Creating an agro-ecological system to feed 9 billion people

Posted: 26 September 2011

Author: Phil Harris

Author Info: Professor of Plant Science and Director of the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security at Coventry University

Most experts agree that food production must grow by 50-70 per cent by 2050 to meet the needs of a global population of some nine billion. But how, Professor Harris asks, is that to be done when - despite past food gains - poverty continues to be the biggest barrier to adequate nutrition in the developing world?

A report by Olivier de Schutter, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the right to food, argues that conventional ways to increase food production, such as using high-yielding crops, disease resistant varieties and pesticides, do not benefit the poorest farmers, who cannot keep up with the increasingly high and unpredictable costs of these methods.

Contoured bands of nitrogen-fixing shrubs, with crop litter in between to serve as organic fertiliser, Davao, The Phillipines. © John Rowley
Contoured bands of nitrogen-fixing shrubs, with crop litter in between to serve as organic fertiliser, Davao, The Philippines.
© John Rowley

The report supports agroecology, which is a range of simple farming techniques that improve crop yield by promoting naturally beneficial interactions between soil, nutrients, crops, pollinators, trees and livestock. These measures can help alleviate rural poverty by reducing farmers' dependency on external products and state subsidies.

At Coventry University we have a strong track record for high-quality applied research in agroecology and food security. And it is an approach, we believe, can help ensure food security. However, the wider challenge for agriculture is how to feed the world's growing population while creating resilient, and sustainable, food systems on a global scale, which goes beyond simply advocating agroecology.

While at a local level sustainable approaches to food systems are being applied, there are barriers to these approaches being adopted more widely. In short there is a lack of knowledge and access to information, and also a lack of resources and technology. There is a need to create 'resilient' food systems worldwide, and that's why we have established what we are calling a 'Grand Challenge Initiative' in collaboration with UK charity Garden Organic around Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security.

Finding solutions

Each element of research we are undertaking contributes to addressing the issue of "How can we create 'resilient' food systems worldwide?". To help to answer this question we are looking at, for example, work being undertaken in relation to food nutritional security and sustainable agriculture, access to the products of sustainable agriculture, the ecological and social resilience of agriculture to withstand and respond to natural and human-induced disasters, and the cultural and political dimensions of food production, food security and food sovereignty. All these issues we are engaged in.

We are committed to finding solutions to this challenge through the creation of resilient food systems which, at a UK level, can potentially support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production. Internationally, and especially in developing countries (where our core activity is), we want to help combat climate change, support adaptation and low carbon growth, enhance the environment and biodiversity to improve the quality of life for people living in these regions.

But how can we support this bigger objective?

It's about education. We are working with universities in Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and Sierra Leone on a three-year project to develop the full potential of organic agriculture in West Africa. We are training graduates, farmers, extension officers and civil society organisations to develop a viable organic agriculture sector. We are also working on the research that underpins organic production and provides the scientific basis for local production standards and certification.

Organic farmer, India
Organic farmer in India ploughing green manure into his fields. Photo © Organic India

This will help to embed organic agriculture into the curriculum in West African universities. Graduates will benefit by participating in the global organic sector, by helping to develop locally appropriate standards and technologies - and in the production and marketing of West African organic products. The beneficiaries will be the farmers whose livelihoods will improve thanks to the reduction of production costs, and increase in agricultural yields.

In Bangladesh, meanwhile, we are jointly developing an undergraduate curriculum with North-South University in climate change, natural hazards and disaster management. We are also undertaking staff development in key subject areas, exchange teaching visits, joint research activity, and are developing a programme of research degrees where students will spend time at both universities. It is essential to improve skills to tackle the problems that lie ahead.

It is also essential to support new markets. In Uganda, we are working with the UK company Tropical Wholefoods to help diversify the business of Ugandan farmers’ co-operative, Fruits of the Nile, to enable smallholders to become more resilient to competition.

New crops - new markets

Organic plantain, Nigeria
Coventry University is encouraging Nigerian graduates to develop sustainable and profitable organic enterprises, including this organic plantain. Photo credit: Coventry University

We are investigating the production of other products for the UK market, and specifically temperate berry fruits. Little was known or understood about the performance of these berry fruits on a commercial scale - but we've found that the cultivation of certain varieties (of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and cape gooseberries) in Uganda is technically feasible, and there appear to be no constraints to organic and Fair Trade certification.

By the end of this project, Fruits of the Nile will establish commercial scale production of the successful varieties for sale in the UK through composite organic and Fair Trade food products and directly to multiple retailers via Tropical Wholefoods.

In Kenya, we have recently completed a study of the market potential of a range of products from the exotic tree, Prosopis, formerly considered only as a weed. Following promising results in Baringo District, the Government of Kenya gave further limited funding for outreach training and demonstration for Turkana, Garissa and Tana River Districts.

The Prosopis pod flour is now being used to make human foods, improving family nutrition and saving money. A recipe book has been widely disseminated), and more money earned from sales of collected pods for export to South Africa for dietary supplements, and to livestock feed manufacturers in Nairobi. The Kenyan Forestry Research Institute is now playing an important role in the marketing and adoption Prosopis in other rural areas..

In Jamaica, we have collaborated with the Jamaica Organic Agriculture Movement and the Jamaican Network of Rural Women Producers. The work was focused on the the Mango Valley Visionaries Friendly Society in St Mary Parish, one of the poorest in Jamaica. It has developed novel ways of integrating organic crop production, sales of local products and agro-tourism. It has helped rural women to design their own strategies and provided a model that  has benefitted other communities in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.

Political element

Viable food systems also have a political element. In Cuba, where we've had a focus on climate change mitigation and building resilience to drought since the 1990s, we are working on a new project to mitigate climate change in food production systems through the development and use of a 'carbon calculator' among policy-makers and practitioners in two provinces, Pinar del Rio and Matanzas.

At the end of the project we will have a carbon calculator that is available to, and adapted for use by, Cuban producers - and an action plan for the two provinces. We will also produce a policy document on changing producer behaviour for climate change, which will provide guidance on the environmental policies that will support best practice in this area in Cuba.

In South Africa, the government has developed a policy aimed at strengthening property rights in communal areas and creating common property institutions (CPIs) to help community-based management of natural resources. However, the effectiveness of this is unknown as CPIs in communal areas are potentially subject to many constraints, not least the persistence of traditional authorities which may maintain control over land access and management.

The former Transkei region is an area known to support active traditional authorities - and there we are documenting the institutions that exist for rangeland access and management, with a particular focus on the constraints to their effective function in providing defined grazing rights for local users and the interaction between traditional and community-based structures. Our findings have important implications for policy development.

We believe our research into agroecology and food security issues can help, and even lead, the debate around this key issue: "How can we create 'resilient' food systems worldwide?" It is a question that urgently needs an answer.

Phil Harris is Professor of Plant Science and Director of the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security at Coventry University. A specialist in the field of plant science and tropical plant development, he has worked around the world advising on issues of sustainable agriculture and forestry. Professor Harris is the author of 14 books on related subjects.