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Striking the right balance: food production without the environmental cost

Jun 04,2015

Improving farmer access to new innovations will help raise global food production sustainably

Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Director General, ICARDA

Producing enough food for a growing population will be one of our biggest challenges in the years and decades ahead - not least in the dry areas where changes in climate patterns are already having their most acute effects. Forced to contend with increasingly harsh conditions, we will need to help rural communities earn a living and produce food securely in a situation where land is already degraded, water scarce, and rainfall and temperature patterns unpredictable.   

Today, on World Environment Day, as the global development community focuses on living sustainably – and how we can do more and better with less – we at ICARDA have a simple and direct message: scientific innovation is the key to reversing environmental degradation, raising agricultural productivity, and protecting our natural resources.

In essence, a sustainable life for the billions who share this increasingly crowded planet will depend on our ability to produce more food - without an environmental cost. 

Despite the complexity and scale of this challenge, ICARDA’s research and experience tells us that this is possible. There are practical and sustainable solutions available now which can help farmers contend with drought and the harsh environments that prevail across many of the regions where we work.

They include improved crop varieties that are able to resist/tolerate drought, heat, disease and insect pests; technologies such as deficit and supplemental irrigation which help deliver ‘more crop per drop’; sustainable land management practices such as conservation agriculture which help reverse land degradation; improved livestock productivity, forage, and integrated crop-livestock systems; and robust seed systems – getting quality seed into the hands of farmers, fast.

Our ability to prepare for a more sustainable future will also depend on innovations such as ‘FIGs’ – or Focused Identification of Germplasm Strategy – a new approach to mining agricultural gene banks which helps to speed the pace of research innovation for food security.

With the aid of ‘FIGs we can quickly identify the wild relatives of strategic crops which demonstrate  desirable agronomic traits such as early maturation and optimal height, and provide new sources of resistance/tolerance to drought, heat, and cold; debilitating diseases such as stripe/yellow rust disease; and highly destructive pests such as Russian wheat aphids and Sunn pest.  

If we are to ensure that farmers and rural communities benefit from these technologies, however, we also need to improve their dissemination: using farmer-participatory methods to deliver practical, cost-effective innovations that are effectively adapted to community needs.

Useful models exist, including an ICARDA-led project which works with communities in the Gumara-Maksegnit region of Ethiopia, implementing, testing and fine-tuning soil and water conservation interventions alongside the introduction of improved crop varieties and agronomic practices.

Another project, the IFAD-funded CACILM Knowledge Management initiative, is gathering information on proven land management practices and technologies, and making these available through modern communication technologies targeting decision makers, donors, and most importantly, farmers, to control land degradation. 

While effective, these initiatives are also limited, and we therefore need even more ambitious efforts that are capable of delivering new innovations on a larger scale. Unfortunately, a chronic lack of investment in agricultural research and development and a routine failure on the part of many developing countries to prioritize agriculture mean that the goal of wider dissemination will continue to elude us.

On World Environment Day we need to reverse this with a renewed commitment to investments, partnerships, and effective community engagement to enhance agriculture productivity and protect natural resources.