besides, the same result offered by genetic seeds can often be reached through simple practices of cultivation and irrigation.
For example, water management practices are essential for the prevention of malaria. Traditionally, malaria prevention efforts have relied on pesticides or pharmaceutical drugs. As mosquitoes develop resistance to pesticides and as drugs lose their effectiveness against the malarial parasite. Countries could develop infrastructures for water management practices that curb malaria at its source: stagnant pools of water common in irrigated agriculture.
Another – often underrated – solution is agroforestry.
The use of trees and shrubs in agricultural systems help to tackle the triple challenge of securing food security, mitigation and reducing the vulnerability and increasing the adaptability of agricultural systems to climate change. On the productivity front, trees in the farming system represent a source of income and diversify production. In the field of climate change mitigation, trees can diminish the effects of extreme weather events, such as heavy rains, droughts and wind storms. They can improve soil fertility and soil moisture through increasing soil organic matter, and – at the same time – prevent erosion, stabilize soils, raise infiltration rates and halt land degradation.
Researches and international programmes provide many examples of “smart” solutions and many successful experiments.
Why is the solution not working?
Looking at progresses in the field and taking into consideration all financing and programmes started up by IOs and NGOs, it may be asked how come that there still persist a high rate of scarcity and food insecurity in many Countries?
The real problem seems to underlie in the weak political support.
There are three pillars to be considerate in the development issue: (1) farmers; (2) politicians and the government; (3) researchers. The formers are holder of practical knowledge, but sometimes, in front of unpredictable phenomena like desertification or unexpected floods, become impotent.
The latters, whose knowledge and discovering can’t substitute, but integrate, the practice of farmers, are often relegated in university departments and research laboratories. Existing knowledge, technologies and inputs do not easily reach farmers, especially in developing countries.
The connection between research and small holder farmers should be established at a government level through policies, infrastructures and considerable investments to build the financial and technical capacity of farmers.
More productive and resilient agriculture will need better management of natural resources, such as land, water, soil and genetic resources through practices, such as conservation agriculture, integrated pest management, agroforestry and sustainable diets.
At the same time, a viable solution can’t prescind from political and financial support. States and IOs should cooperate together for guaranteeing to smallholders access to inputs, to knowhow and to new technologies, whose implementation can not just guarantee a development, but also mitigate negative externalities of food production.
Smart. Isn’t it?