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Welcome to the E-Conference
Looking Forward to Rio+10: Reporting Progress
on Land and Agriculture
Record of Contributions
Message 36 - Intervention by Sarwat Hussain
Sat, 17 Mar 2001 18:36:47 +0100
Greetings to all. My name is Sarwat Hussain, and I work as Information
Officer with Secretariat of the Consultative Group on International
Agricultural Research (CGIAR) located in Washington, DC (please click on
www.cgiar.org for more information). My
contribution, I hope, is a combined response to both the "what" and "how"
questions that have been posed earlier.
The issue of land and agriculture is central to environmental and social
sustainability, because land is the single most important resource for
productive agriculture. If we do not practice a form of agriculture that
sustains the fertility of the land, and if we do not have the technologies
(crops, farming practices) that allow us to maximize yield per acre of land
devoted to agriculture, then sustainability-however it is defined-will
The news about land quality is uniformly bad. A recent report prepared by
the International Food Policy Research Institute (www.cgiar.org/ifpri)
, in cooperation with the World Resources
Institute, shows how widespread and serious the situation is:
40% of agricultural land is seriously degraded, with the net result that
crop productivity has been reduced by 13% overall, with the poor bearing a
disproportionate burden, particularly in the poorest parts of Sub-Saharan
Africa and Central America. Agriculture is using up more land every year -
12.5 m ha annually - a surface area the size of Greece or Nicaragua. The
effect on natural habitats is profound More worrying is the fact that land
is not used only to produce food - agricultural lands also provide other
goods and environmental services (e.g. habitat for threatened species).
Just in terms of biodiversity alone, it was a sobering thought to read
Vaclav Smil's classic "Feeding the World: A Challenge for the 21st Century,"
where he points out that soils in temperate regions harbor anywhere between
10 to the power of 8 or 10 to the power of 9 bacteria per gram and that
their diversity is immense. A gram of soil may contain 4,000 independent
bacterial genomes, or up to 40,000 different species - yet so far we have
described only 4,000 bacterial species, most of them not soil inhabitants!
So the news is bad and the situation is all set to worsen. Our only hope is
to mobilize cutting-edge science, that is multidisciplinary, and bring it to
bear on problems of tropical farming, which is mostly subsistence farming.
Through its 16 international agricultural research centers, collectively
called the Future Harvest Centers, CGIAR is working on various aspects of
the problem, and I'll just list a couple to answer the "how" question and
also demonstrate the complexity of the work.
The "Rice-Wheat Consortium for the Indo-Gangetic Plains" is a little-known
success story (www.cgiar.org/rwc) . Rice-wheat
rotations cover approx. 12 million ha in South Asia, home to hundreds of
millions of rural and urban poor. Slowing cereal yields, lack of new
farmland, intense year-round cropping, and widespread resource degradation,
are some of the major factors impeding the 'sustainability' of rice-wheat
cropping systems. In fact, the areas covered by the Consortium constitute
the most intensively cropped land in the world. Five Future Harvest
Centers (CiMMYT, CIP, ICRISAT, IRRI, and IWMI) are working with national
programs in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, to promote new tillage
practices (direct drilling and surface seeding) which allow farmers to
prepare soils and sow wheat in a single operation after the rice harvest.
The benefits: 75% fuel saved, higher yields, reduced application of
herbicides, and 10% less water used. The fuel savings also translate into
reduction of 1.3 million tons in emissions of CO2. Next steps are to work
with farmers on cutting down the burning of crop residues - an activity with
the potential to reduceCO2 emissions by another 17 million tons. What is
clear is that the work is anchored at 4 different levels: community,
national, regional, and international. It is necessarily multidisciplinary
(combining an understanding of trends, low-tillage methods, nutrient
management, system ecology, integrated water management, socio-economic and
policy, information and knowledge-sharing, and building capacity in terms of
human and institutional resources). Most importantly, the innovative
research fulfils the criteria of "global public goods," i.e. those
technologies that depend on collective actions and provide shared benefits.
Drought is one of the major abiotic stresses affecting agricultural
productivity and livelihoods in the dry areas. ICARDA, based in Aleppo,
Syria, is focusing its research on developing a two-pronged strategy: (1)
working on the genetic side, using conventional and non-conventional tools,
to address production problems of crops grown in the dry areas (barley,
wheat, faba beans, lentils, etc.) and (2) improving the management of
natural resources. The benefit: powerful synergies inherent in each
approach are captured. The work takes a holistic approach-new science, GIS,
ecosystems approach, and participatory research methods-to address the needs
of more than 1 billion people who inhabit dry areas, and where population
growth rates are the highest in the world (3.6% pear year).
So do these couple of examples help to provide a precise-enough roadmap to
get us from here to there? I do not think so. The problems are daunting in
scale, and multifaceted (economic, political, social, and environmental).
For example, there are also the intertwined issues of land reform, land
tenure, property rights, land redistribution, etc, but what is abundantly
clear is that public policy will be key to addressing the problems, and
better science, better information, can be crucial inputs for effective
action. The immediate task is to keep food, agricultural, and natural
resource management issues alive and high enough on the development totem
pole, so that donors and governments alike can take notice and give rural
issues the priority they deserve. That will be the challenge for Rio+10!