Mixed crop-and-livestock farmers on ‘extensive frontier’ critical to sustainable 21st century food system

Extensive farming in central Malawi

An extensive agricultural landscape typical of central rural Malawi (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).

Agricultural systems analyst Mario Herrero, who leads a Sustainable Livestock Futures group at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya, gave a slide presentation last November at an invitation-only US National Academy of Sciences’ scoping meeting on The role of animal agriculture in a sustainable 21st century global food system, held in Washington DC’s Dupont Circle.

Among the conclusions Herrero makes in his slide presentation, Food security, livelihoods and livestock in the developing world, is the need to change our agricultural investment paradigms so that we invest not only in the high-potential agricultural lands of the past (many of which, he says, are already ‘maxed out’), but also in the agricultural lands of the future.

What are these ‘agricultural lands of the future’? Well, those on which relatively extensive mixed crop-and-livestock systems are being practiced, for one.

For more on this topic, see ILRI’s current corporate report: Back to the future: Revisiting mixed crop-livestock systems, 2010, the foreword of which, by ILRI director general Carlos Seré and ILRI board chair Knut Hove, follows.

ILRI Corporate Report 2009-2011: Cover

ILRI’s Carlos Seré and Knut Hove say it’s ‘mixed farms’,
more than breadbaskets or ricebowls,
that will feed the world over the next two decades.

A hitherto disregarded vast group of farmers—those mixing crops with livestock on ‘in between’ lands—neither high-potential farmlands nor low-potential rangelands—are heavyweights in global food security.

This year’s corporate report by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) looks ‘back to the future’—to the thousand million farmers practicing small-scale mixed crop-and-livestock agriculture in poor countries—the kind of seemingly old-fashioned family farming systems that have become so fashionable in recent years among those wanting to reform the industrial food systems of rich countries.

Scientists at ILRI and seven other leading international agricultural research organizations around the world recently looked at the future of this form of farming and determined that it is ‘mixed farms’—not breadbaskets or ricebowls—that will feed most people over the next two decades.

Their report shows that it is not big efficient farms on high potential lands but rather one billion small ‘mixed’ family farmers tending rice paddies or cultivating maize and beans while raising a few chickens and pigs, a herd of goats or a cow or two on relatively extensive rainfed lands who feed most of the world’s poor people today. This same group, the report indicates, is likely to play the biggest role in global food security over the next several decades, as world population grows and peaks (at 9 billion or so) with the addition of another 3 billion people.

Remarkably, this is the first study ever to investigate the state of the world’s most prevalent kind of farmers—those who keep animals as well as grow crops. A major implication of the new report is that governments and researchers are mistaken to continue looking to high-potential lands and single-commodity farming systems as the answer to world hunger. As the study shows, many highly intensive agricultural systems are reaching their peak capacity to produce food and should now focus on sustaining rather than increasing yields.

A hitherto disregarded vast group of farmers—those mixing crops with livestock on ‘in between’ lands—neither high-potential farmlands nor low-potential rangelands—are heavyweights in global food security.

The authors of this multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary study, most belonging to centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), agree with many other experts that we need to bring our focus back to small-scale farms. But this report goes further, distinguishing one particular kind of small-scale farmer that should be our focus: this is the mixed farmer growing crops and raising animals in the world’s more extensive agricultural systems, which are described in detail on the next page.

These ‘mixed extensive’ farms make up the biggest, poorest and most environmentally sustainable agricultural system in the world. It is time we invested heavily in this particular kind of farming system. Here is where there remain the biggest yield gaps. Here is where we can make the biggest difference.

The billions of dollars promised by the international donor community to fund small-scale farming in developing countries are likely to fail unless policies are reoriented towards this particular, most ubiquitous, and till now most neglected, form of agriculture. What this ‘extensive frontier’ needs are the most basic forms of infrastructure and services. With these at hand, the world’s extensive mixed farmers will be in good position to scale up their food production to meet future needs.

Read ILRI’s corporate report: Back to the future: Revisiting mixed crop-livestock systems, 2010.

Watch a 4-minute ILRI photofilm (audio with still pictures) illustrating the importance of small-scale mixed crop-and-livestock farmers: Tribute to the Unsung Heroes of Small-scale Food Production, 2011.

Those wanting more detail on the future of mixed farming should consult the research report by the CGIAR Systemwide Livestock Programme: Drivers of change in crop-livestock systems and their potential impacts on agroecosystems services and human well-being to 2030, 2009.

New director general of global livestock research institute appointed: World Bank livestock advisor Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith

New director general designate of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) Jimmy Smith (photo credit: ILRI/Paul Karaimu).

Jimmy Smith has been appointed the new director general designate of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

ILRI board chair Knut Hove made the announcement at the 35th meeting of the ILRI Board of Trustees, on 13 April 2011, to an afternoon gathering of ILRI staff, management and board.

In his announcement, Hove said, ‘We are facing challenges to make livestock more beneficial to the poor and less harmful to the environments of the poor. We think Jimmy Smith is a strong leader for ILRI, one who will open up new partnerships for pro-poor livestock research.’

Born in Guyana, in the Caribbean, where he was raised on a small mixed crop-and-livestock farm, Smith holds dual nationalities with Canada. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois, at Urban-Champaign, USA, where he completed hid PhD in animal sciences. Now based at the headquarters of the World Bank, in Washington, DC, he currently leads the Bank’s Global Livestock Portfolio.

Earlier in his career, Smith served for ten years at ILRI and its predecessor, the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA) (1991–2001). At ILCA and then ILRI, Smith was the institute’s regional representative for West Africa, where he led development of integrated research promoting smallholder livelihoods through animal agriculture and built effective partnerships among stakeholders in the region. At ILRI, Smith spent three years leading the ILRI-led Systemwide Livestock Programme of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of 10 CGIAR centres working on issues at the crop-livestock interface. Since leaving his decade of work at ILCA/ILRI and the CGIAR, Smith has continued playing a major role in supporting international livestock for development in terms of both funding and strategizing.

Before joining the World Bank, where he has served for five years, Smith held senior positions at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) (2001-2006) and the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) (1986–1991).

Smith will take over from Carlos Seré, ILRI’s current director general. The actual date of change-over will be announced in the near future and is expected to take place in the next 6 months.

Smith said, ‘I congratulate Carlos Seré, John McDermott [ILRI deputy director geneneral-research] and all ILRI staff for their work in making this institute such a strong player in livestock for development. Every member of staff has a contribution to make. My commitment is to take ILRI to even higher heights. I am excited about coming here and look forward to working with all of you. I hope I can demonstrate that I earn your trust and hard work.’

Seré commented, ‘I have known Jimmy for ten years and have learned to appreciate his many talents. He is familiar with important constituencies of livestock research and understands our partners well. We appreciate how strongly he has promoted the global livestock agenda in his work for CIDA and the World Bank and we believe he brings a number of important assets to the family. We will support him completely.’

ILRI Board Chair Hove said: ‘Jimmy Smith has an impeccable track record in developing extensive networks in the livestock sector globally and with development partners around the world. He is familiar with the CGIAR reform process and the international agricultural research agenda. We have full confidence that Jimmy Smith will build upon the strong ILRI foundation and provide the leadership and vision to propel ILRI to greater heights.’

Click on the slide presentation below to watch Smith’s presentation to the ILRI community.

Biosciences for Africa: Fuelling africa’s agricultural revolution from within

BecA official opening, 5 November 2010

His Excellency Mwai Kibaki, president of Kenya, listens to Lydia Wamalwa, a plant molecular biologist, during the official opening of the Biosciences eastern and central Africa Hub on 5 November 2010; in the middle, Carlos Seré, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which hosts and manages the BecA Hub, looks on (photo credit ILRI/Masi).

A world-class research facility, the Biosciences eastern and central Africa Hub, was officially opened in Nairobi, today, by Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki. This opening follows a scientific conference, Mobilizing Biosciences for Africa’s Development, which was held the day before at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which hosts and manages the new facility.

The BecA Hub is open for use by researchers from Africa and around the world who are working to improve African agriculture. The BecA Hub puts Africa’s research capacity on par with some of the world’s most advanced research institutes.

‘With the help of our many partners and investors, the research undertaken here will have a lasting impact in developing agriculture in Africa,’ says Carlos Seré, director general of ILRI.

The BecA Hub at ILRI brings the latest cutting-edge technologies into the hands of African graduate students and scientists. The Hub serves as a science integrator, allowing researchers to work together across institutional, national and disciplinary boundaries. There are already some 150 scientists, technicians and students using the facility today. The BecA Hub intends to double this number in the next five years. Since 2007, almost 1500 scientists have participated in BecA Hub conferences, workshops and short-term training and 100 graduate students and 57 visiting scientists have undertaken research at the facility.

‘This facility,’ said Kibaki, ‘will be used to develop what Africa requires and will serve as a focal point for Africa’s scientific community to enable them to carry out research to increase agricultural productivity and food security.’

Lydia Wamalwa, a Kenyan plant molecular biologist at the International Potato Center (CIP), says, ‘I left Kenya to start my PhD research with CIP laboratories in Lima, Peru. The opening of these facilities in Nairobi allowed me to return home to work on our agricultural challenges here in Africa.’

While the BecA Hub was formed to directly serve 17 countries in eastern and central Africa, demand for its use has been so strong that it now serves Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Zambia, as well as other countries beyond the continent.

Research at the BecA Hub focuses on some of Africa’s biggest agricultural problems, including frequent droughts, devastating crop pests, diseases and weeds, lethal livestock diseases and unsafe foods.

‘We aim to help build Africa’s capacity by empowering its scientists to lead the coming African agricultural revolution from within,’ says the facility’s director, Segenet Kelemu, a leading Ethiopian bioscientist.

‘Many of the research findings generated so far look like they will find quick application in agriculture.’

African and international scientists are working here to develop drought-tolerant food crops. They are also working to improve food safety in Kenya by reducing the amount of its maize crop that is contaminated by aflatoxins, which cause cancer, stunt children’s growth, increase vulnerability to disease and, at high levels, kills. In addition, these scientists have developed and validated a new test for detecting bush meat being sold in Kenya’s butcheries, a diagnostic that can safeguard both wildlife populations and human health.

The BecA Hub began in 2004 as part of the African Union/New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)’s African Biosciences Initiative, which was part of a framework of Centres of Excellence for Science and Technology and the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme. The Hub was also aligned with regional priorities set by the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa.

Aggrey Ambali, director of the Policy Alignment and Programme Development Directorate, NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency, says, ‘The BecA Hub offers Africa’s bioscientists the opportunity to conduct high-level research within the continent.’

The Canadian International Development Agency strongly supported the Hub by funding renovation of laboratories already existing at ILRI’s Nairobi campus and the construction of new facilities. The 10,000-square-metre laboratories already host many researchers from Africa’s national agricultural research systems and several centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. The facilities are now complete and the BecA Hub is ready to operate at full capacity.

The Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, a long-time supporter, is helping to fund the Hub’s operations through 2014. And many other investors are supporting specific research and training projects.

‘The BecA Hub at ILRI serves as a focal point connecting African science to fast-moving scientific superhighways in the rest of the world,’ says Knut Hove, chair of the ILRI Board of Trustees.

For example, BecA Hub graduate students have formed a group dedicated to bioinformatics. They are using the Hub’s high-performance computing platform, fast internet connectivity and bioinformatics expertise for ongoing peer-to-peer training. The group has organized international workshops and published a paper in a leading international journal. Some of these students have been awarded scholarships from the Australian Agency for International Development; Nescent, Durham, USA; and EMBL‐European Bioinformatics Institute, Cambridge, UK.

Romano Kiome, permanent secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, says that Kenya is proud to host a facility that is allowing leading African scientists to return home to work on African problems.

‘The BecA Hub,’ says Kiome, ‘should help this continent become a breadbasket for the world.’

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For more information on the BecA Hub, visit http://hub.africabiosciences.org

Listen to and watch the BecA official opening speeches on the following links:
Podcasts
Short videos

One world, one health, one airspace

Iceland’s recent volcanic eruption gives the international agricultural research community a welcome pause

Seldom has the world experienced a more dramatic demonstration of the interconnectedness of the modern world. Like the volcanic dust that since 14 April has spewed and spread from southern Iceland south and east over the upper airspace of northern Europe, air flights, and more than one million travelers and their planned activities, were suspended.

Three men who have likely not had three consecutive unplanned days for more than three decades were trapped by these unprecedented events for three glorious sunny days in Ethiopia’s highland capital of Addis Ababa. The three, all with veterinary backgrounds, are members of the board of trustees of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which had just completed its 33rd meeting on ILRI’s large leafy campus in Addis. They had just signed an agreement for ILRI to join a new Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres, signaling a new phase in the nearly four decades of operations of ILRI and its two predecessors, the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases and the International Livestock Centre for Africa.

Knut Hove, Rector of the University of Life Sciences in Norway, was trying to fly back to Oslo. Jim Dargie, chair of the program committee of ILRI's board, was trying to get to his home in Austria. Dieter Schillinger was trying to get to Lyon, France, where he heads public affairs at Merial, one of the world’s largest animal health companies. All three men took this remarkable occasion to get out and about in Ethiopia, first taking a day trip into the farmland countryside. This was the first time many staff had seen these men in jeans and other casual wear. And it was the first for many to have extended, relaxed conversations with them. Indeed, many things during these abnormal days seemed hyper normal on ILRI’s Addis campus.

Hitting the pause button
We will never know the full human costs of this volcanic eruption near the Arctic Circle, far from most human habitation. But we at ILRI already have quick and ready evidence of some of its human benefits. For once, the ILRI research community was forced to slow down, with many staff and board members experiencing enough time to take time with, and for, one another, getting to know each other better and in new ways. We would not go so far as to say that the busy ILRI community managed to approximate the civilized ‘slow time of the plough’ in the great livestock-keeping communities that ILRI’s research serves here in the Ethiopian highlands. But in the unexpected space that opened up this week, it did appear that ILRI took a moment to take a breath—and take stock, as it were.

This was doubly fortunate as ILRI’s scientific team leaders are now in the thick of marathon writing tasks as they prepare white papers on the roles of livestock research for ‘Mega Programs’ being fashioned by the new Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres, which works to enhance agricultural livelihoods and lives in poor countries of the South. Much about these new global and long-term Mega Programs, and the roles of livestock research in them, apparently will be determined over the next two to three weeks. Much thus appears to be at stake for this research community and its many partners and beneficiaries.

It would thus appear advantageous that an icy volcano far to the North should have erupted when it did, giving members of the pro-poor international agricultural research community pause before embarking on their speedy development of frameworks for new research programs with and for countries of the South. For when all the drafts of all the white papers being developed are finalized, and when all the hard choices are finally made about what research will be funded and what not in the new Mega Programs of the new Consortium, one factor will have remained unchanged—that is the human factor. The volcanic pause this week serves to remind us that who and how we are for one another in this large and diverse community of agricultural scientists is likely to matter far more than what ideas we get onto paper, and embedded into proposals, over the next few weeks.

International Livestock Research Institute joins new Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres

Knut Hove signs document, right Carlos SereKnut Hove, chair of the board of trustees of the Africa-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), yesterday, 14 April 2010, signed an agreement on behalf of ILRI to join a new Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres.

A ‘Resolution of the ILRI Board of Trustees Regarding the Agreement of the Consortium Constitution’, developed during the 33rd Meeting of the ILRI Board of Trustees, held on ILRI’s campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, states that the ILRI Board ‘endorses the principles outlined in the Consortium Constitution and wishes to reiterate its support for the CGIAR [Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research] reform process’.

The ILRI Board noted the following in its resolution. ‘The livestock sector accounts for as much as 40 percent of agricultural gross domestic product in many developing countries and is the basis of livelihoods for hundreds of millions of poor people. Further, zoonotic diseases—i.e. diseases that spread from animals to humans—account for 70 percent of emerging diseases, and yet, in developing countries and internationally, investments in livestock research are not commensurate with its importance in the agricultural sector.

The ILRI Board is confident that the Consortium recognizes this inconsistency and that together we will be able to redress this imbalance.’

View the video:

Inauguration of a new forage diversity lab at the International Livestock Research Institute in Ethiopia

A new forage diversity lab was inaugurated yesterday afternoon, Monday 12th April 2010, at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the presence of the ILRI board members, the forage diversity staff and guests. Jean Hanson, forage diversity leader, looked pleased at the result, and with emotion she spoke of the lab achievement. “It is an ILRI Ethiopia lab” she said, “it will give us and students much more space to work and has now allowed all the equipment that was previously scattered to be centralised. This will also help us and our National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) partners to be cost effective.” The construction work started in December 2008 and the building was actually ready for the board meeting which took place in Addis in November 2009. The finishing touches, supervised by Jean Hanson, were added and the spotless lab is now ready to use. Prior to the visit to the lab by participants of the inauguration, was a very symbolic planting of two Acacia Tortilis trees which will, in a few years, give shade to the molecular lab. The Chairman of the board, Knut Hove, put on his gardening gloves and efficiently planted this indigenous, dry land tree, commenting that it was “the best possible tree we could have for this lab”. Dr Hanson then emphasized that the genebank not only works on conservation of forage diversity but also on improved use of diversity for better forages which requires more molecular work with newer techniques. “The lab will allow us to work more with our sister centers of the CGIAR”, she stated, “and the nicest thing would be to bring a group of students together, who will energize the group, emulate each other, share and learn, because a major role of CG centers is capacity building.” According to Dr Ananda Ponniah, in charge of capacity strengthening at ILRI, “there is now space for more students and therefore we can also diversify students, have them coming from Ethiopia but other countries as well.” After the official cutting of the ribbon by Knut Hove and applause, the visit was led by Janice Proud, Project coordinator of the Napier grass smut and stunt resistance project, and Alexandra Jorge, Global Public Goods Project Coordinator (SGRP/CGIAR). Janice Proud explained how the new lab would help the work on Napier grass diseases, smut and stunt, which cause feed loss in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. “The new facility will allow us to use PCR techniques in real time. We also have some students looking at milk proteins. The beauty of a molecular lab is that you can use it for different projects”, she concluded. Alexandra Jorge talked about tissue culture and how the space would now allow the Centre “to have one dedicated area for tissue culture and therefore avoid contamination”. She also feels that the new lab will help to link better with ongoing projects such as the Napier grass project because “vegetatively-propagated crops like Napier grass can greatly benefit from production of clean plants and distribution of in vitro materials”. “We hope that a lot of publications will follow!” added the Chairman of the board. Mr Traoré, board member, also expressed that “the lab nicely complements BeCA (Biosciences eastern and central Africa) in Nairobi. Students in Ethiopia will be able to do the preliminaries here then go to BecA to make use of more sophisticated equipment.” As a final word, the board Chair summed up the achievement by stating that “the whole building smelled of a brand new lab which is exciting for new students to come and work, get their hands dirty and green!”

Livestock goods and bads: Two European views

On 10 April, we interviewed ILRI Board Chair Knut Hove, from Norway, and Program Chair Jim Dargie, from the UK.

HOVE: In the last year media attention on livestock ‘bads’ has gone away in Norway. It has not had an impact on meat production in Norway. My country’s strategy to use the whole country, and we are located so far north, with such large grasslands, that ruminants will always have a place there.

DARGIE: In the UK, people are still questioning why so much of our crop area should be used for producing food for livestock. They have concerns about using so much energy for this in this era of climate change. Questions are being raised by the government about what should be its appropriate response to meet the rising meat requirements. There is going to be greater emphasis on home-grown food production to lessen the greenhouse gas emissions due to transporting foods. Bear in mind that people in our countries are overfed, and in that context, meat production is often seen as a public bad.

HOVE: On the other hand, in our countries diets like the Atkins are very popular, which encourage you to eat more protein and less carbohydrates. In Norway, the focus of most people’s concerns are the high levels of methane produced by industrial livestock production practices and the treatment of animals in these intensive systems, such as raising battery chickens and using feedlots for beef cattle. In the Scandinavian countries, we haven’t reached this industrial level yet—we tend to have small, family run farms that make use of grazing and grass production. We have strict controls on how many chickens or cows a farmer may raise. Norwegians are given many incentives for practicing small-scale sustainable agriculture.

DARGIE: This was the European Union’s response to overproduction of livestock foods—the milk mountains and so on. Governments rather than farmers have been paying for the environmental costs of agriculture in Europe. HOVE: The rising human populations need to be fed and they need to be fed efficiently. And that is the hard problem we face. As long as we have this wealth of fossil energy, we in Europe have been able to scale up, scale up, scale up, to mechanize our agriculture, with most of us having left the farm. (In the seventeenth century, everybody was producing food here.)

DARGIE: What’s going to suit one country is not going to suit many others. Many rich countries have turned food production into big business—they are producing food to sell elsewhere. And this is depressing incentives for sustainable agriculture elsewhere. The question is, if we include the costs of environmental services, are these rich food producers really efficient? One of the problems at the moment is putting a dollar sign in front of environmental services, or environmental bads. That is a big big issue. And how we cost factors will vary enormously from one country to another.

HOVE: Many researchers are working to get these figures. We in the developed world have lived on polluting and we have had strong economic growth. Now we have to pay for that. Now we have to pay for our wealth by cleaning up. That’s the chance for developing countries.

This post is part of a series associated with the ILRI Annual Program Meeting in Addis Ababa, April 2010. More postings …