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Statement by Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of IFAD at the food security 2012 conference

Sustainable intensification:  Miracle or mirage?

Before we begin our panel discussion this morning, I would like to propose some questions for you to mull over.

Why are we talking about intensifying agricultural production today, when we already produce enough food for every man, woman and child on the planet?

Why are we talking about intensification when one third of the world's food ends up as waste? When 57 per cent of the potential edible crop harvest is not available for consumption. When an estimated 40 per cent of the corn produced in the United States this year will be used for biofuel and about 90 per cent of the world's soya will be consumed by animals instead of humans.

Why are we talking about intensification when, using our most conservative estimates, at least 20 per cent of the crops produced in sub-Saharan Africa deteriorate after harvest because they cannot be safely stored?

Why do we need to grow more food when 1.4 billion adults are overweight?

Yes, it is true that the world population is growing, and that we have more mouths to feed than ever before. But today, there is no actual shortage of food, globally. And there is every reason to believe that tomorrow we will still be able to produce enough food.

And yet it is also true that today around 870 million people barely get enough food to survive. If we focus on intensifying production without addressing the real problems of getting food where it is needed, of overcoming poverty and of ending these scandalous levels of food spoilage and waste, then we will never address the real issue -- which is ensuring that every child, woman and man has access to the food they need to live full and productive lives.

Let me be clear. There is a need to intensify crop production, but that need is primarily a need of smallholders, who today are not even producing enough food for themselves and their families. It is smallholders who need to be able to double or even quadruple production so that they can feed themselves and their communities. And they must be able to do so in sustainable fashion. This is the context in which we should be discussing sustainable intensification.

Phrases like sustainable intensification function as short-hand between development experts, but they also have a tendency to morph over the years, becoming so broad that they lose their precise meaning.

However, for those of us who work, day-to-day, in agricultural development, sustainable intensification is not a theoretical construct.

True, it is a philosophy rather than a distinct method of operation.  But it is a philosophy that has guided our work in the field for many years now and has yielded impressive – some would even say miraculous – results. 

So, rather than getting bogged down by a debate on semantics, let me put forward IFAD's understanding of sustainable intensification, how we are applying it in the field and the results we are observing.

Sustainable intensification starts with the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, environmental and social. It is development that respects and responds to local conditions, whether environmental or cultural, so that the land is not diminished nor the resource base depleted. It maximizes the use of natural processes and ecosystems and reduces excessive use of external inorganic inputs.

And, with a rapidly warming world presenting farmers with higher levels of uncertainty, it also integrates risk management and climate change adaptation.

For IFAD, sustainable intensification complements conventional approaches to increasing productivity with a much stronger focus on soil and water management and overall farm production systems. 

It looks at integrating nutrient cycles using crops, animals and trees. It employs integrated pest management. It promotes agricultural growth that is integrated into ecosystems rather than extractive, so that the land can provide for future generations of farmers.

Here, I should also note that when we talk of farming systems, we are talking about smallholder farming systems. Smallholders were at the heart of the initial sustainable intensification discourse of the 1990s, and they must remain at the heart of our efforts to ensure food security in developing countries today.

The arguments for this are not new, but they are worth repeating. There are around 500 million smallholder farms in the world, supporting around 2 billion people. In Africa, 80 per cent of all farms are small.

Most smallholders in developing countries are poor. Many are net buyers of food.

These smallholders are a vast and underutilised resource. They have the potential to play a significant role in food security at the local, national and regional levels. They have the potential to build vibrant rural communities. But today, hundreds of millions of smallholders are marginalised and dream of a better life for themselves in the city.

It is these poor rural people – whether smallholders or pastoralists, fishermen or herders – who we work with, not just to increase production, but to do so in a way that nurtures the land, that improves their businesses and strengthens their links to markets so that these farmers can feed themselves, educate their children and invest in the growth of their own communities.

Indeed, developing smallholder agriculture leads to sustainable communities because when smallholders have money they hire local help, buy local goods, eat local food and even drink local beers. In other words, they stimulate local economies, to the greater benefit of national economies. 

Let me give you some examples of sustainable intensification as it plays out in the field. Twenty years ago, the fields around the village of Batodi in Niger were almost barren. An IFAD-supported project worked with local farmers to revive and improve the traditional practice of using planting pits and half-moons to rehabilitate degraded land.

The pits are dug before the rains. They collect and store rainfall and run-off.  The half-moons are earth embankments in the shape of a semi-circle. They are much larger than the pits and are also used to capture run-off water.

Today, the fields around Batodi have higher on-farm tree densities than they did 20 years ago. The soil is more fertile and the trees provide fodder for livestock.  There is evidence that suggests the water harvesting techniques have recharged the groundwater with increases in well water levels.

As a result, villagers have been able to grow vegetable gardens around the wells. In 2011, the village had 10 vegetable gardens around wells and several vegetable gardens have become permanent, which means that crops are grown during the entire year. 

As a result, villagers, who have access to these gardens are better able to cope with drought years compared to those without access.

And yet, the project itself actually ended in 1996. But when staff returned earlier this year they found that farmers were continuing using the techniques that had been introduced more than 16 years earlier, and when they asked if any children had died during the famine of 2011, they were told that all had survived.

For those of us working in development, the ability of poor people to grow food and feed themselves during one of the worst droughts in living memory, using simple water harvesting techniques learned from a project 16 years earlier, qualifies as a miracle.

However, I sometimes get worried when I hear people talk about miracles because they imply that there is a single action we can take that can magically grow enough food to feed all the people in the world while also ensuring that the world's poorest people can earn more money and not go hungry.

We need to stop chasing a one-step fixes all approach.  There is no magic bullet, no secret formula. There is no universal method for sustainable intensification. But there are many and variable solutions that, when tailored to the realities of a specific region, or even a specific village, and supported by the necessary policies and institutions -- can transform agriculture, and in the process transform lives.

Sustainable intensification also requires long-term investments in research and development, along with effective public-private partnerships to bring the results from the laboratory to the field.  Indeed, the State of Food and Agriculture issued last week by FAO confirmed that public investment in agricultural research and development, education and rural infrastructure yields much higher returns than other expenditures, both in terms of productivity improvement and in reducing poverty and hunger. This is a double win.

It was research that generated Quality Protein Maize. QPM has been widely used by farmers and is reducing malnutrition among adults and babies in developing countries. And research has given us a variety of new tools including Marker Assisted Selection, Marker Assisted Breeding, tissue culture and embryo rescue techniques.

These offer many benefits. They can boost productivity, improve the tolerance of seeds and plants to drought, temperature stress and pests, and make nutrient use more efficient.
But we must recognize that technology, including biotechnology, is only a tool. It is not an end in itself. Agricultural research must meet the needs of poor farmers, and that includes research into improving existing methods that are easily affordable and accessible to poor people.

As you can see from the Niger example, it is not always the most advanced technology that reaps the greatest rewards. Sometimes, the best way to grow food in an arid climate is to go back to basics, building a rock dam to stabilize soil and collect water runoff, or constructing cisterns to collect rain water.

In some contexts, simply optimizing conventional approaches, such as the use of fertilizers and micro-irrigation, can yield dramatic results.  

In Africa, for example, only about 6 per cent of the total cultivated land is irrigated, compared with 37 per cent in Asia. It is estimated that irrigation alone could increase output by up to 50 per cent in Africa.

Similarly, small increases in organic or inorganic fertilizer use in sub-Saharan Africa could produce dramatic improvements in yields because farmers there use less than 13 kilogrammes of fertilizer per hectare. This compares with about 73 kilogrammes in the Middle East and North Africa, and 190 kilogrammes in East Asia and the Pacific.

Even in East Asia and the Pacific, there is wide variation in fertilizer use across countries. But clearly, in countries that have over-used fertilizer for too many years, this approach would be counter-productive.

The challenge, therefore, is striking the right balance. A fertilizer micro-dosing technique developed by ICRISAT and its partners is helping farmers grow more food without exploiting the soil by using a bottle cap to measure out small, affordable amounts of fertilizer, and placing that fertilizer precisely – with or nearby the seed.

This attention to detail and emphasis on knowledge over the indiscriminate use of chemicals is another central element of sustainable intensification.

Let us also take the example of SRI rice intensification which aims to increase yields in irrigated farming without relying on purchased inputs. Various aspects of SRI technology have been adopted throughout the developing world, from Africa to Asia.

IFAD is closely involved in efforts to test SRI in countries like Rwanda and Madagascar, where it was first developed in the 1980s. And, responding to scepticism around SRI, we are carefully documenting the results.

I have met farmers in Rwanda whose rice production had more than doubled using SRI methods.  I am not sure whether this qualifies as a miracle in your eyes, but for the farmers whose production and income has increased so dramatically, I can assure you it is miraculous.

As I mentioned earlier, understanding the social context is critical to sustainable intensification.

Consider that women are increasingly the farmers of the developing world. Yet in many societies women face greater constraints and have fewer rights than men. And they work longer hours when you add up the time it takes for their extra chores, childcare and tending to the home.

It has been estimated that the production on women's farms could increase by as much as 30 per cent simply by giving women the same access to existing agricultural resources and inputs as men. 

Studies also indicate that when women earn money, they are more likely than men to spend it on food for the family. In Côte d'Ivoire, for example, a ten dollar increase in women's income brought the same level of improvement in child health and nutrition as a one hundred and ten dollar increase in men's income.

Sustainable intensification only works if farmers are willing to change their practices. If a farmer cannot profitably market her surplus, there is no logical reason to produce more than her family can store or consume. There is no motivation to adopt productivity enhancing technologies, particularly those  with costly external inputs.

In order to benefit from new markets and respond to new demand, farmers need roads that are not only paved, but are able to withstand more frequent and extreme weather events. They need reliable access to electricity and clean water. They also need better links to markets and information. They need good governance, and consistent and predictable trade-related policies.

And, of course, they need processing and storage facilities. As I mentioned earlier an estimated 20 to 40 per cent of crop production is lost in sub-Saharan Africa because of deterioration after harvest. Post-harvest losses on this scale are scandalous, particularly on a continent where millions of people go hungry.

One thing that I haven't touched on here, which we may wish to explore further in our panel discussion, is the fact that some of the projections for future food needs are predicated on industrially intensive production, with a more affluent world population demanding diets rich in red meat, animal fats and sugars. Is this the best course for the health of the planet and the health of human populations?

As we discuss how much more food we need to grow, and how to grow it, let us make sure we are asking ourselves the right questions.  And let us remember that more is at stake than simply increasing yields. What is at stake is the sustainability of rural economies, the sustainability of political systems, and the sustainability of a way of life for more than 2 billion people.

Thank you.

London, 10 December 2012