Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Alan Duncan

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“Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group” is a regular series where we profile advisors of the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we’re featuring Alan Duncan, who is a livestock scientist with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Alan Duncan (right) with Danielle Nierenberg at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Alan Duncan (right) with Danielle Nierenberg at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Name: Alan Duncan

Affiliation: International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)

Location: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Bio: Alan Duncan is a livestock scientist with ILRI. His current research focuses on fodder innovation in smallholder livestock systems. He currently leads the IFAD-funded Fodder Adoption Project, a research-for-development project looking into feed scarcity in smallholder systems, with a particular emphasis on institutional blockages to change. The project has been experimenting with local innovation platforms as a way of enhancing the capacity of local actors (government line departments, researchers, private sector, NGOs) to work together more effectively to enhance feed availability at the farm level. The project takes a systems perspective to the feed-scarcity problem, considering, for example the role of markets for livestock products as a stimulus to innovation at the farm level.

On NtP: Nourishing the Planet is a welcome initiative from Worldwatch. I’ve watched with interest as various local innovations have been uncovered during Danielle’s travels in Africa. I’ll continue to follow this initiative to see whether some common threads can be drawn out from the successful innovations she has found so that some lessons can be developed for the wider agricultural community about what makes innovation happen.

What are some of the obstacles that smallholder livestock farmers face? Here in Ethiopia a major issue is the predominantly subsistence nature of agriculture. At some stage in the coming years, the millions of subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa will somehow need to transition to a more market-oriented mode of operation—the current resources simply can’t support business as usual. In my view, we already know enough about the technical fixes in smallholder agriculture. The trick is to find ways of opening up markets for smallholders to allow a transition into more market-oriented production.

Livestock production is often associated with climate change and other negative environmental impacts. Can you discuss how small-scale livestock farming can benefit farmers, the economy, and the environment? It’s certainly true that livestock have had some bad press recently. Unfortunately the blanket condemnation of livestock as “polluters of the planet” misses the nuances of differences between livestock’s role in the rich North and the poor South. Limiting intensive livestock production which oversupplies protein to those in developed countries is probably good for the planet. But in places like Ethiopia, livestock are a crucial element of poor people’s livelihoods and their nutrition. They utilize byproducts of cereal production (straw) and turn them into high-quality protein (meat and milk) for hungry people. They also serve as a source of security in marginal environments, acting as a buffer against disaster in drought-prone environments. Reducing livestock numbers in Africa would have a relatively minor effect on global GHG emissions but would have many negative consequences for the world’s poorest. There is a good argument for intensifying livestock production in sub-Saharan Africa since this would have the dual benefit of enhancing income for smallholders and reducing emissions per unit of livestock product. But this will take time and we need to find ways of supporting this transition by accelerating innovation in smallholder systems.

What sorts of innovations, policies, etc. would you like to see implemented to reduce global poverty and hunger? Why should food consumers in the United States care about the state of agriculture in other countries? I think we need less emphasis on pushing technologies on smallholder farmers and more emphasis on creating an “enabling environment for innovation.” What does this mean in practice? It means building capacity of the existing actors: the extension and research systems, the private sector, civil society bodies, etc., to think at the system level, to adopt more participatory approaches, to pay more attention to developing markets for products, and to somehow counter the handout culture. This is challenging stuff, however!

And why should food consumers in the U.S. care about what is happening in places like Ethiopia? Apart from the obvious moral imperative, it is becoming clear that developing countries are going to be major suppliers of global food requirements in the coming decades (see Mario Herrero’s recent paper in Science). Also, a widening gulf between rich and poor will have some very negative effects on global security—a bit of investment in smallholder agriculture now will make the planet a more peaceful place in years to come!

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