Addressing food and water security: the effectiveness of Conservation Agriculture-based Sustainable Intensification through the Sustainable and Resilient Farming Systems Initiative

By Simon Ross, IWCAN

In an interview, Prof. Quentin Grafton, an economist from the Australian National University, referred to the Risks and Options Assessment for Decision-Making (ROAD) process used in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (EGP), which covers Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. The aim was to establish participatory processes for addressing food and water security in light of the risks associated with climate change in the context of a complex array of decisions about how to develop farming systems.

This article aims to clarify the ‘sustainable intensification’ concept that Quentin refers to and what that means for measuring the effectiveness of efforts to address food and water security in light of the risks associated with climate change, water scarcity and soil degradation in that context.

Food systems are inherently complex and the options for their management are becoming increasingly diverse and subject to debate. There are however undeniable trends: world population is increasing, becoming richer, and demanding a more resource-intensive diet. There is an increasing burden on the natural base of land and water resources, which are becoming more unpredictable due to the impacts of climate change.

Sustainable intensification

To get more food, or to cope with climate-induced stresses on food production, either the area of cultivation needs to increase or unit productivity must increase, or both. Sustainable intensification (SI) aims to obtain vastly higher yields, from 60 to120%, with no additional ecological impact, using only existing cultivated land and leaving the rest to support and maintain other ecosystem functions. This concept recognises the value ecosystem services from resources such as forests that can complement agriculture and provide other environmental and economic benefits such as improving water resources and improving soil quality provides, which will be required to ensure sufficient agricultural production to achieve food security for 9 billion people in 2050.

How this aspirational goal will be achieved is strongly based on the context, the values and the vision of each proponent. In many cases, solutions can appear to be incompatible. For example, SI has been interpreted by some in the farming industry and other interest groups as meaning high-input, high-output Western or modern of agricultural production and highly technical precision systems. Other interest groups may look at SI as highly diversified smallholder led knowledge-based systems with multiple local-scale, primarily organic, inputs and increased local participation in value chains.

There are also diverse views about the energy inputs into farming systems, with some optimistic about new efficient machinery to eliminate ‘drudgery’, with others associated more labour-intensive approached with local economic benefits. There is clearly a range of permutations in between these two views.

What this demonstrates is the Sustainable Intensification is the destination but not the journey. In a complex world with a growing population, improved productivity through the more effective use of inputs and a reduction of undesirable outputs intensifies food production, which is essential to achieve sustainability. This is true regardless viewpoint farmers have on sustainable intensification, whether it is climate-smart agriculture, agroecology, eco-efficiency, permaculture, technological optimism, organic production systems or something else.

The Sustainable and Resilient Farming Systems Initiative and its application in the Eastern Gangetic Plains

This leads us back to practical application Quentin’s work in the EGP on a project to look at an inclusive framework of the Sustainable and Resilient Farming Systems Initiative (SRFSI). The EGP is home to 300 million people, with a high concentration of poverty and a strong dependence on agriculture and natural resources. There is great potential to address food security here but strong limitations related to productivity, diversification from rice and wheat crops, access to markets, knowledge and education, water resources and labour.

Farmers are in the EGP are provided with training in conservation agriculture (CA) practices, which is an approach that prioritises soil conservation, reduced water consumption, and economic productivity as the most important strategies for sustainable intensification.

The info-graphic above provides gives more context, however, the three main strategies of this approach are:

  • not tilling or ploughing the soil so it is not disturbed or eroded;
  • leaving crop residues where they are and using mulches and leguminous cover crops to retain moisture, improve soil biology, and control weeds; and
  • using crop rotation and diversification, again to reduce the spread of pests and diseases and build soil infrastructure.

One pragmatic approach taken by CA is the use of machinery and limited use of herbicides and herbicide-resistant seeds and crops as a trade-off for soil conservation and productivity.

Is it working?

Quentin’s project, which is underway, aims to find out whether these SI practices can provide the basis for improved smallholder productivity and resilience to climate change, and whether this type of framework can develop local institutions that allow women and men to continue to innovate and adapt to the significant challenges this region faces.

Quentin clarified his expectations around this. The project is on track, but in terms of the bigger picture;

“You can’t track change over short periods of time; you are talking about over 300 million people; you are talking about transformational change. For complex problems, you are merely leading to a better set of outcomes that you would have otherwise not been able to achieve. This is a real-world incremental improvement approach.”Quentin Grafton, Australian National University

Almost 200 hectares of agricultural land is now covered by conservation agriculture-based sustainable intensification and institutionally strong interest has been generated. On another level, as many conservation agriculture mechanisation approaches such as direct seeding machines are reported to take away some the ‘drudgery’ of some farming roles and women are reportedly finding more attractive avenues to be involved in an agricultural economy.

If you wish to follow further progress on the project you can find more details the ACIAR article, ‘Sustainable and resilient farming systems intensification in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (SRFSI),’ or the CGIAR article ‘Transforming food systems in the Eastern Gangetic Plains.’

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