By Philip Newell
Recently, the United Nations Development Policy and Analysis Division (UN DPAD) released their annual World Economic and Social Survey. This report calls for an increase in government support to aid small-scale farmers and reduce environmental damage from conventional agriculture.
Drip-irrigation systems, like this one in Niger, use significantly less water than conventional sprinklers. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
The report finds that the Green Revolution practices of the last century have had harmful effects on the environment, leading directly to land degradation, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. But supporting small-scale farmers, according to the report, can encourage the use of local innovations and experience, and mitigate the consequences of conventional agriculture. “Evidence has shown that, for most crops, the optimal farm is small in scale and it is at this level that most gains in terms of both sustainable productivity increases and rural poverty reduction can be achieved.”
According to the report “global food production needs to increase by 70 to 100 percent from current levels by 2050,” but this increase does not need to come from a doubling of the acres of farmland currently under production. Instead, investments in transportation and storage could reduce the amount of food that is wasted. A reduction in post-harvest losses—the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates a 50 percent loss of crops globally—could ease pressure on farmland already under production by maximizing the utility of their current yield.
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of worldwide water use. Any significant increase in conventional agriculture could exacerbate looming water shortages because conventional irrigation systems are usually inefficient —up to 40 percent of water pumped never reaches crops. By employing drip irrigation and other watering techniques, such as a buried clay pot system that stores water and treadle pumps, farmers can improve agricultural yields while decreasing water consumption.
Another avenue for improving water use to yield ratio, or more “crop per drop,” is the widespread cultivation of indigenous crops. Many indigenous crops, including false yam and tree grape, are hardy and drought-resistant, growing well even with limited water.
The survey highlights new policy directions and major investments in developing and scaling up clean energy technologies, sustainable farming and forestry techniques, climate proofing of infrastructure, and reducing non-bio-degradable waste production.
What do you think governments need to do in order to implement sustainable farming practices? Let us know in the comments section!
To read more about these topics see: The Nutritional and Economic Potential of Vegetables; Slow and Steady Irrigation Wins the Race; Beyond Drip Irrigation to Water Fields in Dry Land Areas: An Interview with David Bainbridge; Five Innovations that Conserve Water While Improving Harvests; Investing in Better Food Storage in Africa; Investing in India’s Small-Scale Farmers; or Empowering Impoverished Communities with Compatible Technologies
Philip Newell is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.