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Agricultural Innovation: More crops per drop

By Pascal Sanginga
Posted on Monday, 23 November 2009 14:23

Climate and agriculture debates tend to

revolve around the need for either innovation ?or strong institutions,

but a practical solution requires both

As the world prepares for the 15th Conference of Parties (CoP15) on climate change in Copenhagen in December, African governments have warned that any climate change deal that does not include agriculture will not be a deal for Africa. Among high-level reports and studies there is consensus on the need for innovation in ?African agriculture, but this comes with controversy, deep ?division and familiar debates.

African governments and influential donors still see ?Africa’s agriculture and food ?security as a question of developing technology. Proponents of this ‘technical fix’ advocate a ‘green revolution’ for Africa where productivity-enhancing technologies (improved varieties, fertilizers and irrigation) will save millions of Africans from hunger and famine.

Agricultural research has produced a number of climate-resilient crops: high-yielding, short-duration and drought-resistant varieties adapted to different environments, including the high-yielding striga-resistant sorghum developed by Ethiopian scientist and 2009 World Food Prize winner, Gebisa Ejeta.

Yet many Africans are sceptical of modern biotechnologies, particularly genetically-modified organisms (GMO), because of their potential negative health and environmental impact. Civil society organisations, environmentalists and social scientists often argue that these ‘green revolution’ technologies are socially and environmentally flawed, and contribute to climate change. African agricultural problems are complex and cannot be resolved by technological fixes, they say. For them, weak institutions, inefficient markets, weak policies and bad governance are the problem.

For many African farmers, traditional knowledge and local innovations play a significant role in climate change adaptation.Despite a reputation for conservatism, African farmers innovate in planting methods, selecting varieties and crop combinations that will survive harsh conditions. There are many examples of successful local innovations that have helped farmers in the Sahel and other drought-prone areas to survive.

A good strategy, for example, might be to shift from maize production to more drought-resistant crops such as cassava, sorghum, millet, cowpeas and other indigenous high-value crops that African farmers plant to spread risk and adapt to climate change. However, these crops, known as ‘orphan’, ‘under-utilised’ or ‘crops for the future’, tend to receive ?little support from governments and donors. Clearly, local innovation alone is insufficient to respond to the scale of climatic shocks and food crises.

Technologies and innovations for improving land, livestock, water and forest management are essential to mitigate climate change. Traditional conservation agriculture involves minimal soil disturbance and can improve water-use efficiency and carbon sequestration in soil. Small-scale irrigation technologies, rain ?water harvesting and innovations in integrated nutrient management are needed in regions with variable rainfall and frequent drought cycles. Livestock farmers will need to change their strategies, for example, shifting from cattle to smaller ruminants, and adopt better land-use and feeding systems.

Small-scale farmers will be hit hardest by the impact of climate change. There is now a substantial body of knowledge on institutional innovations for managing water more ?effectively, conserving and ?using biodiversity, adopting more sustainable land-use practices, and strengthening the resilience of rural communities to climatic and other shocks.

In East Africa, scientists are partnering with local experts known as ‘rainmakers’ to integrate ?indigenous knowledge and forecasting with modern climate-risk management to enhance the resilience of communities faced with climate variability. There is room for optimism that African agriculture can adapt to climate change. But the time for innovation is now.

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