Conservation agriculture key in meeting UN Sustainable Development Goals

This story by Alison Doody was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

An international team of scientists has provided a sweeping new analysis of the benefits of conservation agriculture for crop performance, water use efficiency, farmers’ incomes and climate action across a variety of cropping systems and environments in South Asia.

The analysis, published today in Nature Sustainability, is the first of its kind to synthesize existing studies on conservation agriculture in South Asia and allows policy makers to prioritize where and which cropping systems to deploy conservation agriculture techniques. The study uses data from over 9,500 site-year comparisons across South Asia.

According to M.L. Jat, a principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and first author of the study, conservation agriculture also offers positive contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals of no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, climate action and clean water.

“Conservation agriculture is going to be key to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” echoed JK Ladha, adjunct professor at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of the study.

Scientists from CIMMYT, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the University of California, Davis, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Cornell University looked at a variety of agricultural, economic and environmental performance indicators — including crop yields, water use efficiency, economic return, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming potential — and compared how they correlated with conservation agriculture conditions in smallholder farms and field stations across South Asia.

Results and impact on policy

Researchers found that many conservation agriculture practices had significant benefits for agricultural, economic and environmental performance indicators, whether implemented separately or together. Zero tillage with residue retention, for example, had a mean yield advantage of around 6%, provided farmers almost 25% more income, and increased water use efficiency by about 13% compared to conventional agricultural practices. This combination of practices also was shown to cut global warming potential by up to 33%.

This comes as good news for national governments in South Asia, which have been actively promoting conservation agriculture to increase crop productivity while conserving natural resources. South Asian agriculture is known as a global “hotspot” for climate vulnerability.

“Smallholder farmers in South Asia will be impacted most by climate change and natural resource degradation,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General of ICAR and Secretary of India’s Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE). “Protecting our natural resources for future generations while producing enough quality food to feed everyone is our top priority.”

“ICAR, in collaboration with CIMMYT and other stakeholders, has been working intensively over the past decades to develop and deploy conservation agriculture in India. The country has been very successful in addressing residue burning and air pollution issues using conservation agriculture principles,” he added.

With the region’s population expected to rise to 2.4 billion, demand for cereals is expected to grow by about 43% between 2010 and 2050. This presents a major challenge for food producers who need to produce more while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and damage to the environment and other natural resources.

“The collaborative effort behind this study epitomizes how researchers, policy-makers, and development practitioners can and should work together to find solutions to the many challenges facing agricultural development, not only in South Asia but worldwide,” said Jon Hellin, leader of the Sustainable Impact Platform at IRRI.

Crossing boundaries: looking at wheat diseases in times of the COVID-19 crisis

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).

Daily life as we know it has grinded to a halt and crop scientists are pondering next steps in face of the global COVID-19 crisis. Hans Braun, Director of the Global Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, joins us for a virtual chat to discuss the need for increased investment in crop disease research as the world risks a food security crisis. 

What have you learned from your work on contagious wheat diseases that we can take away during this time?

Wheat epidemics go back to biblical times. Wheat scientists now believe Egypt’s “seven bad years” of harvest referenced in the Bible were due to a stem rust outbreak.

So, we know what happens when we have a crop epidemic: diseases can completely wipe out a harvest. I have seen subsistence farmers stand in front of their swaying, golden wheat fields, but there is not a single grain inside the spikes. All because of wheat blast.

There are a lot of parallel issues that I see with COVID-19.

The epidemiology models for humans which we see now have a lot in common with plant epidemiology. For example, if you take a wheat field sown with a variety which is rust-resistant and then you get a spore which mutates and overcomes the resistance — like COVID 19 overcomes the human immune system — it then takes about two weeks for it to sporulate again and produce millions of these mutated spores. They sporulate once more and then you have billions and trillions of spores — then the wheat fields at the local, national and, in the worst case, regional level are severely damaged and in worst case are going to die.

The problem is that since we cannot quarantine wheat, if the weather is favorable these spores will fly everywhere and — just like with COVID-19 — they don’t need a passport to travel.

Could you elaborate on that? How can wheat diseases go global?

Usually it takes around 5 years, sometimes less, until a mutation in a rust spore can overcome the resistance of a wheat variety. Every so often, we see rust epidemics which cover an entire region. To monitor this movement, the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative of Cornell University and CIMMYT, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID, established a global rust monitoring system that provides live data on spore movements.

For example, if you have a new race of stem rust in Yemen — and in Yemen wheat matures early — and then farmers burn the straw, their action “pushes” the spores up into the air, thus allowing them to enter the jet stream and cover 2,000 to 5,000 kilometers in a short period of time. Spores can also be carried on clothes or shoes by people who walked into an infected wheat field. Take Australia, for example, which has very strict quarantine laws. It is surrounded by sea and still eventually they get the new rust races which fly around or come with travelers. One just cannot prevent it.

Could climate change exacerbate the spreading of crop diseases?

Yes, the climate and its variability have a lot to do with it. For example, in the case of yellow rust, what’s extremely important is the time it takes from sporulation to sporulation. Take a rust spore. It germinates, then it grows, it multiplies and then once it is ready it will disperse and infect wheat plants. From one dispersal to the next it takes about two weeks.

In the last decades, in particular for yellow rust, new races are better adapted to high temperature and are multiplying faster. In a Nature paper, we showed that 30 years ago yellow rust was not present in the Great Plains in the US. Today, it is the most important wheat disease there. So there really is something going on and changing and that’s why we are so concerned about new wheat disease races when they come up.

What could an epidemiologist specialized in human viruses take from this?

Well, I think human epidemiologists know very well what happens in a case like COVID-19. Ordinary citizens now also start to understand what a pandemic is and what its related exponential growth means.

Maybe you should ask what policymakers can learn from COVID-19 in order to prevent plant epidemics. When it comes to epidemics, what applies to humans applies to plants. If there is a new race of a given crop disease, in that moment, the plant does not have a defense mechanism, like humans in the case of COVID-19, because we haven’t developed any immunity. While in developed countries farmers can use chemicals to control plant diseases, resource-poor farmers do not have this option, due to lack to access or if the plant protective has not been registered in their country.

In addition to this, our lines of work share a sense of urgency. If “doomsday” happens, it will be too late to react. At present, with a human pandemic, people are worried about the supply chain from food processing to the supermarket. But if we have an epidemic in plants, then we do not have the supply chain from the field to the food processing industry. And if people have nothing to eat, they will go to the streets and we will see violence. We simply cannot put this aside.

What other lessons can policymakers and other stakeholders take away from the current crisis?

The world needs to learn that we cannot use economics as the basis for disease research. We need to better foresee what could happen.

Let’s take the example of wheat blast, a devastating disease that can destroy the wheat spike and was initially confined to South America. The disease arrived in Bangladesh in 2016 and caused small economic damage, maybe 30,000 tons loss in a small geographic area — a small fraction of the national production but a disaster for the smallholder farmer, who thus would have lost her entire wheat harvest. The disease is now controlled with chemicals. But what if chemical resistance is developed and the disease spreads to the 10 million hectares in the Indo Gangetic Plains of India and the south of Pakistan. Unlikely? But what if it happens?

Agriculture accounts for 30% of the global GDP and the research money [going to agriculture] in comparison to other areas is small. Globally only 5% of R&D is invested in research for development related to agriculture. Such a discrepancy! A million U.S. dollars invested in wheat blast research goes a long way and if you don’t do it, you risk a disaster.

If there is any flip side to the COVID-19 disaster, it is that hopefully our governments realize that they have to play a much more serious role in many areas, in particular public health and disease control in humans but also in plants.

A Lloyd’s report concluded that a global food crisis could be caused by governments taking isolating actions to protect their own countries in response to a breadbasket failure elsewhere. I’m concerned that as the COVID-19 crisis continues, governments will stop exports as some did during the 2008 food price crisis, and then, even if there is enough food around, the 2008 scenario might happen again and food prices will go through the roof, with disastrous impact on the lives of the poorest.

Whole grains

This story by Emma Orchardson was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

The most recent dietary guidelines provided by the World Health Organization and other international food and nutrition authorities recommend that half our daily intake of grains should come from whole grains. But what are whole grains, what are their health benefits, and where can they be found?

What are whole grains?

The grain or kernel of any cereal is made up of three edible parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm.

Each part of the grain contains different types of nutrients.

  • The bran is the multi-layered outer skin of the edible kernel. It is fiber-rich and also supplies antioxidants, B vitamins, minerals like zinc, iron, magnesium, and phytochemicals — natural chemical compounds found in plants that have been linked to disease prevention.
  • The germ is the core of the seed where growth occurs. It is rich in lipids and contains vitamin E, as well as B vitamins, phytochemicals and antioxidants.
  • The largest portion of the kernel is the endosperm, an interior layer that holds carbohydrates, protein and smaller amounts of vitamins and minerals.
The grain or kernel of maize and wheat is made up of three edible parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. (Graphic: Nancy Valtierra/CIMMYT)
The grain or kernel of maize and wheat is made up of three edible parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. (Graphic: Nancy Valtierra/CIMMYT)

A whole grain is not necessarily an entire grain.

The concept is mainly associated with food products — which are not often made using intact grains — but there is no single, accepted definition of what constitutes a whole grain once parts of it have been removed.

Generally speaking, however, a processed grain is considered “whole” when each of the three original parts — the bran, germ and endosperm — are still present in the same proportions as when the original one. This definition applies to all cereals in the Poaceae family such as maize, wheat, barley and rice, and some pseudocereals including amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.

Wholegrain vs. refined and enriched grain products

Refined grain products differ from whole grains in that some or all of the outer bran layers are removed by milling, pearling, polishing, or degerming processes and are missing one or more of their three key parts.

For example, white wheat flour is prepared with refined grains that have had their bran and germ removed, leaving only the endosperm. Similarly, if a maize kernel is degermed or decorticated — where both the bran and germ are removed — it becomes a refined grain.

The main purpose of removing the bran and germ is technological, to ensure finer textures in final food products and to improve their shelf life. The refining process removes the variety of nutrients that are found in the bran and germ, so many refined flours end up being enriched — or fortified — with additional, mostly synthetic, nutrients. However, some components such as phytochemicals cannot be replaced.

A hand holds grains of wheat. (Photo: Thomas Lumpkin/CIMMYT)
A hand holds grains of wheat. (Photo: Thomas Lumpkin/CIMMYT)

Are wholegrain products healthier than refined ones?

There is a growing body of research indicating that whole grains offer a number of health benefits which refined grains do not.

Bran and fiber slow the breakdown of starch into glucose, allowing the body to maintain a steady blood sugar level instead of causing sharp spikes. Fibers positively affect bowel movement and also help to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular diseases, the incidence of type 2 diabetes, the risk of stroke, and to maintain an overall better colorectal and digestive health. There is also some evidence to suggest that phytochemicals and essential minerals — such as copper and magnesium — found in the bran and germ may also help protect against some cancers.

Despite the purported benefits, consumption of some wholegrain foods may be limited by consumer perception of tastes and textures. The bran in particular contains intensely flavored compounds that reduce the softness of the final product and may be perceived to negatively affect overall taste and texture. However, these preferences vary greatly between regions. For example, while wheat noodles in China are made from refined flour, in South Asia most wheat is consumed wholegrain in the form of chapatis.

Popcorn is another example of a highly popular wholegrain food. It is a high-quality carbohydrate source that, consumed naturally, is not only low in calories and cholesterol, but also a good source of fiber and essential vitamins including folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid and vitamins B6, A, E and K. One serving of popcorn contains about 8% of the daily iron requirement, with lesser amounts of calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.

Boiled and roasted maize commonly consumed in Africa, Asia and Latin America are other sources of wholegrain maize, as is maize which has been soaked in lime solution, or “nixtamalized.” Depending on the steeping time and method of washing the nixtamalized kernels, a portion of the grains used for milling could still be classed as whole.

Identifying wholegrain products

Whole grains are relatively easy to identify when dealing with unprocessed foods such as brown rice or oats. It becomes more complicated, however, when a product is made up of both whole and refined or enriched grains, especially as color is not an indicator. Whole wheat bread made using whole grains can appear white in color, for example, while multi-grain brown bread can be made primarily using refined flour.

In a bid to address this issue, US-based nonprofit consumer advocacy group the Whole Grains Council created a stamp designed to help consumers identify and select wholegrain products more easily. As of 2019, this stamp is used on over 13,000 products in 61 different countries.

However, whether a product is considered wholegrain or not varies widely between countries and individual agencies, with a lack of industry standardization meaning that products are labelled inconsistently. Words such as “fiber,” “multigrain” and even “wholegrain” are often used on packaging for products which are not 100% wholegrain. The easiest way to check a product’s wholegrain content is to look at the list of ingredients and see if the flours used are explicitly designated as wholegrain. These are ordered by weight, so the first items listed are those contained more heavily in the product.

As a next step, an ad-hoc committee led by the Whole Grain Initiative is due to propose specific whole grain quantity thresholds to help establish a set of common criteria for food labelling. These are likely to be applied worldwide in the event that national definitions and regulations are not standardized.

CGIAR’s Response to COVID-19

This article was originally posted on the CGIAR website.

Photo: Eneas De Troya/Flickr.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread rapidly. Since its start in China in December, the outbreak has spread to more than 100 countries, endangering the health and livelihoods of millions. To contain the pandemic, many cities and regions across the world have been shut down, putting a halt to day-to-day activities.

As Western economies struggle with difficult decisions – it is those in the global South that are most at risk. Economies that are dependent on tourism, trade and foreign investment have fewer options at their disposal.

An urgent and coordinated global response is needed – from the global to the local level to protect populations – and especially the most vulnerable. Food security is fragile under normal circumstances and must not be ignored as part of a One Health strategy.

CGIAR, as the world’s largest public research network on food systems, provides evidence to help understand and address threats to food and nutrition security from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as:

  • The food system has been significantly affected, and these impacts will grow if processing enterprises cannot restart production in a near future;
  • Production of staple food crops such as wheat, rice, and vegetables will be affected if the outbreak continues into critical planting periods;
  • Domestic and international trade disruptions may trigger food price panics;
  • Restrictions on mobility may lead to labor shortages.

CGIAR will make available its latest research and analysis on COVID-19 to support authorities and the public in making informed decisions during the current crisis. In the research and news featured below, CGIAR scientists provide evidence-based advice and recommendations on:

  • Introducing enabling policies for spring planting and increasing support for production entities;
  • Ensuring the smooth flow of trade and making full use of the international market as a vital tool to secure food supply and demand;
  • Ensuring smooth logistical operations of regional agricultural and food supply chains;
  • Monitoring food prices and strengthening market supervision;
  • Protecting vulnerable groups and providing employment services to migrant workers;
  • Regulating wild food markets to curb the source of the disease;
  • Measuring impact on small and medium-sized businesses;
  • Analyzing how much global poverty will increase because of COVID-19.

Systems thinking at work in South Asia’s food production

This story by Emma Orchardson was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

A farmer uses a tractor fitted with a Happy Seeder. (Photo: Vedachalam Dakshinamurthy/CIMMYT)
A farmer uses a tractor fitted with a Happy Seeder. (Photo: Vedachalam Dakshinamurthy/CIMMYT)

International agricultural research has come a long way since the Green Revolution of the 1970s – from a tight focus on crop improvement to a wider quest for sustainable food systems. Our original objective, as the founders of International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and other CGIAR Research Centers were fond of saying, was to increase the pile of grain. Now, we strive to achieve food and nutritional security in ways that also enhance rural livelihoods, reduce environmental degradation, and boost agriculture´s resilience. 

In 2009, state governments in Northwest India implemented a policy designed to reduce groundwater extraction by prohibiting the usual practice of planting rice in May and moving it to June, nearer the start of monsoon rains.

Although the policy did succeed in alleviating pressure on groundwater, it also had the unexpected effect of worsening already severe air pollution. The reason for this, according to a recent study published in Nature Sustainability, is that the delay in rice planting narrowed the window between rice harvest and sowing of the subsequent crop — mainly wheat — leaving farmers little time to remove rice straw from the field and compelling them to burn it instead.

Even though burning crop residues is prohibited in India, uncertainty about the implementation of government policy and a perceived lack of alternatives have perpetuated the practice in Haryana and Punjab states, near the nation’s capital, New Delhi, where air pollution poses a major health threat.

Decades of research for development have enabled researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and other partners to identify potential solutions to this problem.

A farmer checks the drip irrigation system at his rice field in India. (Photo: Hamish John Appleby/IWMI)
A farmer checks the drip irrigation system at his rice field in India (Photo: Hamish John Appleby/IWMI)

One particularly viable option focuses on the practice of zero tillage, in which wheat seed is sown immediately after rice harvest through the rice straw directly into untilled soil with a single tractor pass.

In a new blog published as part of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Field Notes series, CIMMYT scientists Hans Braun and Bruno Gerard discuss the combination of agronomic and breeding conditions required to make zero tillage work, and propose a fundamental shift away from current incentives to maximize the region´s cereal production.

WHEAT carries on in the “new normal” of COVID-19

A wheat field in Kazakhstan. Photo: V. Ganeyev/CIMMYT

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat and its lead center, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), based in Mexico, are responding to the threat of COVID-19 and taking measures to ensure our worldwide staff is as safe as possible.  While we adjust to the “new normal” of social distancing, temperature checks and quarantines, we will continue to perform field and desk research as best we can, and share our progress and findings with you through our website, newsletter, and Facebook page.

At times such as this, we step back and remember the vision that brings us all here: a world free of poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. We would not be able pursue this vision without your support.

We hope you, your colleagues and loved ones stay safe and healthy. We are all in this together and we look forward to continuing our conversation.

Latest COVID-19 news:

OPINION: Africa’s devastating locust outbreak exposes need for crop science on all fronts

This op-ed by Dr. Nteranya Sanginga from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), featuring research by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

Ahmed Ibrahim, 30, an Ethiopian farmer attempts to fend off desert locusts as they fly in his khat farm on the outskirt of Jijiga in Somali region, Ethiopia January 12, 2020. Picture taken January 12, 2020. REUTERS/Giulia Paravicini

A perfect storm of conditions led to the locust attack currently tearing through East Africa and Pakistan, where countries are deploying pesticidesmilitary personnel and even ducks.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has given the ultimatum of March to bring Africa’s desert locust outbreak under control, calling for US$76 million to fund insecticide spraying.

But the ongoing outbreak is only the latest example of the devastation that crop pests can cause – there are tens of thousands more that farmers have to contend with, from diseases and fungi to weeds and insects.

And with such a variety of threats to harvests and yields, there is no silver bullet to protect against losses and damage. Rather, an integrated approach is needed that incorporates all available tools in the toolbox, from better forecasting and monitoring technologies to the controlled spraying of crops with biocontrol products, all supported by stronger partnerships.

Smallholder farmers are on the frontline when a pest outbreak takes hold. A small swarm of desert locusts can eat the equivalent food of 35,000 people per day, for example, while crop losses resulting from the spread of fall armyworm across sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to cost up to $6.1 billion a year.

Yet while their livelihoods are most at risk, smallholders can also play a significant part in tackling crop pests like the desert locust.

By giving farmers access to better surveillance technology that enables them to monitor pests and forecast potential outbreaks, infestations can be tracked and managed effectively.

A project in Bangladesh that helps farmers to deal with fall armyworm is one example of how this can be done effectively. Led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the initiative has trained hundreds of farmers and extension agents in identifying, monitoring and tackling infestations using combined approaches.

Yet effective pest management is not the responsibility of farmers alone – nor does it begin in the field. Behind every farmer dealing with a crop pest is a scientist who has supported them by developing better seeds, crop protection methods and scouting apps to identify weeds.

Using either conventional breeding or genetic modification, scientists can develop seeds that produce pest-resistant crops, for example.

CGIAR researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) developed and released a modified cassava variety in Colombia, bred to be resistant against high whitefly, which outperformed regional varieties without the need for pesticides.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has also developed maize varieties resistant to the stem borer insect for use in West and Central Africa.

And last year, the Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency approved the commercial release of genetically modified cowpea to farmers – a variety resistant to the maruca pod borer, a type of insect.

Better seeds and crop protection products are vital – but we need to do still more.

Some biocontrol pesticides such as Green Muscle and Novacrid have been highly effective in the past if used against locust hopper bands before they congregate into swarms. But they have limited impact once the swarms start to move as well as limited availability and regulatory approval, and a relatively short shelf-life.

Further research into crop protection methods will pave the way for new chemical and biological solutions, which can keep pest outbreaks under control – or prevent them altogether.

But we also need closer collaboration with governments, research institutions, universities, donors and investors, and – crucially – farmers to address the challenges of pest infestations, and lessen their impact on food systems.

Collaboration is central to IITA’s Biorisk Management Facility (BIMAF), a partnership established around the need for better coordination between researchers, civil society, farming communities, and non-governmental, public and private organisations.

There is no single, superior way to fight and control agricultural pests like the desert locust – battling them on all fronts is our best hope. Of course, prevention is the ultimate goal, and it is achievable. But stopping an outbreak in its tracks requires a huge amount of coordination and sustained financial support.

We must work together to develop new crop protection methods and get them into the hands of those who need them the most. The current locust outbreak – and future pest infestations – will only be defeated with a united front.

New publication: Breeder friendly Phenotyping

In crop research fields, it is now a common sight to see drones or other high-tech sensing tools collecting high-resolution data on a wide range of traits – from simple measurement of canopy temperature to complex 3D reconstruction of photosynthetic canopies.

This technological approach to collecting precise plant trait information, known as phenotyping, is becoming ubiquitous on research fields, but according to experts at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and other research institutions, breeders can profit much more from these tools, when used judiciously. 

Examples of different classes and applications of breeder friendly phenotyping. Image: M. Reynolds et al.

In a new article in the journal Plant Science, CIMMYT Wheat Physiologist Matthew Reynolds and colleagues explain the different ways that phenotyping can assist breeding — from simple to use, “handy” approaches for large scale screening, to detailed physiological characterization of key traits to identify new parental sources — and why this methodology is crucial for crop improvement. The authors make the case for breeders to invest in phenotyping, particularly in light of the imperative to breed crops for warmer and harsher climates.

Read the full article here.

This work was supported by the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP); the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture (MasAgro) Project by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER) of the Government of Mexico; and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).

‘Sharing’ or ‘sparing’ land?

This blog written by Frédéric Baudron was originally posted on the CIMMYT website.

Any fifth grader is familiar with the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction, which saw dinosaurs — and three quarters of all species alive at that time — disappear from Earth, probably after it was struck by a very large asteroid. However, few people are aware the planet is currently going through a similar event of an equally large magnitude: a recent report from the World Wide Fund for Nature highlighted a 60% decline in the populations of over 4,000 vertebrate species monitored globally since 1970. This time, the culprit is not an asteroid, but human beings. The biggest threat we represent to other species is also the way we meet one of our most fundamental needs: food production.

As a response, scientists, particularly ecologists, have looked for strategies to minimize trade-offs between agriculture and biodiversity. One such strategy is “land sparing,” also known as the “Borlaug effect.” It seeks to segregate production and conservation and to maximize yield on areas as small as possible, sparing land for nature. Another strategy is “land sharing” or “wildlife-friendly farming,” which seeks to integrate production and conservation in the same land units and make farming as benign as possible to biodiversity. It minimizes the use of external inputs and retains unfarmed patches on farmland.

A heated debate between proponents of land sparing and proponents of land sharing has taken place over the past 15 years. Most studies, however, have found land sparing to lead to better outcomes than land sharing, in a range of contexts. With collaborators from CIFOR, UBC and other organizations, I hypothesized that this belief was biased because researchers assessed farming through a narrow lens, only looking at calories or crop yield.

Many more people today suffer from hidden hunger, or lack of vitamins and minerals in their diets, than lack of calories. Several studies have found more diverse and nutritious diets consumed by people living in or near areas with greater tree cover as trees are a key component of biodiversity. However, most of these studies have not looked at mechanisms explaining this positive association.

Forests for food

Studying seven tropical landscapes in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nicaragua and Zambia, we found evidence that tree cover directly supports diets in four landscapes out of seven. This may be through the harvest of bushmeat, wild fruits, wild vegetables and other forest-sourced foods. The study further found evidence of an agroecological pathway — that forests and trees support diverse crop and livestock production through an array of ecosystem services, ultimately leading to improved diets — in five landscapes out of seven. These results clearly demonstrate that although land sparing may have the best outcomes for biodiversity, it would cut off rural households from forest products such as forest food, firewood and livestock feed. It would also cut off smallholder farms from ecosystem services provided by biodiversity, and smallholders in the tropics tend to depend more on ecosystem services than on external inputs.

In Ethiopia, previous research conducted by some of the same authors has demonstrated that multifunctional landscapes that do not qualify as land sparing nor as land sharing may host high biodiversity whilst being more productive than simpler landscapes. They are more sustainable and resilient, provide more diverse diets and produce cereals with higher nutritional content.

The debate on land sparing vs. sharing has largely remained confined to the circles of conservation ecologists and has seldom involved agricultural scientists. As a result, most studies on land sparing vs. sharing have focused on minimizing the negative impact of farming on biodiversity, instead of looking for the best compromises between agricultural production and biodiversity conservation.

To design landscapes that truly balance the needs of people and nature, it is urgent for agronomists, agricultural economists, rural sociologists and crop breeders to participate in the land sparing vs. sharing debate.

Read more:
Testing the Various Pathways Linking Forest Cover to Dietary Diversity in Tropical Landscapes

This study was made possible by funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the project Agrarian Change in Tropical Landscapes, and by the CGIAR Research Programs on MAIZE and WHEAT.

Why to invest more in women and girls in science

This article was originally posted on the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) website.

11 February is celebrated worldwide every year as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This year’s theme is “Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth”. The day serves to highlight the important role women and girls play in science and technology and the crucial contributions they make to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres aptly notes, the challenges of the 21st century require that everyone’s full potential is harnessed, which in turn means that gender stereotypes should be dismantled and the gender imbalance in science ended.

However, statistics show that women and girls are still largely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) around the world as a result of wide-ranging factors. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), only about 30 percent of the women students in higher education globally choose STEM-related disciplines. What is more, women students’ enrollment in such fields as information and communications technology and natural science, mathematics and statistics stands at just 3 percent and 5 percent respectively.

World Bank report points out that the percentage of women students in STEM in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries is comparable to or in some cases higher than in more developed countries. This, nonetheless, does not necessarily translate into higher numbers of women in the STEM professions.

Empirical evidence also shows that there is a disproportionately low number of women in science. The average share of women scientists across the region stands at 17 percent, which is the lowest in the world.

Women also account for just 21 percent of the total labor force and contribute 18 percent to the region’s overall GDP. If the labor gender gap had been narrowed over the past decade, the GDP growth rate in the region could have doubled or increased by some 1 trillion USD in cumulative output. This is a huge missed economic opportunity.

There are also other implications of women’s underrepresentation in the labor force, especially in research and development. Many studies demonstrate that gender-balanced teams improve innovation and productivity and that women are critical to innovation. Science is also more likely to be breakthrough as a larger number of women researchers in teams facilitates greater creativity and innovative thinking.

Not only are women great innovators, but they are also excellent leaders. Research shows that the more women there are in senior management, the better organizations perform. This is particularly true of organizations that are focused on innovation.

Bringing more women into science and helping them realize their full potential is a sure way to boost research and innovation in the region, as well as social and economic development.

This is one of the reasons why the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) offers a wide range of opportunities to women and girls in science.

To date ICBA has implemented several initiatives to support women and girls in science in the MENA region. The latest one is the Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (AWLA) program. Being the first of its kind in the region, AWLA is a leadership program aimed at empowering women researchers who can make a positive impact in their workplaces, communities and countries. The program is designed to bring together women researchers from different countries to spearhead positive changes in agriculture while addressing the challenges they face in their careers. AWLA is funded by the  Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat. The inaugural cohort of AWLA includes 22 women scientists from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.

Another initiative is a research grant program implemented jointly with the CRDF Global. It helped four Arab women scientists to conduct advanced research in collaboration with leading US scientists.

The center also works to ensure women’s equal participation in training programs, fellowships and internships. In 2019, for example, 36 out of 53 interns and 104 out of 212 participants at training programs were women.

As women-led contributions to different sectors are becoming more and more evident, tapping their knowledge and potential today will set the world on course for a more sustainable and prosperous future.

As Ms. Michelle Bachelet, former Executive Director of UN Women, once said: “When women are empowered and can claim their rights and access to land, leadership, opportunities and choices, economies grow, food security is enhanced, and prospects are improved for current and future generations.”