State of the Planet

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Growing Food, Protecting the Land in Africa

By Rafael Merchan

How can we double food production and feed the world by 2050 in a way that both protects natural resources and reduces poverty and malnutrition? This is an urgent question that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is trying to answer.

Agroecological landscapes in Ethiopia
Complex agroecological landscapes, such as in Ethiopia as depicted here, provide multiple services, including timber, fodder, fuel, and food. Photo: Kyu-Young Lee

With a new $10 million grant to Conservation International from the foundation, the Earth Institute’s Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a South African research organization, are collaborating as partners and subgrantees to develop a practical, integrated system for monitoring agriculture, the environment, and human wellbeing. The goal is to help land managers and policy makers identify and tackle tradeoffs between intensified food production on the African continent and the vital services provided by healthy ecosystems. The three-year grant will be managed by Conservation International.

On Feb. 23, in front of representatives from the global agriculture and food security community, Bill Gates emphasized the importance of investing in food security as a powerful weapon to fight against poverty and disease. Gates described the tremendous potential developing countries hold to feed the world, saying, “It is possible for small farmers in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa to double or almost triple their yields, respectively, in the next 20 years—while preserving the land for future generations.”

Robust data, standard indicators and other information are critical for understanding the different dynamics that go into food production but are often unavailable or difficult to find and understand. These issues present an immense challenge to policy makers.  If they lack the tools and data necessary to understand the trade-offs of a particular intervention, they will not be able to make sound policy decisions necessary to provide nutritious food for their populations while also protecting their ecosystems, which provide fresh water, arable soil, pollinators and many other critical services that support agricultural production.

The Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program and its partners will tackle these challenges by launching the Africa Monitoring System. The system will provide integrated scientific information to help African policymakers, organizations, scientists and farmers improve their decision making regarding agricultural practices and policies.  The system will provide tools to ensure that agricultural development does not degrade natural systems and the services they provide, especially for smallholder farmers.  It will also fill a critical unmet need for integrating measurements of agriculture, ecosystem services and human well-being by pooling near real-time and multi-scale data into an open-access online dashboard that policy makers will be able to freely use and customize.
The three-year project will be rolled out in five countries, including Tanzania, Ghana, Ethiopia and two more that will soon be determined.

Smallholder oil palm production in Ghana: Market development and improved management can increase profitability of cash crops but the tradeoff of this intensification on the environment must be evaluated. Photo: Millennium Promise
Smallholder oil palm production in Ghana: Market development and improved management can increase profitability of cash crops but the tradeoff of this intensification on the environment must be evaluated. Photo: Millennium Promise

The Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program’s role will be to manage the monitoring system work and research on agricultural and environmental aspects such as intensification strategies, food and nutrition security, agro-biodiversity, soil properties and changes, and the ecosystem services attributed to soils of certain geographical areas.

“This monitoring system will provide information that will allow decision makers to assess the consequences, both synergies and tradeoffs, of agricultural intensification on the environment and human well-being,” said Cheryl Palm, the leader of the Earth Institute group that is collaborating on the project and the Earth Institute’s representative for the project’s Technical Council.

Pedro Sanchez, director of the Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program, added, “Having a set of standardized, comparable data on agriculture, the environment and human well-being will allow policy makers to make sound decisions on how to feed growing populations. This tool is crucial for achieving the African Green Revolution.”

The timing for this project could not be better. Other African and global initiatives, such as the U.S. government’s Feed the Future, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program, are gaining traction. The Africa Monitoring System will complement these efforts by equipping policymakers and practitioners with key integrated indicators on agriculture, ecosystem services and human wellbeing. Since data on issues such as climate variability, ecosystem resilience and agricultural systems can be quite complex, the Africa Monitoring System will also synthesize the data into simple indicators and reports. Most of the information generated by the project will be free and fully accessible to policy makers and the general public.
Another important aspect of the Africa Monitoring System is its emphasis on capacity building of African institutions and policy makers. The project does this by partnering with local institutions such as the Tanzania Bureau of Statistics and by engaging African scientists in the design and development of the different measurements.

For more information about the Africa Monitoring System, visit the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Conservation International. See an interview with Dr. Sandy Andelman, a vice president of Conservation International who will serve as the system’s executive director. See also a blog post by Dr. Alex Awiti, an ecosystems ecologist supporting the system in Nairobi, writing on “Why Africa Needs Agricultural Monitoring: One Kenyan’s View.”

Rafael Merchan is a first-year student in the MPA-Development Practice program at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs. He is also intern at the Earth Institute’s Tropical Agriculture Program. He also blogs on issues related to agriculture and food security.

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