The Case for Equitable Sustainable Food Systems

Author: Hannah Costin


Agricultural land per person has more than halved over the past sixty years… and we’ve likely passed ‘peak’ agriculture use.

The UN’s Population and Development Commission recently met and called for urgent action, based on their dire assessment of our current food systems. Our current agricultural methods both drive environmental destruction and concurrently fail to provide nutritional diets to much of the world’s population. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these problems, increasing the total undernourished people by an additional 80-132 million, as well as rocking the economic security of an estimated 4.5 billion who earn their livelihood through these systems.

How we’ve arrived here is a worthwhile consideration.

Comprehensive research into agriculture technology during the mid 20th century massively transformed farming productivity. The cornerstones to this time, deemed the Green Revolution, included selective breeding of high-yield, disease-resistant, strains, and the use of synthetic fertilisers, and pesticides. In the time that farmland increased by only a third, production rates of important cereal crops nearly tripled. The price of major staple crops, like maize, wheat, and rice, fell considerably thanks to high yield crop varieties, modern fertiliser, and irrigation system improvements. This enormous growth in food production could not only meet our increasing needs, but do so on less land.

Importantly, “global aggregates mask great geographic disparities,” explains Dr. Pingali, former Deputy Director of the Agriculture Development Division at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. While India, Southeast Asia, and China, harnessed Green Revolution varieties to achieve high yield growth earlier on in this revolution, Sub-Saharan Africa benefitted the least from such advancements. Africa’s unique climate wasn’t taken into account, and their regionally important but not internationally traded ‘orphan crops’ were less researched until the later stages of the revolution. For example, Africa-specific maize research began in the 1980s and unlike other crops (rice and wheat) there wasn’t a breadth of prior research the Green Revolution could bank off of in order to develop Africa’s core crops, such as sorghum, millets, and cassava. Further, the commercialisation of production, which enabled places like India to benefit greatly with its expanding railway system, relied on infrastructure that wasn’t yet built in Africa. It is, of course, impossible to pinpoint a single root cause for the disparity experienced. It does, however, provide a list of significant barriers worthy to consider when envisioning a food secure future for all regions.

Aside from regional disparities, the indispensable developments of the Green Revolution practices, overall, granted a great reduction in global hunger. However, the situation is no longer the same. The total undernourished people has risen continuously since 2017. Monocropping, synthetic fertilisers, and agrochemicals make agriculture the second leading cause of loss of biodiversity. Chemical runoff and soil degradation now affect areas beyond just the land we use for farming. Additionally, the agriculture secto­r constitutes 70% of freshwater withdrawals. Food production shocks are increasingly common, with geopolitical crises and extreme weather events unfolding incessantly around us. Africa has experienced more frequent and intense periods of droughts and heavy precipitation since the late 20th century.

Our intensification of agriculture that originally allowed for leaps and bounds in farming productivity is now proving to be highly unsustainable in the current, and future, climate.

Present Challenges: The Green Revolution 2.0

First, although high-yield crops were the foundation for the recent hikes in agriculture productivity, they become overemphasised in lieu of considering their cost barrier for low-income farmers and the drastically varying environmental factors that reduce their profitability, such as drought. Advancing nutritious and climate-resilient crops, native to a place, improves biodiversity while taking local markets into consideration. Agriculture that takes interregional environmental variation into account has quantifiable effects, for instance, the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa program which harnessed drought tolerant hybrids and, over six years, brought 160-200 million annually to benefit over 30 million people in areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. Climate-Smart Agriculture, which aid farmers confronting an increasingly unstable climate, equips them with long-term resilience.

Another key focus is increasing access to digital innovations. When accessible and used in real-time, ag-tech enables farmers to increase yields and agronomists can advise farmers on better practices and disease prevention methods. Recently, Business for Development’s use of SourceTrace, a farm management software in Kwale, Kenya, contributed to double the yields of mung beans. At Business for Development, our programs consist of training and utilisation of Climate-Smart Agriculture practices in site development work to improve soil management by maximising rainfall use, increasing yields, and establishing efficient systems to reduce crop damage. Introducing mechanical intervention reduces the time required to prepare crop sites, using smallholder farmers’ labour more efficiently and increasing the likelihood of ongoing application of mechanical intervention.

One study examining 57 developing countries found when smallholders adopted sustainable agriculture, such as diversifying crops which, in turn, built soil biomass, crop yields had an average increase of 79%. The potential for smallholder farmers to benefit from a combination of Climate-Smart Agriculture and precision agriculture, driven through increased accessibility to digital and ag-tech, is powerful.

In order to feed the 3 billion who are food insecure, as well as the 2.5 billion increase in population over the next twenty years, we need a shift in our agriculture systems to focus on the crux of agriculture: the 500 million smallholder farmers who produce a large proportion of the world’s food. We are in the midst of a Green Revolution 2.0, with regions bypassed by the first revolution now at the forefront of receiving the projected benefits. The risk lies in whether this time around we will learn from our prior pitfalls.


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