Nature-based innovation ‘driving food systems into future’

Aug 18 2021

Farming innovations rooted in nature and plant science could forge path towards future food systems, writes Laura Owings. 

Hidden forests, locust-thwarting biopesticides and genomic techniques to improve crop resilience: these are just some agricultural innovations rooted in nature and plant science that could pave the way towards the food systems of the future.

With such methods already being explored in developing countries, they may provide answers to meet the burden of feeding an estimated global population of 8.5 billion by 2030. But scaling-up these innovations will depend on collaboration between policymakers, financers and consumers to support a food system designed for the planet’s long-term health.

Farms turned to forests

Farmers in southern Niger have worked with nature to turn five million hectares of barren land green since 1985. “It is the biggest positive environmental transformation in Africa,” says Chris Reij, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute.

“Farmers started to protect and manage woody species that emerged spontaneously either from stumps of trees still in the soil or seeds in the soil,” he says. “Their conclusion was that the practice had a positive impact on their crop yields and livelihoods.”

Traditional practice was to remove trees from farmland, for fear they would compete with crops for nutrients and water. However, farmer-managed agroforestry observed by Reij in the Zinder and Tahoua regions brought wind and drought protection, while aiding production of 500,000 additional tonnes of cereals annually.

Agroforestry — growing trees or shrubs with agricultural crops and livestock — is gaining increasing interest. According to a working paper from global food partnership CGIAR, 40 per cent of developing countries mention agroforestry as a measure of climate change mitigation or adaption in their national climate strategies. Interest is particularly high in Africa, at 71 per cent of countries, compared with 34 per cent in the Americas and 21 per cent in Asia.

Before the wider management of on-farm trees in Niger, Reij says winds would destroy crop cover and force farmers to plant crops three or four times a year. “Now, wind speed is reduced by trees so that crops are planted only once, allowing the growing season to increase,” he says.

Source: Science Dev