Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Sustainable intensification gets rural economies moving

2014 is the Year of Family Farming. Small-holder farmers, the majority of whom live in developing countries, will play an increasingly critical role in meeting future demands for food and fibre. Dr John Dixon, ACIAR's Principal Adviser, Research and Cropping Systems and Economics Research Program Manager, provides an opinion piece on why sustainable intensification (SI) of agriculture is essential to help these farmers grow more while caring for the environment...
A family head to market in Myanmar (photo by Keshia Hilliam)
The central rural development question of our times is how to deploy science and policy to boost farm productivity and rural economies without degrading resources, that is, for sustainable intensification.



There is an immediate need to get rural economies moving in poor countries, along with the massive challenge of more or less doubling farm output to meet the mid-century demand for food, fibre and other agricultural products – with less land and water.

Fittingly, 2014 is the International Year of Family Farming, which emphasises the problem and great potential of small farm households. Practically all live in developing countries and grow most of the rice, maize, wheat, meat and milk produced in those countries – although investment in large commercial farming is increasing in some countries.
"The intensification of agricultural production is essential in order to improving livelihoods of family farmers – and to feeding future rural and populations and cities."
The pressure on land, water and energy resources was reflected in increasing prices, for example the crisis in 2008. The declining real prices during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s led to complacency and neglect of public and private investment in agricultural innovation. A commitment to sustainable intensification is the best way to turn this around, according to the Royal Society of the UK, the high-level think tank Montpellier Panel or Independent Science and Partnership Council of the CGIAR.

The ACIAR-supported 'SIMLESA' project is short for 'Sustainable Intensification of Maize-Legume Systems for Food Security in Eastern and Southern Africa'. (Image courtesy of CIMMYT)
"Sustainable intensification (SI) means producing more output from the same area of land while reducing the negative environmental impacts and at the same time improving natural resources and environmental services." 
Farmers involved in the
Seeds of Life program
Implementing SI requires elements of agro-ecological, genetic and socioeconomic intensification - although the details can be debated.

ACIAR’s R&D partnerships are testing SI systems in the Pacific, Asia and Africa, focusing on different aspects of the SI systems, such as resource management, crops, livestock or people and their institutions.

Seeds of Life in East Timor is building productivity from low base despite weak rural institutions. In Africa, the SIMLESA program in east and southern Africa is implementing a systems approach to intensification and risk reduction in maize-legume farming systems – targeting benefits to more than 650,000 households.

Major African SI programs, including USAID-supported Africa Rising, met and shared experience last July in Ghana in a FARA workshop supported by ACIAR, USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Other major SI programs such as CSISA in South Asia and MasAgro in Mexico have lessons for the formulation of the new Australian Aid supported Sustainable Resilient Farming Systems Intensification with NARS of Bangladesh, India and Nepal targeting increased productivity for 2 million households.

These lessons point to four critical aspects of SI which require particular attention:
·    systems research and development – beyond disciplinary components;
·    innovation systems bridging research and scaling out;
·    policies, institutions and business partnerships; and
·    metrics and monitoring of sustainable intensification systems.

By Dr John Dixon, ACIAR's Principal Adviser, Research and Cropping Systems and Economics Research Program Manager.

Further information from ACIAR (projects and documents relating to Sustainable Intensification)

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