New paradigm for African agriculture sees sustainable intensification in a new light

News, 18 April 2013
The new report from the Montpellier Panel – a panel of international experts led by Professor Sir Gordon Conway of Agriculture for Impact – provides innovative thinking and examples into the way in which the techniques of sustainable intensification are being used by smallholder farmers in Africa to address the continent’s food and nutrition crisis.

Over recent years, the term “Sustainable Intensification” – producing more outputs with more efficient use of all inputs on a durable basis, while reducing environmental damage and building resilience, natural capital and the flow of environmental services – has come to take on a highly charged and politicised meaning, becoming synonymous with big, industrial agriculture. As we strive to feed a population expected to reach nine billion by 2050 sustainably, the risk is that we may lose sight of the term’s scientific value and its potential relevance to all types of agricultural systems, including for smallholder farmers in Africa.

"It is clear that we need to boost the harvest of food and fibre from any given area of land," says Dr Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), and one of the Montpellier Panel’s members.

"But rather than doing this in conventional unsustainable ways, which mean more pollution, less biodiversity and more climate change, we can choose to intensify farming in a sustainable way with fewer adverse impacts. This means scientists and local farmers working together, building on tradition, and applying solutions at a local scale. Many of these solutions exist — they involve better use of soils, water and ecological systems, as well as diverse crop mixes, such as grains, legumes and livestock. They also need secure land rights, and support from policymakers and the development community to help them to spread."

The report begins by examining the process and elements of Intensification itself, before considering how we then ensure that the intensification is sustainable, and concludes with practical solutions in action today across the African continent, that underline the positive impacts the framework can produce if scaled up more effectively.

Examples of sustainable intensification in action referenced in the report include:

  • Microdosing of fertilisers in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, using the cap of a soda bottle to measure precise amounts of nutrients for each seed hole
  • Planting of Faidherbia trees, a leguminous tree which curiously sheds its leaves in the wet season – providing a natural nutrient source to crops, such as maize, planted underneath and allowing for sunlight to pass through during the growing season
  • Conservation Farming in Zambia as a replacement for the traditional long fallow system of the region
  • New Rice for Africa (NERICA), a cross-fertilisation between Asian and African rice species, resulting in Uganda being able to reduce its rice imports by half and an increase in farmers’ incomes
  • Farmers’ cooperative associations, such as Faso Jigi in Mali which assists smallholder producers of cereals and shallots in marketing their products and receiving higher prices because the association offers centralisation of stocks, better quality of storage facilities and accessibility.

The report outlines four principles essential in delivering the ambitious objectives of sustainable intensification. These are:

  • Prudent, in the use of inputs, particularly those which are scarce, are expensive and/or encourage natural resource degradation and environmental problems;
  • Efficient, in seeking returns and in reducing waste and unnecessary use of scarce inorganic and natural inputs;
  • Resilient, to future shocks and stresses that may threaten the natural and farming systems;
  • Equitable, in that the inputs and outputs of intensification are accessible and affordable amongst beneficiaries at the household, village, regional or national level to ensure the potential to sustainably intensify is an opportunity for all.

Recommendations

Sustainable intensification offers a pathway towards the goal of producing more food with less impact on the environment, intensifying food production while ensuring the natural resource base on which agriculture depends is sustained, and indeed improved, for future generations. 

The Montpellier Panel recommends that Governments, in Africa and the developed countries and in partnerships with the private sector and NGOs, recognise and act on the paradigm of sustainable intensification through:

  • Adoption of appropriate policies and plans at national and local levels
  • Increased financial support for global and domestic research and innovation to develop and identify suitable technologies and processes
  • Scaling up and out of appropriate and effective technologies and processes
  • Increased investment in rural agricultural market systems and linkages that support the spread and demand for sustainable intensification
  • Greater emphasis on ensuring that inputs and credit are accessible and that rights to land and water are secure for African smallholder farmers
  • Building on and sharing the expertise of African smallholder farmers in their practice of Sustainable Intensification.

Download the Montpellier Panel’s report on sustainable intensification

Contact

For interviews, contact:

Michael Hoevel

+44 (0)79 6265 7322 (UK mobile)

m.hoevel@imperial.ac.uk

Notes to editors

About the Montpellier Panel

The Montpellier Panel is a panel of international experts from the fields of agriculture, sustainable development, trade, policy and global development chaired by Professor Sir Gordon Conway of Agriculture for Impact. Since March 2010, the Panel has worked together to make recommendations to enable better European government support of national and regional agricultural development and food security priorities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Panel members include the following experts serving in their personal capacities:

Gordon Conway (Chair), Professor of International Development, Imperial College London

Camilla Toulmin, Director, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

Tom Arnold, Chair, Convention of the Irish Constitution and former Chief Executive, Concern Worldwide

Joachim von Braun, Director, ZEF, University of Bonn

Henri Carsalade, Chair, ICARDA Board of Trustees and Chair of the Board of Agropolis Foundation

Louise Fresco, Professor, University of Amsterdam

Peter Hazell, Visiting Professor, Imperial College London

Namanga Ngongi, Former President, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)

David Radcliffe, Senior Advisor, Agricultural Research for Development, DG Development and Cooperation, European Commission

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, Chief Executive, Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN)

Ramadjita Tabo, Deputy Executive Director, Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA)

Prabhu Pingali, Deputy Director, Agricultural Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Observer)