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Putting nature back into agriculture

Save and Grow farming model launched by FAO

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
Crop yields can be increased six-fold
13 June 2011, Rome - FAO today announced the launch of a major new initiative intended to produce more food for a growing world population in an environmentally sustainable way.

FAO's call for sustainable crop production intensification, more than half a century after the Green Revolution of the 1960s, is contained in a new book, Save and Grow published by FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division. 

Smallholder farmers

The new approach calls for targeting mainly smallholder farmers in developing countries. Helping low-income farm families in developing countries – some 2.5 billion people – economize on cost of production and build healthy agro-ecosystems will enable them to maximize yields and invest the savings in their health and education.

Green Revolution technology saved an estimated one billion people from famine and produced more than enough food for a world population that doubled from three to six billion between 1960 and 2000.

New millennium

However, the present paradigm of intensive crop production cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium. In order to grow, agriculture must learn to save.

The Save and Grow approach draws partly on conservation agriculture (CA) techniques which do away with or minimize ploughing and tilling, thus preserving soil structure and health. Plant residues provide cover over fields and cereals cultivation is rotated with soil-enriching legumes.

Precision farming

Other techniques developed by FAO and its partners over the past several years as part of the Save and Grow toolkit include precision irrigation, which delivers more crop for the drop, and "precision placement" of fertilizers, which can double the amount of nutrients absorbed by plants.

Integrated pest management, whose techniques discourage the development of pest populations and minimizes the need for pesticides, is yet another key element.

Such methods help adapt crops to climate change and not only help grow more food but also contribute to reducing crops' water needs by 30 percent and energy costs by up to 60 percent. In some cases crop yields can be increased six-fold, as shown by trials with maize held recently in southern Africa. Average yields from farms practicing the techniques in 57 low-income countries increased almost 80 percent, according to one review.

Ecosystems approach

The Save and Grow model incorporates an ecosystem approach that draws on nature's contribution to crop growth – soil organic matter, water flow regulation, pollination and natural predation of pests. It applies external inputs at the right time and in the right amount – no more and no less than plants need.

The approach builds on lessons learned from the Green Revolution of the 1960s which focused on raising crop production without much attention to the environment.

Biodiversity

Decades of intensive cropping may have degraded fertile land and depleted groundwater, provoked pest upsurges, eroded biodiversity and polluted air, soil and water and it can be noted that the yield growth rate of major cereals is declining.

To feed a world population projected at 9.2 billion in 2050, which involves meeting double the demand for food in developing countries, there is no option but to further intensify crop production. To eradicate hunger and meet demand by 2050, food production needs to increase by 70% in the world and 100% in developing countries.

The key to meeting the challenge lies in sustainable crop production intensification, or Save and Grow. But this will involve a shift from a homogeneous model of crop production to farming systems that are knowledge-intensive and adapted to specific locations.

Support to farmers

It will also require significant support to farmers so they can learn the new practices and technologies, while governments will also need to strengthen national plant-breeding programmes so as to deploy new seed varieties that are resilient to climate change and use external inputs more efficiently. 

Policymakers must provide incentives for adoption of the new model such as rewarding good management of ecosystems. The key is boosting agricultural investment. Developed countries should increase the share of agriculture in official development assistance to the developing world. Developing countries themselves should allocate a larger part of their national budgets to the agriculture sector. And domestic and foreign private investments need to be increased.