Transforming dryland food systems



Originally published on LinkedIn

Challenges of the drylands

About 60% of the total arable land in South Asia is under dryland agriculture, while the corresponding figure for sub-Saharan Africa is around 70%. Drylands contribute more than half the food production in the world (crops, livestock and livestock products). Drylands are also home to the largest number of malnourished, and the poorest of the poor.

Extreme poverty and hunger are predominantly rural, although poverty does exist in urban areas too. Smallholder farmers, their families and communities make up a very significant proportion of the poor and hungry. Thus, eradicating poverty and hunger are integrally linked with boosting food production, agricultural productivity and rural incomes.

To ensure all people have access to safe and nutritious diets, we require a fundamental transformation of the way food is currently grown or managed, transported, stored, processed and consumed. Not only are consumers becoming more informed and discerning, requiring standards to be met, but the food systems transformation is even more urgent in the face of climate change and the environmental impact of agriculture and our food systems. Food systems account for over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and consume 70% of the world’s freshwater resources.

The present pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities and inequities of our current food systems and its impact on the most marginalized communities. It has exacerbated malnutrition and slowed progress towards achieving SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) as well as many of the other SDGs around gender, health and nutrition and beyond. The divide between the haves and the have-nots is getting bigger.

Sustainable changes are required to increase agricultural production, improve global supply chains and value webs, decrease food losses and waste, and to ensure that heathy and nutritious food is available and affordable for all.

Available opportunities

Healthy soils, adequate water and plant genetic resources are key inputs into food production. Their growing scarcity in many parts of the world makes it an imperative to use and manage them sustainably. We are looking at a combination of cropping systems, pastoralists with their livestock, fisheries, as well as forestry and forest products. One solution cannot solve the problems of our diverse and complex food systems. Boosting yields on existing agricultural lands, including restoration of degraded lands, through sustainable agriculture would also relieve the continuing pressure to clear forests for agriculture. Dryland crops, cereals (including millets) and grain legumes/pulses, are climate-tolerant, can grow with little moisture and are highly nutritious. Nonetheless, we need optimal water management through improved irrigation and storage technologies, managing the soil moisture content, combined with development of new drought-resistant crop varieties, and a diversification of our agricultural systems, to sustain the productivity of our drylands.

A transformation of our food systems requires bridging yield gaps (what the crop could yield as opposed to what is does yield in farmers’ fields), fixing long and inefficient supply chains where profits accrue to intermediaries who add little value, reducing food losses and waste, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, shifting and diversifying diets to eliminate under-nutrition, over-nourishment as well as the hidden hunger of micronutrient malnutrition.

Sustainability of global food systems also requires a halt of the expansion of agriculture into fragile ecosystems. We need to increase the fertility of our overused arable land and restore our degraded pasture lands and forests. Shifting to more sustainable consumption and production patterns, within planetary boundaries, will require efforts to influence food demand and diets, to diversify our food systems, judicious use of inputs and careful land and water management.

Integrative policies are required to ensure that food prices reflect real costs (including major externalities caused by climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss and public health impacts of malnutrition). We must reduce food waste on farm, in the value web, and at home and, at the same time, ensure decent incomes and wages for farmers and those working in the food system.

Diets, and the food systems that deliver them, are at the intersection of the challenges associated with malnutrition, human health, natural resource degradation, and climate change. There is already high-quality research on various aspects of climate change, health and food and nutrition security. To transform food systems, inter-disciplinary research in support of policy makers facing difficult decisions at the intersection of human and planetary health is urgently required.

Policy makers are confronted with rapidly evolving, rapidly changing and sometimes even U-turns of scientific views across multiple disciplines. There is too much research that either fails to meet the most pressing needs of policy makers (especially in relation to managing policy trade-offs and costs) or to meet the needs of our farmers. Sometimes policies can more easily address short-term needs, but we need to look at longer-term sustainable actions. We need research with the interdisciplinary perspectives to fully address the diversity and complexity of global and local food systems.

More research needs to be driven by the specific needs of national governments and their policy makers. Research linkages across science, across disciplines – not intra-disciplinary sitting on one’s own area of interest to the exclusion of others, but inter-disciplinary/multi-disciplinary/transdisciplinary research – regarding climate, natural resources, food, health, and nutrition need to be streamlined and improved to focus on policy needs. This calls for an inter- or multi-disciplinary research approach to find the solutions we and our planet desperately need. The public sector, the private sector and all the participants and stakeholders at all levels in our agriculture and food systems need to be empowered, need to be listened to, and need to be heard.

Harnessing science and technology solutions and sharing actionable knowledge with all players in the food system offers many opportunities. Greater coordination of food system stakeholders is crucial for greater inclusion, greater transparency and greater accountability. Sharing experiences and solutions will foster adaptive learning and responsive actions.

The complexity of our food systems calls for the best minds of the public and private sectors, with research institutions, civil society think tanks and advocacy groups, to pool their skills and resources to transform our dryland food systems for the benefit of all.

ICRISAT and the Research and Innovation Circle of Hyderabad (RICH) have a catalytic role by bringing the appropriate stakeholders together, ensuring fair and equitable sharing of views and information, and collating the outputs for the greater local, regional and global good.

Food systems in Telangana, in India and Africa, and around the world, share similar constraints – among others, low volumes at individual farm gates, long and often inefficient value chains and value webs, inadequate storage capacities (especially cold storage for cold chains of perishable products), absence of efficient, transparent, well-regulated markets. We need consumer awareness at one end for the demand-pull, and the input supply at the other end.

Collaboration between India and Africa under the South-South Collaboration initiative of the Government of India can address some common challenges in transforming dryland food systems.

Next steps

Structural changes and a whole systems approach are required to create resilient, equitable and sustainable food systems, particularly for our drylands. Food systems worldwide must become more productive and less wasteful. Sustainable agricultural practices and food systems, including both production and consumption, must be pursued from a holistic and integrated perspective. We need transformative technologies, which must be tried and tested without adding to the risk that dryland smallholder farmers face daily.

Written by:

Dr Jacqueline d’Arros Hughes
Director General, ICRISAT

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