Sustainable Intensification Optimizes the Production of Farming Systems Per Unit Area Per Unit Time: Q&A with Vara Prasad

IMG_1491As the use of the term ‘Sustainable Intensification (SI)’ becomes more common in today’s agricultural and scientific forums, we talk to Dr. P.V. Vara Prasad, Director of the Feed the Future Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab, to understand the meaning of SI and its benefits for farmers and food security.

How would you define sustainable intensification and why is it so important today?

The challenge of increasing food production to meet the demand from a growing population and diminishing resources has brought sustainable intensification (SI) at the forefront today.

Historically, to meet the demand of a growing population, we were able to increase global food production by bringing more land into agriculture through conversion of forests and grasslands, increased use of inputs and the introduction of cultivars that were more responsive to these inputs. Such actions over decades without proper guiding principles led to environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, greater negative impacts of climate change and slowed productivity gains in major food crops. The increases in crop productivity, too, were often accompanied by large negative impacts on the natural resource base, proving that such methods were not sustainable in the long run.

Sustainable intensification (SI) is broadly defined as the process and means to simultaneously improve productivity and environmental performance from agricultural land. The goal of SI is to increase food production from existing farmland while minimizing negative impacts on the environment. These practices optimize the production of farming systems per unit area per unit time. The combination of the terms “sustainable” and “intensification” indicates that desirable outcomes around both more food and improved environmental goods and services can be achieved by multiple means using a systems approach. While this is challenging, it can be achieved through innovations in science, capacity building and knowledge sharing through collaborative research programs.

How can smallholder farmers benefit from SI?

Firstly, projections show that the world will have 9.2 billion people by 2050 and most of this population increase will occur in less developed or developing countries – particularly in Africa and Asia. That means these countries would have to increase agricultural production by 100% to meet food demand alone. Secondly, there will also be more competing demand from other products such as feedstock for animals and bioenergy. And third, 70 percent of the world’s farmers are classified as smallholders or farmers with less than 1 hectare of land. They not only manage 80% of an estimated 500 million small farms, but also provide over 80% of the food consumed in the developing world.

A focus on SI among smallholder farmers hence becomes critical to food security, particularly in Africa and Asia where there is little or no option of expanding arable land. There is clear evidence suggesting benefits from investments in agricultural research can lead to sustainable increases in farm productivity.

Some of the specific proven examples of SI practices include: introduction of short duration grain legumes in cereal-based cropping systems by making adjustments to planting dates, selection of crop varieties of appropriate durations, integrating livestock (small and large animals including poultry) and aquaculture (fish and shrimp) into farming systems; increasing diversity of crops and livestock; integrated soil, water and pest management practices; inclusion of vegetables, fruits and agroforestry systems for diversity and nutritious diets.

How different are challenges faced by farmers in developing countries compared to their counterparts in developed countries?

Issues related to increasing farm productivity and income, limited resources and environmental constraints are similar for most producers around the world. But the scale and context are different. For example, a smallholder farmer in developing countries has 0.5 to 10 ha of land, while a smallholder farmer in developed countries has 100 to 200 ha. The goal of farmers across the globe remains the same – to increase net income – only the methods they use to achieve them would be different.

In developing countries, most of the losses in food production occur during production, harvesting and storage, while in developed countries losses occur later during processing, transport and consumption. The majority of smallholder famers in developing counties lack access to inputs such as capital, fertilizers and equipment. There the focus is more on achieving food security through integrated soil and nutrient management, cropping systems and appropriate scale technologies. Whereas producers in developed countries who have access to inputs are generally focused on judicious use of these inputs and focus more on saving fuel, optimizing farm size for mechanization and ensuring soil health to increase trade and income.

Technologies used to overcome such challenges are appropriate for all farmers but at different scales based on farm size and typology.

How will your work help address these challenges?

The Feed the Future (FtF) Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab (SIIL) is a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded program that supports research, knowledge sharing and capacity building activities aimed at sustainably transforming farming systems of smallholder farmers.

We aim to develop research and capacity-building portfolios in collaboration with US universities, international and national organizations to sustainably increase agricultural productivity and income that provides food and nutritional security to smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia while maintaining a strong focus on an integrated farming systems research. We will be supported by the Geospatial and Farming Systems Research Consortium and the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium. The primary focus countries in this phase of SIIL are Senegal, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Cambodia.

SIIL will also fund research sub-awards totaling up to US$ 9 million in specific focus areas over the next five years. We plan to release the request for applications from research and capacity building institutions by June.

I feel privileged to have the opportunity to lead and serve SIIL. I look forward to actively collaborate with SI flagship programs on providing food and nutritional security to smallholder farmers across the globe.

Any potential areas for future collaboration between SIIL and CSISA?

There will be a lot of opportunities for collaboration between the two programs. Both focus on SI using a systems approach where emphasis is on total farming or agricultural systems rather than a single commodity. There is also an overlap in CSISA’s existing geographies and SIIL’s focus countries. Therefore, opportunities exist for cross-learning and filling the gaps in research and capacity-building needs. We can build on existing knowledge and scale up and scale out certain proven interventions in Asia (Bangladesh and Cambodia) and potentially also in East and West Africa.

Specific areas for collaboration can include:

  1. Farming Systems Research: Between SIIL and other SI flagship programs of USAID, we can build and provide local farm and field-level solutions that can be scaled to landscapes and regions. Some of the proven technologies or interventions and networks from CSISA can be scaled through programs of SIIL in regions with similar typologies and resources. Looking at CSISA’s genetic intensification work and SIIL’s ecological intensification focus, there could also be possibilities for testing genotypes under various farming systems for SI.
  2. Gender Appropriate and Nutrition Sensitive Technologies: Both programs are focused on development and dissemination of gender appropriate technologies and targeting nutrition. We can learn and enhance collaboration on such interventions.
  3. Geospatial Tools and Scale Appropriate Innovations: SIIL is supported by two consortia bringing together vast expertise. These platforms will be available for collaboration with CSISA and other SI flagship programs of USAID. Further, the scale-appropriate machinery being tested and disseminated by CSISA can be scaled out in SIIL’s new geographies.
  4. Capacity Building: The focus of innovation labs is two-fold: first is innovation in research and second is human capacity building. I can foresee opportunities in both; to use the research sites of CSISA for graduate education by researchers of SIIL and vice versa, and; to collaboratively conduct training programs.
  5. Knowledge Management and Sharing: Scientific knowledge on SI is constantly changing and growing but is not always easily available or accessible. There will be opportunities for collaboration with all SI flagship programs funded by USAID to develop common knowledge platforms that could serve as a one-stop-shop for comprehensive information and literature on SI.

P.V. Vara Prasad is the Director of the Feed the Future Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab. He is also Professor of Crop Ecophysiology in the Department of Agronomy at Kansas State University. His research focuses on understanding responses of crops to changing environments and developing crop, water and soil management strategies for efficient use of inputs and improving crop yields. He is internationally recognized for his research on environmental stress physiology and has published more 120 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters.

Posted on News & Announcements, March 29, 2015