April 17, 2018 | Food security

Food crisis trap that threatens the African continent is primarily the result of lack of investment in the agricultural sector. For many smallholder households trapped in poverty, land is the only significant capital asset that they have from which they can generate economic livelihoods. These households have labor but returns to this labor is low. In many environments, smallholder households depend on exploitation of natural capital with limited improvement, resulting in degradation of these scarce natural resources. In most smallholder farming areas, the root cause of poverty and food security is the limited adoption of more productive and diversified agricultural technologies.

Breaking the cycle of poverty requires delivery of science-based technological, institutional, market and policy solutions to farmers at multiple levels. It is possible to improve agricultural productivity through more efficient agricultural input and output markets (agro-dealers, aggregators and grain traders, warehouse receipt systems and agricultural commodity exchanges), expanded farmer’s access to credit (banks, microfinance institutions, SACCO’s and insurance companies), integrated soil fertility management, and improved crop varieties. Other efficient methods include better ways of organizing farmers for technology testing, dissemination, adoption and diffusion, seed and fertilizer distribution in addition to product assembly.

Intensive farming

Intensive farming is an agricultural system that increases production with respect to units of input for example seeds, fertilizer, and labor. Intensification in Africa has not been sustainable due to the prohibitive costs involved. Donors and policymakers play a key role in supporting African agricultural systems based on science and innovation. However, tackling hunger, malnutrition, and poverty while at the same time protecting and improving the environmental base will require human ingenuity, creativity, and innovation, especially in the face of severe resource constraints and global warming. Increased yields have been achieved by utilizing existing knowledge and opening a new paradigm for sustainable intensification. 

Direct manure application, rotating annual and cover crops, and practicing no-till agriculture are some of the innovative soil management techniques that have yielded positive results. These practices allied to “conservation agriculture” restore soil organic matter, structure, water-holding capacity and nutrients, averting soil loss whilst benefiting crops.

Sustainable intensive farming can also be achieved by using biotechnology to wean crops off the artificial world we have created for them, enabling plants to initiate and sustain symbioses with soil microbes. These symbioses allow crops to exploit microbial biology to tap into soil organic nutrient reserves, and prime plants to better defend themselves against pests and diseases.

Recycling nutrients from sewage is another modern example of the circular economy, an economic model that advocates for maximum extraction of value from resources before disposal. Inorganic fertilizers could be manufactured from human sewage in bio-refineries operating at industrial or local scales. A number of technical challenges impede the immediate adoption of this idea, but these can readily be addressed through research.