Food production system elements 

By improving the various components of food production systems the efficiency, resilience, adaptive capacity and mitigation potential of the production systems can be greatly enhanced.

Some of the key improvements included in the publication are highlighted below.

1. Soil and nutrient management

The availability of nitrogen and other nutrients is essential to increase yields. This can be done through composting manure and crop residues, more precise matching of nutrients with plant needs, controlled release and deep placement technologies or using legumes for natural nitrogen fixation. Using methods and practices that increases organic nutrient inputs, retention and use are therefore fundamental and reduces the need of synthetic fertilizers which, due to cost and access, are often unavailable to smallholders and, through their production and transport, contribute to GHG emissions. 

Improving soil nutrient content

Many subsistence crop production system soils are depleted and have poor nutrient content. This can be partially resolved by the use of legumes as green manures, planted in intercropping systems, as part of a scheme of crop rotation or in agro-forestry systems. For example, the haulms of the legume groundnut can be eaten by livestock or incorporated into the soil. In this latter case, the yield of the subsequent crop (e.g. maize or rice) can be much higher (as much as double), even if the groundnut yield is low. In forage legume/grass mixtures, nitrogen can be found to be transferred from legume to grass varieties (e.g. 13 to 34 percent of fixed N). Used as a livestock feed it can also increase food conversion ratios and decrease methane emissions. Legumes also provide a useful protein source for humans. (FAO, 2009c. Increasing crop production sustainably - the perspectives of biological process). 



2. Water harvesting and use

Improved water harvesting and retention (such as pools, dams, pits, retaining ridges, etc.) and water-use efficiency (irrigation systems) are fundamental for increasing production and addressing increasing irregularity of rainfall patterns. Today, irrigation is practiced on 20 percent of the agricultural land in developing countries but can generate 130 percent more yields than rain-fed systems. The expansion of efficient management technologies and methods, especially those relevant to smallholders is fundamental.

Zaï and stone bunds in Burkina Faso

In Yatenga province, farmers reclaimed degraded farmland by digging planting pits, known as zaï. This traditional technique was improved by increasing depth and diameter of the pits and adding organic matter. The Zaï concentrate both nutrients and water and facilitate water infiltration and retention. Thus lands which used to be barely productive can now achieve yields from 300kg/ha to 1500kg/ha, depending on rainfalls. In the same province, farmers, with support from Oxfam, began building stone contour bunds to harvest rainwater. The bunds allows water to spread evenly through the field and infiltrates the soil and also prevents soil and organic matter being washed away. Thanks to local networks of farmers these techniques are now used on 200 000 to 300 000 ha (Reij 2009. Agroenvironmental transformation in the Sahel: Another kind of "Greeen Revolution").


3. Pest and disease control

There is evidence that climate change is altering the distribution, incidence and intensity of animal and plant pests and diseases as well as invasive and alien species. The recent emergence in several regions of multi-virulent, aggressive strains of wheat yellow rust adapted to high temperatures is a good indication of the risks associated with pathogen adaptation to climate change. These new aggressive strains have spread at unprecedented speed in five continents resulting in epidemics in new cropping areas, previously not favourable for yellow rust and where well-adapted, resistant varieties are not yet available. The wheat disease Spot Blotch, caused by Cohliobolus sativus, is another example, causing heavy losses in Southern Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Eastern India, due to a lack of resistance to the disease. As wheat growing areas of Asia become warmer, the pathogen is likely to spread even further and cause further losses.

4. Resilient ecosystems

Improving ecosystem management and biodiversity can provide a number of ecosystem services, which can lead to more resilient, productive and sustainable systems that may also contribute to reducing or removing greenhouse gases. Services include, control of pests and disease, regulation of microclimate, decomposition of wastes, regulating nutrient cycles and crop pollination. Enabling and enhancing the provision of such services can be achieved through the adoption of different natural resource management and production practices.

5. Genetic resources

Genetic make-up determines a plants and animals tolerance to shocks such as temperature extremes, drought, flooding and pests and diseases. It also regulates the length of growing season/production cycle and the response to inputs such as fertilizer, water and feed. The preservation of genetic resources of crops and breeds and their wild relatives is therefore fundamental in developing resilience to shocks, improving the efficient use of resources, shortening production cycles and generating higher yields (and quality and nutritional content) per area of land. Generating varieties and breeds which are tailored to ecosystems and the needs of farmers is crucial. 

Seed systems

Efficient seed production systems are required to ensure rapid access of farmers to varieties adapted to their new agro-ecological conditions.

In northern Cameroon, local varieties of millet, sorghum and maize were not adapted to lower rainfall and increased drought. The agriculture research institute developed adapted earlier maturing varieties of these crops and with the support of FAO farmer seed enterprises were organized to produce certified seed for sale to farmers in the surrounding villages. The new varieties produced good yields in spite of the unfavourable agro-ecology which has resulted in its hi demand and led in the creation of 68 community seed enterprises with over 1 000 member (both women and men) producing over 200 Tons of seed per year. There are similar projects in other countries [Guei, 2010].

FAO has supported the introduction of new seed varieties in Haiti to increase food production and facilitate the transition from emergency to rehabilitation. One of the success stories has been the introduction from Guatemala of the bean variety ICTA Lijero, which is very early-maturing and is resistant to one of the major disease problems in Haiti, the Golden Mosaic Virus. This variety allows farmers in irrigated plains to have two harvests of beans before the starting of the hot season. Since 2007, FAO has supported community seed producer groups in seed production of ICTA Lijero. In 2009, the FAO seed multiplication programme has supported 34 seed producers groups that have produced 400T of bean seed including ICTA Lijero. 


6. Harvesting, processing and supply chains

Efficient harvesting and early transformation of agricultural produce can reduce post-harvest losses (PHL) and preserve food quantity, quality and nutritional value of the product. It also ensures better use of co-products and by-products, either as feed for livestock, to produce renewable energy in integrated systems or to improve soil fertility. As supply chains become longer and more complex it becomes evermore important to increase the operational efficiency of processing, packaging, storage, transport, etc to ensure increased shelf life, retain quality and reduce carbon footprints. Food processing allows surplus to be stored for low production years or allows a staggered sale. This ensures greater availability of food and income throughout the season and in years of low production. Food processing creates jobs and income opportunities, especially for women.

Improved technologies for reducing post harvest losses in Afghanistan 

In the northern region of Afghanistan where more than half of the country’s cereals are produced, many farmers store their crop in plastic and fibre bags or in farm buildings without proper flooring, doors and windows. This offers limited protection, resulting in significant post-harvest losses. The Government requested support from FAO to provide silos for communities and farming households for grain storage. With funds provided by the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany, FAO implemented a project from 2004 to 2006 with the objectives reducing post-harvest losses and enhancing the technical capacity of local tinsmiths, blacksmiths and craftsmen for construction of metallic grain silos. Seven main grain producing provinces were selected as focus areas. Technical personnel from the Ministry of Agriculture and NGOs trained 300 local artisans in the manufacture of silos, while contracts were issued to over 100 tinsmiths who built metallic silos ranging from 250 to 1 800 kilogram capacity for distribution in local communities. The project also oversaw the construction of grain warehouses for community use in 12 sites and trained beneficiaries on how best to operate and manage the facilities. It was found that the use of the metallic silos had reduced storage loss from 15-20 percent to less than 1-2 percent, grains were of higher quality (as protected from insects, mice and mould) and could be stored for longer. Based on the training received, tinsmiths, blacksmiths and craftsmen are now fabricating silos as a profitable enterprise.


last updated:  Wednesday, October 5, 2011