Sustainable Intensification Could End Chronic Hunger

25/08/2016 10:56

In the developed countries of the world, hunger is a feeling of slight discomfort when a meal is late or missed. By contrast, for some 800 million people-- men, women, and children-- hunger is a daily occurrence, both persistent and widespread.

The majority of the hungry live in South Asia, but the proportion of hungry in Sub-Saharan Africa is very high, about a quarter of the population. Most shocking of all are the more than 150 million children under five years old in the world who are so malnourished that they die or grow up stunted, both physically and mentally.

The world as a whole achieved the Millennium Development Goal for halving hunger by 2015 but, in Sub-Saharan Africa, only Ghana was successful. Now we have a new Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) that aims to 'End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture,' by 2030. Can we do it?

We must double food production in developing countries by 2050, and by 70%, globally. We also must greatly increase the access to food.

But we have to do this in a sustainable fashion, and engineering and technology are key to ensuring that. We have to more prudently use inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers, be adaptive to climate change, reduce the greenhouse gases from agriculture, build up natural capital such as the quality of our soils, and on top of all this, be resilient. We call this approach 'Sustainable Intensification'. It's a tall order and developing country farmers need all the help they can get.

One answer lies in Precision Farming. In the developed countries, tractors, cultivators and harvesters can use GPS (Global Positioning System) to position themselves to within a few centimeters of a target, to place fertiliser in the right amounts according to need in different parts of a field. This can be appropriate in some of the larger farms in developing countries, but the principles are also relevant for smallholder farmers.

In Africa farmers use a technique known as microdosing: placing fertiliser in each planting hole using a cap of a soda bottle to deliver a small but precise amount. This method produces high yields, saves costs and reduces the nitrous oxide emissions.

Precision use of water is also critical. Irrigation has been a critical driver of agricultural production in Asia. But in Sub-Saharan Africa only 4% of the arable land is irrigated. There is room for more large irrigation schemes, but major challenges of funding and management need to be overcome to minimise risks for humans and the environment. Small scale irrigation has an equally large potential and could reach more people in more places. Small dams can be engineered for each mini-watershed, providing both irrigation water and generating electricity fed into smart micro-grids to drive down the cost of power for rural households.

Soils, too, need more precise management. Severe erosion affects nearly 30% of the global land area, and over 25% of Sub-Saharan Africa. Part of the answer lies in carefully contoured terraces, in the application of mulches expressly designed for each mini-watershed, and in appropriate cultivation using forms of the two wheel tractors so widespread in South-east Asia.

Better nutrition could be achieved by reducing food waste and loss. Post-harvest losses in cereal production in Africa are 15-20% annually and higher for more nutritious and higher value fruits and vegetables. Improved, but low cost household storage and local warehousing would make a significant difference.

Finally, a crucial element is the role of digital technology. Many smallholder farmers live far from cities and towns and are often poorly served by all-weather roads. Digital technology can help overcome, in a shorter time and at lower cost, many of the infrastructural and institutional obstacles that traditionally prevent smallholder farmers accessing established markets.

Today, 75% of Africans own mobile phones; the ubiquity and rate of interconnections are similar to those seen in more developed parts of the world. It is this extent and speed of interconnection that can both accelerate agricultural transformation in the developing world and help deal with the complex challenges of establishing a twenty-first century food and nutrition security system.

Doubling food production in developing countries by 2050 might seem impossible, but we have the technologies to achieve it. From simple farming techniques like microdosing, to GPS and mobile technology, applying new innovations and methods at the small scale can have a significant impact on food production in developing nations. By focusing on 'Sustainable Intensification', we can ensure that the progress we make will feed the world in many generations' time, not just today.

These issues and others like it will be discussed at the Engineering a Better World: CAETS 2016 conference, which will explore how engineering can drive progress towards the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and transform the future of the world we live in through cross-country partnerships and collaboration.

Hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering at the Institution of Engineering and Technology in London on 13-14 September 2016, the event will bring together engineering institutions and international development professionals from around the world.


UK Science