Farming must change to feed the world

FAO expert urges more sustainable approach

4 February 2009, New Delhi - The world's farmers must quickly switch to more sustainable and productive farming systems to grow the food needed by a swelling world population and respond to climate change, FAO's top crops expert told an international farm congress here today.

In a keynote speech to 1,000 participants at the IVth World Congress on Conservation Agriculture (CA) in New Delhi, Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division, endorsed CA as an essential part of that change.

"The world has no alternative to pursuing Sustainable Crop Production Intensification to meet the growing food and feed demand, to alleviate poverty and to protect its natural resources. Conservation Agriculture is an essential element of that Intensification," Pandey said.

Conservation Agriculture is a farming system that does away with regular ploughing and tillage and promotes permanent soil cover and diversified crops rotation to ensure optimal soil health and productivity. Introduced some 25 years ago, it is now practiced on 100 million ha of land across the world.

Environmental damage

Conventional intensive farming methods had often contributed to environmental damage, resulting in declining rates of agricultural productivity just as the world needs to double its food production to feed nine billion people by 2050, Pandey said.

"In the name of intensification in many places around the world, farmers over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated, over-applied pesticides," he declared. "But in so doing we also affected all aspects of the soil, water, land, biodiversity and the services provided by an intact ecosystem. That began to bring yield growth rates down."

FAO said that the rate of growth in agricultural production is expected to fall to 1.5% between now and 2030 and further to 0.9% between 2030 and 2050, compared with 2.3% per year since 1961.

In developing countries, growth in wheat yields has gone down from about 5% in 1980 to 2% in 2005. Growth in rice yields went down from 3.2% to 1.2% during the same period while maize yields dropped from 3.1% to 1%.

Smaller footprint

Conservation agriculture could not only help bring yields back up but also deliver several important environmental benefits, Pandey continued. Aside from restoring soil health, it also saved on energy use in agriculture, reducing the footprint of a sector which currently accounts for some 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

It could further mitigate climate change by helping sequester carbon in the soil and also potentially save 1,200 km³ of water a year by 2030 since healthy soil retains more moisture and needs less irrigation.

Only with sustainable intensification of crop production can serious progress be made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals on hunger and poverty reduction and on ensuring environmental sustainability, Pandey warned. "We are currently headed in the wrong direction for both of them," he added.

He urged governments, donors and other stakeholders to provide policy and financial support to ensure early, wider uptake of CA. Training, participatory research and building strong farmers' organizations should be accelerated while newly-developed CA equipment should be made widely available and/or manufactured locally.

Delegates to the four-day Congress include farmers, experts, and policy makers from all over the world. The meeting is hosted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS). FAO, along with IFAD and other Indian and international organizations are among the sponsors and co-organizers of this largest global gathering of the Conservation Agriculture community.

Photo: ©FAO/T. Friedrich
Planting through organic soil cover in Nicaragua