This blog highlights the key messages of a presentation by the Africa RISING Ethiopian highlands project manager, Peter Thorne (International Livestock Research Institute) and Sieg Snapp (Michigan State University) on 12 November 2019 at the 2019 ASA-CSSA-SSSA International Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, USA. Approximately 4,000 scientists, professionals, educators, and students attended the meeting whose theme was ‘Embracing the digital environment’.

Key messages

  • It is very difficult to evaluate sustainable intensification without taking a systems perspective on the technologies and the outcomes of using them.
  • The Sustainable Intensification Assessment Framework provides a basis for accurately estimating and assessing the implications of intensification for sustainability.

Sustainable intensification (SI) has gained increasing traction over the last 10 years as a paradigm for delivering global food production that can keep up with the ever-accelerating needs of still-growing human populations. As suggested by the name, the SI paradigm requires that intensification should be achieved in a sustainable manner (i.e. not compromising the needs of future generations). Intensification of agricultural production can take many forms, for example, the one that underpinned the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s helped humanity keep food production at pace with population growth. However, the present context has changed and ensuring sustainability is of vital importance. 

We, therefore, need: (i) the ability to accurately estimate and assess the implications of intensification for sustainability, and (ii) the capacity to assess individual components of farming systems, their trade-offs, and the viability of the SI trajectories proposed.

The Sustainable Intensification Assessment Framework (SIAF) provides a set of indicators organized into five domains considered as critical for sustainability, namely; productivity, economic, environment, the human condition, and social domains. The primary purpose of the SIAF is to strengthen researchers’ ability to holistically assess the performance of innovation in terms of the direct and indirect consequences within and across domains. Built into each domain within the SIAF are indicators listed to address smallholder farming contexts where agricultural production is closely linked with development goals such as alleviating poverty, avoiding land degradation, increasing food security and nutrition security, and supporting women’s empowerment. Ideally, this framework will support the assessment of sustainable agriculture intensification innovations through interdisciplinary, and iterative co-learning approaches. 

Using this framework and evidence from crop and mixed (crop-livestock) farming systems in which Africa RISING (AR) works, we contend that, due to the complexity of pathways to SI, even the component interventions need to be assessed in the context of the farming system that they form part of. Failure to appreciate this necessity will lead to adverse, unintended consequences that can compromise adaptability and scalability. 

Two examples from Africa RISING illustrate this point:

  1. Stepwise intensification of faba bean in the Ethiopian Highlands: Africa RISING researchers in the Ethiopian highlands were intrigued to see that smallholders growing faba bean chose to weed only once, although they were aware that weeding twice consistently gave them higher yields. After some study, the researchers discovered that farmers did this to allow volunteer ‘weeds’ like oats and Trifolium species which give relatively nutritious fodder to create an informal legume-forage intercrop in areas with limited grazing land. Because most smallholders have no other source of livestock feed in the growing season, giving up this forage resource would force them to sell their animals at lower prices. Africa RISING researchers started working with the farmers to introduce competition-tolerant faba bean varieties alongside forage combinations that optimize producing grain for both human consumption and livestock feed. A farmer practicing this intercrop makes approximately USD2,750 per hectare from their plot compared with USD700 per hectare for traditional management (one late weeding) and USD950 per hectare for improved management (two weedings). Farmers are embracing this technology because it is based on their traditional practice, requires no extra weeding and it improves livelihoods.
  2. Doubled up legume: GRAIN for food and income, BIOMASS for fodder, fuelwood and fertility for the soil: Smallholder farmers in southern Africa face a conundrum. They need to produce more crops from their limited land – but without reducing the land’s fertility. And farm sizes have actually shrunk over the years due to families subdividing the farms. The average farm in central Malawi, for example, is now 0.7 ha and most smallholder farmers can’t afford fertilizers. One innovative way of getting the most out of the land is by intercropping two-grain legumes with different growth habits, in rotation with maize – the doubled-up legume technology. Africa RISING projects in central Malawi and the Eastern Province of Zambia worked with smallholder farming communities to find the optimal sequencing of crops and spatial crop arrangements under conventional tillage and conservation agriculture, respectively. Groundnut–pigeon pea intercropping proved to be the most successful doubled-up system due to the two crops’ contrasting structures and maturity dates. Pigeon pea initially grows very slowly, with more rapid growth and pod formation taking place after groundnut has already matured and been harvested. The doubled-up technology offers farmers the opportunity to get 48% more profit from their land compared with growing sole legume stands of either groundnut or pigeon pea. In early 2016, the doubled-up legume technology was officially released by Malawi’s Agricultural Technology Clearing Committee for use by farmers countrywide. It offers huge opportunities for increasing land productivity and diversifying crop production for both resource-limited and larger-scale growers, with over 2 million households in Malawi and Zambia potentially set to benefit.

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