6) Combating Desertification is Key to Tackling Global Food Crisis

Even as national governments make strong efforts to fight off bankruptcy for their financial institutions, the lands that support their farmers and ensure food security for their populations are facing ever-increasing threats of degradation.

According to Dr William Dar, Director General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the Chair of the Committee on Science and Technology of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the business as usual cannot continue when it comes to dealing with land degradation.

“The health of our lands is the basis of our food chain and our climate, and of the livelihoods of our poorest peoples. Without healthy lands, people cannot thrive. Without a healthy atmosphere, land and biological systems cannot be sustained. Science tells us that the dynamics of land, climate and biodiversity are intimately connected. And we know that the lives of the poor hang in the balance, because they depend directly on these ecosystem services,” Dr Dar stated.

Dr Dar said that positive impacts on combating land degradation can come only with the application of good science. “ We live on a precious planet that hosts abundant, diverse and intelligent life that is unique in the universe. If we fail to combat land degradation and desertification, the consequences can be disastrous. We must use science to become better stewards of our precious inheritance.”

The world is seeing a food, energy, climate and credit crisis, each having repercussions on every sphere of human activity. Land degradation will add to the adverse impact of each of these problems.

According to the 2008 Global Hunger Index, 33 countries are showing alarming levels of hunger. Though the right to food is a basic human right, there are close to a billion people who suffer from chronic hunger. The FAO’s 2006 State of Food Insecurity Report cites agricultural growth as being critical for reducing hunger.

Failing to take measures to address desertification, land degradation and drought threats to sustainable land management will have a severe impact on food and water security, Dr Dar said. The UNCCD mechanism provides the platform for bringing together policy makers and global scientific institutions to combat land degradation and desertification.

The Committee on Science and Technology (CST) of UNCCD is collaborating with five international research bodies, including ICRISAT, to bring together the best of research on bio-physical and socio-economic monitoring and assessment of desertification and land degradation, to support decision-making in land and water management.

The CST will take the lead in generating a baseline based on the most robust data available on biophysical and socio-economic trends and gradually harmonizing relevant scientific approaches in affected areas to enable better decision-making.

It will also improve knowledge of the interactions between climate change adaptation, drought mitigation and restoration of degraded land in affected areas, which will enable development of tools to assist decision-making and put in place effective knowledge-sharing systems at the global, regional, sub-regional and national levels. Eventually this will support policymakers and end users, and engage science and technology networks and institutions to support UNCCD implementation.

As an advanced international agricultural research institute working in the semi-arid tropics, which is the frontier for preventing land degradation and desertification, ICRISAT and partners are spearheading many initiatives. These are in synergy with the strategy of UNCCD, and include:

  • Implementation of the ICRISAT-developed a “microdosing” technique in semi-arid sub-Saharan Africa, which involves the application of small, affordable quantities of fertilizer with the seed at planting time or as a top dressing 3 or 4 weeks after emergence. This enhances fertilizer use efficiency and improves productivity.

  • The Bioreclamation of Degraded Lands (BDL) project in barren, unproductive soils that are widespread in the West African Sahel. This combines simple effective techniques such as zaï holes, Conservation Agriculture, planting-basin cultivation, trenches and land scarification that concentrate limited water and nutrient resources close to the plant roots, reduces erosion and prevents water loss.

  • Planting of high-value crops that restore organic matter and soil texture earn a handsome profit for the poor from fruit and gum trees, hardy leafy vegetables and legumes in the Sahel.

  • In Asia, ICRISAT has partnered with other organizations and has evolved a new consortium watershed management model based on a holistic systems approach called the Integrated Genetic and Natural Resource Management (IGNRM) strategy.

Dr Dar concluded that with sound science backstopping strong policy the battle against land degradation and desertification can be won to prevent bankruptcy of soil, one of the greatest assets of all economies.

According to Dr William Dar, Director General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), it is not just Wall Street that needs bailing out, but the “side streets”, where poor farmers across the world, especially those working the drylands of developing countries, need policy, institutional and financial bailout.

As of July 2008, the world population is estimated to be 6.6 billion. A staggering one billion of these are utterly poor people, most of whom live in the dryland areas of the world. When seen in conjunction with the present day food crisis and unabated rise in food prices that are affecting the common man, who, more than the poor, has a right to substantial assistance from governments?

Working over decades with poor farmers in the drylands of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, ICRISAT believes that it is essential to strengthen the resource base and incomes of the poor farmers. Dr Dar added: “These farmers are the backbone of any economy, and if their conditions are not improved, the economy will suffer adverse impacts that will be difficult to repair.”

There is much that governments can do to support these farmers, Dr Dar said. In addition to financial support, there is need for supportive policies, improved infrastructure, improved access to better quality seeds and inputs, irrigation support, and support for establishing more effective institutions.

Poor farmers, especially those in the drylands, are suffering from the lack of governmental support. Cutting-edge agricultural research can achieve substantial improvements in crop yields and farmers’ income. So it falls to reason that agricultural research itself should be supported better through government funds. “It is worth mentioning that less than 10% of public spending in developing countries goes to agriculture even though this sector commonly accounts for about half of their Gross Domestic Product. And less than 1% of public spending goes to agricultural research; research that is vital to the innovation that opens new livelihood opportunities,” Dr Dar said.

“Let me mention that for every $1 invested in international agricultural research, $ 9 worth of additional food is produced in developing countries where it is needed most,” he emphasized.

ICRISAT is working at different levels and is adopting innovative strategies to pursue its vision of improving the well-being of the poor of the semi-arid tropics in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Its mission is to help reduce poverty, enhance food and nutritional security and protect the environment of the semi-arid tropics.

The methods used by ICRISAT for improving crop productivity and increasing farmers’ income are: integrated genetic and natural resource management; development and use of effective agri-biotechnological tools; agro-ecosystem development and management; research on markets, policies and institutions; development of effective public-private-people partnerships; and the development of a pro-poor biofuel package that provides for food, fuel and feed security.

Even as the governments step in to prevent the escalating global financial crisis, it is their proactive measures in supporting the poor farmers that can prevent a much deeper and long-lasting global crisis from happening.

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