FAO publishes guide for scaling up sustainable farming

The paper says private companies concentrate too much on short-term profit margins, and that more research has to be carried out with public funding.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has published a report on sustainable farming methods for different world regions, saying these practices need to be scaled up with government and private sector support in the face of climate change.

Examples used in the 124-page report includes what it describes as the “widely adopted” zero-tillage wheat farming in the drying northern steppes of Kazakhstan, a slash-and-mulch (versus slash-and-burn) method used in Central America, and a sub-Saharan grass that can be used for effective fodder on pasturelands in Brazil’s wet Cerrados.

Save and Grow in practice: maize, rice, wheat also says that the methods used so successfully in the Green Revolution of the 1960s – an era that saw new machinery, genetic research and chemical technologies improve crop yields at an unprecedented scale – could no longer be relied on to increase yields and feed growing populations. It argues that an anticipated increase of production in cereals to 3.3 billion tonnes by 2050 will need to come from existing farmland, one third of which has been degraded.

It has some stark predictions, such as a 20 percent reduction in African maize yields and diminished rice-growing capabilities in the river deltas of Asia as climate change deepens. The paper also argues that land degradation, salinisation and the build up of pest resistance is due to the scentific characteristics of the Green Revolution that helped reduce hunger in the developing markets like China.

The FAO paper outlines how smallholder farmers in Zambia that cannot afford chemical fertilisers can find more cost effective solutions by keeping nitrogen-rich trees in their maize fields. It encourages natural methods for rice growing that reduce water use by 70 percent, and the use of a fodder crop, the pest-repelling Napier grass, to combat the striga moth.

The paper says that in Kenya’s “Kisii district, the income of push-pull maize farmers, per hectare, was three times that of their neighbours.” In western Kenya, the moth larvae infests as much as 76 percent of land maize and sorghum fields, causing annual losses valued at more than $40 million.

“The challenge now is to upscale the approach in national programmes. That will require a revitalised global partnership for development and major increases in investment in agriculture,” the paper says.

It also calls for public sector investment in seed breeding, saying  the private sector seed breeding relies only on profit, and that technologies like using molecular markers to improve cereal yields need to be made accessible to small-scale farmers.

It also outlines worries that “the locus of agricultural research and development has shifted from the public to the national and multinational private sector.

It continues: “As private investment increases, public investment in research and development has fallen in almost half of the world’s low-income countries. Private companies tend to concentrate on commodities and short-term profit margins and, in many cases, to promote technologies – such as chemical pest control – that rely on external inputs, without regard for sustainability.”

One of these areas could be in the fast-developing space of biological plant science, an area that relies on the fungi and bacteria that live in plants and their ecosystems to improve plant vigour, nutrient uptake and resistance to extreme weather conditions. Last year, biotechnology company AgBiome raised $34.5 million from investors including Syngenta Ventures and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

One chief executive in the space, who previously worked at Monsanto, told Agri Investor that such biological technologies will be developed in the private sector to work alongside chemicals like pesticides, rather than replace them, but could do a great deal to reduce their usage.