By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
The Zero Hunger Challenge’s definition of a sustainable food system identifies sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture as integral pieces to a food system that excludes malnutrition and hunger.
What comes to mind when you envision sustainable agriculture? I’d be willing to bet production practices are one of the first things that come to mind. Chances are you’re envisioning a specific practice, like no-till agriculture or permaculture. Or -maybe you’re imagining all of the elements of a food system that are inherently unsustainable, like industrial monocultures and soil-degrading practices. All of these facets are important to the larger picture, which is that regardless of your approach to identifying it, agriculture is a huge piece of what makes a food system sustainable.
While sustainable agriculture practices are universally understood to be aimed at promoting stewardship of the land and natural resources, the methods for achieving that can, in practice, vary dramatically from farm to farm. No-till, permaculture, organic, integrated pest management, climate-smart agriculture, agroforestry and grass-farming are all practices that fall under the umbrella of sustainable agriculture, though they are rarely practiced in concert on a single farm. While all of these practices are sustainable on paper, they need to be tailored to the land and available resources.
The concept of no-till agriculture resonates around minimizing soil disruption through obviating plowing of fields. Instead, farmers leave crop residue on fields after the harvest where it acts as a mulch to protect soil from erosion. This mulch reduces evaporation, which promotes water conservation and can be extremely useful in arid areas where water availability is limited. Crop residue furthermore provides soil organisms a source of food resulting in increased diversity of soil flora and fauna. Organisms like worms create channels in the soil that foster root growth and alongside the lack of tilling, contribute to a more stable internal structure that is resilient to environmental stressors and improves capacity for growth.
On the flip-side, crop residues are often already utilized as fuel and animal feed in parts of Africa and Asia, leaving nothing to mulch the crop with. Different pest species can arise during a shift from tilled cropland to no-till requiring further adaptation and planning. Some no-till crops require a heavier reliance on herbicides and fungicides as the increased moisture promotes increased growth. Finally, expected changes from tilled to no-till can sometimes take years or decades to reveal themselves depending on the soil, region and other biophysical attributes.
Climate Smart Agriculture
Climate-smart or climate-resilient agriculture is an integrative approach to increase agricultural productivity, adapt and build resilience to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture that can be reflected in a variety of different practices. Recently, the Obama Administration honored farmers, ranchers and other agriculturists for practicing or promoting climate-smart agriculture and awarded loans and grants to further develop renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. These practices include planting of cover crops, crop rotation, protecting forests and improved nutrient management. Similar to sustainable agriculture, climate-smart agriculture needs to be tailored to the region and individual’s needs to truly unlock the benefits from local to global levels.
Agroforestry incorporates trees and/or shrubs into crops or pastures to prevent erosion, improve soil fertility and provide habitat for wildlife. This system can also supply food, fiber, fuel materials and mulch while also acting as a carbon sink. The use of multiple species mimics natural ecosystems, providing enhanced resilience to environmental stressors.
One way in which individuals practice agroforestry is through hedgerow intercropping. In this system rows of trees or shrubs are alternated with rows of crops, complementing growth needs of one another. Unfortunately, there have been cases where plants compete with one another for resources, reducing overall productivity of the system. Timing is another important element that could disrupt an agroforestry system; individuals need to choose crops that can withstand shade from trees or time plantings to compliment growth cycles.
In creating a sustainable food system, it’s integral that we first know what that looks like in every context. Another component of the ZHC definition is to ensure farmers, agribusinesses, cooperatives, governments, unions and civil society have standards for what delineates sustainability. The sustainable agricultural techniques employed in the Sahel region will differ from those in Southeast Asia. Just as important as knowing what works, is knowing what didn’t work and why. This is why the Community for Zero Hunger is conducting an open consultation on each of the five elements of the Zero Hunger Challenge. We need to identify the gaps and challenges standing in the way of eliminating hunger and malnutrition and leverage what is successful and scalable. To do this though, we need to hear from practitioners and experts in the field.
Please add your voice to the community by following this link to complete a questionnaire. Your responses will help us uncover experiences, technologies, research, services and other knowledge that can be applied to context-specific gaps to deliver a world free from malnutrition and hunger.
The Community for Zero Hunger was launched as an independent initiative to deliver a specific response to support the Zero Hunger Challenge. Let us know if you have any questions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more at our website and follow us on Twitter to get daily news and updates.