Sustainable Development Key for UN Action Agenda

Sustainable Development Key for UN Action Agenda

Sustainable development is one of 5 keys for the UN’s action agenda over the next few year. The major components of the sustainable development plan are halting farmland expansion, close yield gaps, reduce waste, shift diets, and use inputs more strategically.

Using inputs mores strategically is a key element to the use of biofertilizers and beneficial microorganisms. Sustainable development is a planetary goal and the United Nations plan to be a key player in this effort.


July 12, 2013

Sustainable development is one of the five priorities of UN Action Agenda for the next five years, and food, nutrition security and sustainable agriculture figure prominently in that plan.

Also the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability has identified this as a key issue and calls for a 21st Century Green Revolution that increases productivity, but also drastically reduces resource intensity and protects biodiversity at the same time. Economic growth with resilience to environmental threats will be central to the agenda of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June this year, which aims to map out a pathway of sustainable development for the planet. The ’Zero Draft’, the document states a resolve to fight hunger, eradicates poverty and work towards just and economically stable societies.

Food security is critical to this mission. The threats are numerous: repeated food price spikes; shortages of good-quality land and water; rising energy and fertilizer prices; and the consequences of climate change. Already, somewhere between 900 million and a billion people are chronically hungry, and by 2050 agriculture will have to cope with these threats while feeding a growing population with changing dietary demands. This will require doubling food production, especially if we are to build up reserves for climatic extremes. Durable food security and agricultural growth depend on development strategies with resilience built in from the start. To do this requires sustainable intensification — getting more from less — on a durable basis.

Food security is being threatened from many directions, not least from unsustainable forms of agriculture that are degrading the soil, water and biological diversity – problems that will be exacerbated by climate change. Time has come to turn again, therefore, to sustainable agriculture – ensuring that farmers, and particularly small producers, have the support they need to grow nutritious food in ways that meet human needs today, while protecting vital environmental resources for future generations. Time has come also to capitalize on our efforts in regional cooperation – ensuring that we avoid food protectionism and, instead, use our regional strengths to build flexible and resilient systems of food security.

As governments face up to the current economic storms, they must ensure that everyone, everywhere, has enough to eat. This is a clear humanitarian and development priority, but it is also a political imperative; food insecure people make angry citizens. The first priority, therefore, is to check the resilience of social safety nets – and, if necessary, bolster them to meet the immediate crisis. But the region also needs to look to the future. As this study emphasizes, the world’s food system has become increasingly fragile.

Combining Traditional and Technological

Farmers around the world will need to produce more food and other agricultural products on less land, with fewer pesticides and fertilizers, less water and lower outputs of greenhouse gases. This must be done on a large scale, more cheaply than current farming methods allow. And it will have to be sustainable — that is, it must last. For this to happen, the intensification will have to be resilient. Developing resilient agriculture will require technologies and practices that build on agro-ecological knowledge and enable smallholder farmers to counter environmental degradation and climate change in ways that maintain sustainable agricultural growth.

There was a silent and constructive revolution happening in Punjab with Nanak Kheti to save the environment, regenerate ecological resources to bring back soil productivity and re-establish ecological balance in the farms Organic farming in Punjab is called as “Nanak Kheti”; it means having farm produce by methods and techniques, which are congruent with Mother Nature. It involves zero tillage of land as well as abolition of all the synthetic chemicals which farmers were using to enhance their farm produce. Organic farming has now become a fad with young farmers and some of them have compelling reasons to shift to organic farming from traditional farming.

The farmers opting the Nanak Kheti have a mission, vision and action as they had taken pledges to start natural farming in one go or in a phased manner. Women folk who were ousted from the farming sector by chemical farming had opted for it on a large scale and even from their kitchen gardens, they were saving about Rs 2,500 per month. The experiment of ‘Nanak Kheti’ (natural farming) is a fitting reply to chemical farming in the state. There are at least 400 families who have opted for Nanak kheti in their kitchen gardens, while efforts are also being made on the commercial level. This kind of natural farming has not only reduced the input cost but also provides vegetables to the users. Farmers in Nanak Kheti were using Jeevamrita (a cow urine based microbial preparation) to revive microbial activity in soil.

Mulching is an essential part of natural farming. With the adoption of Jeevamrita and mulching, the farms are again becoming wealthy in soil health. Besides, the farmers for Nanak Kheti are using inter crops, plant residue, fallen leaves, bushes, weeds and sometimes even the wheat straw or the paddy straw cuttings spread in the fields to cover the naked soil. For pest control, month old butter-milk kept with Copper and iron piece is used. Farmer had spent only Rs 100-200 on inputs per acre as against Rs 3000 by a chemical farmer. There is need to train the young farmers how to practice organic farming. Each one of us can make a contribution towards a better Earth, so let’s work towards it beginning today itself.

“Once I was spraying chemicals on sugarcane and the chemicals were so pungent that I had bouts of dizziness and passed out. I was lying unconscious in my fields for two hours before someone spotted me. From there on I started organic farming with a vow to protect the environment”, informs Jasbir Singh (44) of Hindupur village, who is cultivating an organic farm for the past six years. “Even if the produce of wheat per acre in an organic farm is less, but that gets compensated as organic wheat is being sold at double the price. Normal wheat is Rs 1100/quintal, but organic wheat sells at Rs 2700/quintal”, informs Jasbir Singh. He uses crop rotation method for making his soil rich. Like after the harvest of wheat he sows moong dal to restore its fertility. He has even identified patches of his farmland where a particular crop would be sown after two years.

Says Gaurav Sahai (35), an organic farmer in Dera Bassi, “My aim is not to make money, but to ensure that healthy food is available to all. Even poor should have access to healthy food. I initially started it to eat healthy food myself, but as other people too wanted organic grain, the farm size grew”. Gaurav was earlier working in Silicon Valley, left his job and is now doing organic farming on his farm of 5 acres for the past three years. He has a fixed clientele for his produce, and the demand exceeds supply in his case. He agrees that initially he faced teething problems, but after three years when the soil regained its potential, his input now is less than the output, thus making him a healthy profitable. “It is not a practice for me, but organic farming is more or less a lifestyle. I have reverence for my land. I ensure that I don’t use heavy automated machinery on my farm land, rather sometimes I even advocate using bullocks which is a very effective technique,” he says.

Ludhiana-based Jasbir Singh (51) started organic farming when his wife fell ill and doctors informed that her illness was because of the presence of pesticides in the food they were eating. “So, I started organic farming initially for self consumption and then I graduated to commercial farming. I have five net houses where I grow coriander, tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicum and turmeric,” informs Jasbir who has a seven-acre organic farm. Twice, he has been awarded by the Government of Punjab, and now plans to start exporting his farm produce. He has a fixed clientele and says word of mouth publicity is the best. For Jasbir organic farming has proved to be a boon from bane. “I made a net profit of Rs 7.5 lakhs from the sale of my farm produce and around Rs 3 lakhs from the sale of vermin-compost to the apple growers of Kinnaur,” exults Jasbir..

Pathogen Evolution

The world’s wheat supplies are under threat from fast-mutating new strains of stripe rust, also known as yellow rust. The new strains attack hitherto resistant varieties and are spreading to new
areas. Unless they are stopped, stripe rust pandemic could destroy millions of hectares of wheat, with low-income countries suffering the most. A dozen countries suffered epidemics of stripe rust in 2009 and 2010. In 2009-10, an epidemic of stripe rust swept across West Asia. Syria lost 25 to 30 per cent of its wheat harvest in 2010 as a combined result of drought and stripe rust. The epidemic was caused by a new strain that overcame the resistance provided by the widely used stripe rust resistance gene Yr27.

A landmark study of pathogen variability, using data from 32 countries, highlighted the rapid spread of virulent new races of stripe and stem rust, and identified hot spots of vulnerability to leaf rust. Ug99, a new race of the fungus that causes stem rust, has spread from East Africa to West Asia, and could spread further into South Asia, Central Asia, China and the Mediterranean region. The incidence of leaf rust is also increasing. Ultimately, the goal should be to develop new resistant varieties to replace current ones – more than 80 per cent of today’s commercial wheat varieties are susceptible to stem and/or stripe rust. Global efforts are needed to develop new identified varieties and breeding materials resistant to the new pathogen strain and better understand how the pathogens evolve, and halt the spread of rust diseases. However, the need of the hour is that Surveillance and monitoring needs to scaled up further to help track the spread of rust pathogens and provide early warning of epidemics.

There is a need that major research advances be made to our understanding of the evolution of new strains and the genetics of resistance. The best insurance against rust is to develop not one but a range of resistant varieties suitable for various environments. The risk of a large-scale epidemic is greatly reduced when farmers across a region grow a range of rust-resistant varieties, not just one genetically uniform variety that might suddenly succumb to a new strain. Research is undergoing globally to identify stripe rust resistance genes that act in similar ways under different conditions. This information can be used to develop ‘slow rusting’ varieties that, while not resistant, will suffer only minimal losses in yield and grain quality. Such varieties are the best defense against stripe rust, particularly in areas where fungicides are unavailable or too expensive.

Drought and salinity stresses are often linked. New findings and new research tools are helping to combat drought – one of the biggest challenges to smallholder agriculture in dry areas. ‘Synthetic’ wheat lines – developed by crossing wild progenitors with cultivated wheat – have shown very high levels of drought tolerance. Recombinant inbred lines (RILs) derived from synthetics were analyzed using more than 220 molecular markers. Several markers have been identified as being associated with grain yield under drought condition. The results provide new insights on how different genotypes respond to drought stress, and how these traits are inherited from one generation to the next.

Improve Water Productivity

Another key research area is water productivity – maximizing yield and/or financial return per unit of water used. Water scarcity is usually the biggest yield limiting factor in dry areas. Supplement irrigation- providing small quantities of water at crucial growth stages, to supplement rainfall – can increase both yield and water productivity, which is the quantity of grain produced per unit of water used. There is a need to promote supplemental irrigation – providing small quantity of water at crucial growth stages to supplement rainfall, where irrigation is limited in quantity but applied at critical plant growth stages, for maximum effectiveness. This is far superior to the common practice of flood irrigation. The aim is to establish ‘threshold’ levels for different crops: how much moisture deficit can the crop tolerate and still give acceptable yields? For example, providing two-thirds of requirements (rather than the full requirement) will maximize water productivity without significant yield reduction. This will help farmers make informed decisions on irrigation.

There is also need to examine the relationship between root structure and the plants’ ability to extract moisture from the soil at different growth stages, and under different moisture regimes. The results are helping to provide clues on the role of root length, thickness and density, and how root development is affected by soil moisture levels. An experiment on stress responses will help to identify physiological traits (and molecular markers associated with these traits) that plant breeders can use to select for drought tolerance and nitrogen use efficiency.

Trade-Offs between Yield and Water Productivity

Maximum grain yield does not necessarily mean maximum water productivity. In areas with severe water shortages, it may be useful (for the national interest, if not for individual farmers) to maximize water productivity, even at the cost of slightly lower yields. Particularly in cereals, considerable amounts of water can be saved – for example by applying 2/3 SI rather than full SI – without a significant reduction in yield. The saved water can be used to irrigate other fields. These experiments are helping to measure the trade-offs between grain yield and water productivity. In bread wheat, for example, one option is maximum water productivity (12 kg/ha/mm) with a yield of 5.4 tons per hectare. Another option is maximum yield (7 tons) with water productivity of 10.6 kg/ha/mm. Water productivity in wheat was highest at 2/3 SI. But for legume crops, water productivity was highest at full SI – highlighting the difficulties involved in making irrigation decisions in real-world farming systems.

Crumbling Defenses

In 2009-10, an epidemic of stripe rust swept across West Asia. Syria lost 25-30% of its wheat harvest in 2010 as a combined result of drought and stripe rust. Shortly after the first signs of serious infection were spotted in February and March, national partners and ICARDA researchers began tracking rust pathogens and analyzing their virulence in different areas, and on different wheat varieties, in order to understand how the pathogens move and behave.

The epidemic was caused by a new strain that overcame the resistance provided by the widely used stripe rust resistance gene Yr27. Two varieties (Cham 8 and Cham 10) that were grown on 70 per cent of Syria’s bread wheat area were particularly susceptible. By comparing differences and similarities in resistance between wheat varieties in Syria, neighboring countries and other continents, researcher’s identified varieties and breeding materials resistant to the new pathogen strain.

GIS-Enabled Spatial Analysis

Rainwater harvesting – trapping run-off water and channeling it to more productive use – can greatly improve food production as well as water productivity (‘more crop per drop’). Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to identify the best locations for water harvesting systems should be identified. The first task was to compile hard-to-find information on land cover, topography, soils and precipitation – the key factors that determine whether a site is suitable for water harvesting. Using GIS and data integration tools, this information was transformed into maps showing suitability for different kinds of water harvesting systems. The study looked at two kinds of systems: micro-catchments, where the field is also the catchment area; and macro-catchments, where many fields share water trapped from a large catchment area. Site suitability was assessed for six micro-catchment systems (contour ridges, semi-circular bunds, small pits, small run-off basins, run-off strips, contour bench terraces) under three different land-use scenarios: range shrubs, field crops, and tree crops. For macro-catchment systems, suitability for catchment and for farming was analyzed separately, followed by an assessment of the constraint imposed by distance between farm and catchment area.

Making Water Harvesting Work for Farmers

Eight watersheds were shortlisted for potential pilot projects. The selection was based on the GIS analysis as well as other criteria including population concentration, and availability of water, land, and agricultural data.

To begin with, pilot water harvesting systems should be built at two three shortlisted sites: The maps could help plan a water harvesting program to reverse this trend.

Participatory Plant Breeding

An innovative breeding program be implemented which, inter alia, includes farmers, researchers and extension staff jointly and evaluate a wide range of crop varieties, both indigenous and introduced, to select those that best suited local needs.

Community-led Technology Dissemination

To accelerate the dissemination of new varieties, a farmer seed cooperative be established. A group of pilot farmers be provided with ‘nucleus’ seed of new varieties developed by the project, together with training on seed production, quality control and storage.
A long-term project should be implemented jointly with a number of government agencies and NGOs to help introduce new technologies, new farmer-participatory research methods, and village-based seed enterprises to disseminate new varieties.

Representative Sites

Good management of watersheds is the key to agricultural development, particularly in areas with low and variable rainfall. The first step is to identify ‘benchmark’ sites where watershed management technologies can be tested. A research site must be representative of conditions over a larger area – this will help scale out results to similar ecologies elsewhere. The study to identify suitable sites was conducted in the Tripolitania region in western Libya and the Cyrenaica region in the east. Both are important agricultural zones with a mixture of cropping, forestry and livestock production.

Multidisciplinary teams – GIS experts, water and land scientists, rangeland experts, socio-economists and others – first identified the key characteristics of an ‘ideal’ site. They collected information on the biophysical and socioeconomic conditions in all major watersheds in the two regions: rainfall, and use and cropping patterns, soils, topography, location and size of population centers, transport links…
Geographic information systems (GIS) were then used to compare the data with the characteristics of ‘ideal’ sites, to identify the most suitable locations for an integrated research program. The next stage was ‘ground-truthing’. The teams visited each potential watershed to better understand factors that would not be readily apparent from the data alone, such as land suitability, local knowledge, attitudes of communities to innovation and their willingness to participate in the research. It also allowed the teams to assess the degree to which each site was representative of other areas.

Once the benchmark watersheds were chosen, the team collected detailed baseline data on soil, hydrology, socioeconomic characteristics, and current and potential land use patterns. This was used as a basis for selecting sites for specific research topics (such as small-scale water harvesting and supplemental irrigation) and for future out-scaling and dissemination.

Research for Development

These benchmark sites will help pilot an integrated package of technologies, including new varieties and improved land and water management methods. Research may be carried out in farmers’ fields, with the community, to identify and test each technology component, and then to integrate components into a ‘package’ for sustainable agriculture and improved livelihoods. Developing agriculture with resilience depends on science, technology and innovation; but there are no magic bullets. We need strong political leadership. To transform agriculture and food systems, all stakeholders should be involved in decision-making, especially women and small-scale farmers and food producers.  Sustainable agriculture and food security will be best achieved when consumers and producers, and the private and public sectors agree on principles and build partnerships.

Montpellier Panel report makes specific recommendations around resilient agriculture, resilient people and resilient markets. Examples include various forms of mixed cropping that enable more efficient use and cycling of soil nutrients, conservation farming, micro dosing of fertilizers and herbicides, and integrated pest management. These are proven technologies that draw on ecological principles. Some build on traditional practices, with numerous examples working on a small scale. In Zambia, conservation farming, a system of minimum or no-till agriculture with crop rotations, has reduced water requirements by up to 30 per cent and used new drought-tolerant hybrids to produce up to five tons of maize per hectare — five times the average yield for Sub-Saharan Africa. The imperative now is scaling up such systems to reach more farmers.

Another solution is to increase the use of modern plant and animal breeding methods, including biotechnology. These have been successful in providing resistance to various pests of maize, sorghum, cowpeas, groundnuts and cotton; to diseases of maize and bananas; and to livestock diseases. These methods can help build resilience rapidly. We need to combine them with biotechnology-based improvements in yield through improved photosynthesis, nitrogen uptake, resistance to drought and other impacts of climate change. Agro-ecology and modern breeding methods are not mutually exclusive. Building appropriate, improved crop varieties into ecological agricultural systems can boost both productivity and resilience.

The report also recommends that: governments, the private sector and non-governmental organizations work together to help develop resilient and sustainable intensification; combat land and water degradation; and build climate-smart agriculture, such as conservation farming. These partnerships can also build the resilience of people by increasing the reach of successful nutrition interventions and building diverse livelihoods, especially by focusing on rural women and young people. The report particularly recommends taking part in the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) framework that aims to greatly reduce the number of stunted children, which stands at roughly 50 million in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The report also describes how to achieve resilient markets that enable farmers to increase production, take risks and generate income through innovation while ensuring food is available at an affordable price. Creating grain stores and opening up trade across Africa can reduce food price volatility. There is also needs for more private investments and public–private partnerships that will encourage increased production.

Every household needs to be able to afford safe, nutritious foods.  Markets need to be open and fair.  Women and children need better nutrition to avoid the hidden disgrace of stunting, which affects nearly 200 million children.  And the poorest people need to know they can count on social protection that will not let them go hungry.  We want everyone to enjoy their right to food.

To achieve these objectives, we need to transform the way we approach food security, in particular by unleashing the potential of millions of small farmers and food producers, of whom the majority are women. We need to encourage the production of more – and more nutritious — food while protecting natural resources, and recognize the important links between food, water and energy.  And as weather patterns become more unpredictable, agriculture needs to become more resilient and ‘climate-smart’.

We also need to stop wasting food along the value chain, and start reflecting the benefits of natural resources — and the costs of depleting them — when we calculate the value of food.  Only then it will be possible for governments, farmers, businesses and consumers to choose the most sustainable options for food security. 2012 is a crucial year. The sequence of G8, G20 and Rio+20 summit and many others meetings provides a ready platform for the international community to coordinate policies and intensify investments. I am optimistic that agricultural development and food security will be priorities, and an agenda based on agricultural growth with resilience will be a key outcome.

Food prices remain volatile, and people in all regions remain vulnerable to financial and climate shocks.  The United Nations system is committed to working for a sustainable future in which vulnerability is reduced and food and nutrition security is guaranteed for all.

Since then, the picture has been transformed. The global economy has sunk into recession – and prices for food, oil and other commodities have fallen back sharply. From this, you might conclude that the food emergency has passed – that we should concentrate only on the financial and economic crises. In fact, however, the economic crisis makes it even more urgent that we tackle food insecurity now. For millions of people across the Asia-Pacific region, the economic crisis will also be a food crisis. The prices they pay may have fallen, but their incomes have fallen further still.

We can feed the increasing amount of people on this planet without exhausting the world’s resources if we successfully pursue sustainable food production on five key fronts: halt farmland expansion, improve crop production, more strategic use of water and nutrients, reduce food waste and dedicate croplands to direct human food production. Agriculture is the largest single cause behind global warming and loss of ecosystem services, and at the same time the key to human wellbeing in all societies. We now have the opportunity to not only cool the planet, but also to build resilient societies, and improve human wealth.
Together with scientists from the University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, McGill University, UC Santa Barbara, Arizona State University and the University of Bonn, Rockström has for two years tried to find an answer to what could be the most compelling question facing humanity today. Based on data gathered about crop production and environmental impacts using satellite maps and on-the-grounds records, the scientists propose a five-point plan for doubling the world’s food production while reducing environmental impacts.

Our research has shown that it is possible to both feed a hungry world and protect a threatened planet,” says lead author Jonathan Foley, head of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

The five-point plan consists of the following:

Halt farmland expansion – Reduced land clearing for agriculture, particularly in the tropical rainforests, achieved using incentives such as payment for ecosystem services, certification and ecotourism, can yield huge environmental benefits without dramatically cutting into agricultural production or economic well-being.

Close yield gaps – Many parts of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe have substantial “yield gaps”– places where farmland is not living up to its potential for producing crops. Closing these gaps through improved use of existing crop varieties, better management and improved genetics could increase current food production with nearly 60 percent.

Use inputs more strategically – Current use of water, nutrients and agricultural chemicals suffers from what the research team calls “Goldilocks’ Problem”: too much in some places, too little in others, rarely just right. We need to use water and nutrients in more intelligent ways: less where it isn’t needed, and more where it is needed. This will ensure that we can grow more food, but with less harm to the environment.

Shift diets – Growing animal feed or biofuels on top croplands, no matter how efficiently, is a drain on human food supply. Dedicating croplands to direct human food production could boost calories produced per person by nearly 50 percent. Even shifting non-food uses such as animal feed or biofuels production away from prime cropland could make a big difference.

Reduce waste – One-third of the food farms produce ends up discarded, spoiled or eaten by pests. Eliminating waste in the path food takes from farm to mouth could boost food available for consumption another 50 percent.

“What’s new and exciting here is that we considered solutions to both feeding our growing world and solving the global environmental crisis of agriculture at the same time,” Johan Rockström says.

“We focused the world’s best scientific data and models on this problem, to demonstrate that these solutions could actually work – showing where, when and how they could be most effective. No one has done this before,” Rockström and his colleagues argue.

The research was also a response to what lead author Foley calls “a daunting triple threat.”

“First, a billion people currently lack adequate access to food, not only creating hunger but also setting the stage for worldwide instability. Second, agriculture, the single-most important thing we do to benefit humanity, is also the single biggest threat to the global environment – including the land, water and climate that make Earth habitable. Third, with 2 to 3 billion more people expected in coming decades, and increasing consumption of meat and biofuels, food demand will be far greater in 2050 than it is today,” Foley says.

Proposing solutions to global food and environmental problems is nothing new. But a consistent weakness has been that the solutions often are fragmented and insufficiently specific. This research presents solutions on how to feed an increasingly growing world while simultaneously dealing with the environmental crisis of agriculture.

Dr Gursharan Singh Kainth
Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies
14-Preet Avenue, Majitha Road
PO Naushera, Amritsar 143008

Sustainable development.

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