Decoupling food production from GHG emissions

AGRF 2020

September 6th, 2019

One of the major challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa is how to become self-sufficient in food production while minimizing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

To set the context for this discussion, Mr Øystein Botillen, Stakeholder Relations and Business Development Manager at Yara, outlined the population growth predictions and productivity requirements to 2050.

In the next 30 years, the global population is expected to grow by 2 billion persons, from 7.7 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050. To feed this population, the FAO predicts that global food production has to increase by 60%. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, the challenge is particularly daunting. According to Martin Van Ittersum, Professor of Plant Production Systems at WaCASA, food demand will rise fastest in this region due to the specifics of population growth and dietary change, requiring a tripling of cereal production. This, he said, constitutes an “enormous increase in demand” and an “unprecedented productivity increase”. 

And today, cereal production in Africa is massively underperforming. African farmers produce only 20% of what’s theoretically possible to achieve, compared to 60-75% in some parts of Southeast Asia. “So, productivity could be much higher, around three-to-four times higher,” said Professor Van Ittersum.

So, to achieve self-sufficiency, it’s crucial to break the yield gap trends in sub-Saharan Africa. But to do so will require an intensification of production and/or an expansion of land usage that could have major implications for GHG emissions.

Productivity intensification, for example, means an enormous increase in nutrient input requirements – such as nitrogen for maize production and mineral fertilizers. And as Professor Van Ittersum explained, across four different intensification and yield scenarios, ranging from highly efficient to inefficient, “absolute emissions will go up”.   

How then do we achieve the productivity increases required in Africa with minimal environmental impact? And is it possible to attain self-sufficiency without replicating the problems linked to agricultural intensification seen elsewhere in the world? 

First, as Professor Van Ittersum observed, “high agronomic nitrogen use efficiency will be crucial to minimise emissions and realize self-sufficiency and good productivity.” 

Nutrient efficiency requires good soil fertility management, but this is something that Dr Rebbie Hawara, Head of Soil and Fertilizer Systems at AGRA, believes is achievable. In fact, Dr Hawara was optimistic about the possibility of sustainable intensification in Africa. 

“Intensification will be key,” she said, but “we have the tools for this. We’re talking about the tools to bring two tonnes to seven tonnes, improved seed varieties, good agronomic practices. And we have partners working together to bring balanced crop nutrition to the soil.”

What’s required now, said Dr Hawara, “is to get these tools into the hands of the farmers.” And to do that, the ‘hidden middle’ of SMEs needs to be brought onboard. In turn, this requires commitment and effort from governments to create an enabling environment in which SMEs and entrepreneurs can thrive. 

Other panellists discussed the importance of coordinated and collaborative approaches. “Unprecedented productivity increase requires unprecedented collaboration,” said Mr Botillen, observing that we need to address the fragmented and siloed nature of the agricultural sector. 

Hon. Momodou Mbye Jabang, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture in The Gambia, concurred, describing how the harmonization of seed systems in West Africa has led to self-sufficient and sustainable intensification programs.      

Some panellists identified policy bottlenecks as a key issue to address, while others focused on finance and the need to strengthen state capacity “to ensure we’re investing in the right places.”

Data and digitalization was also cited as part of the solution. Summing up, Dr Christian Witt, Senior Program Officer in Agricultural Development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said “sustainable intensification is complex and can be overwhelming unless we use data and analysis and evidence-driven approaches and appropriate indicators to track changes caused by our interventions.”

But given the challenges ahead, there is little room for error and great urgency to get this right. According to Dr Witt, “we probably have five to ten years now to make the right decisions for the future.”