Increasing yield on less productive farmlands should be our priority. Back in the 1960s, the Green Revolution occurred where increased deployment of technologies including pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers as well as new breeds of high yield corps greatly increased global food production-but with a major environmental costs. Our aim should be to boost yield in places with sub-optimal yield while minimising the environmental impact. This is also known as closing the "yield gap".
The term "yield gap" is used to describe the enormous gulf between the crop yields obtained by the most successful farmers versus the least successful. Take the farmers in United States for example, they routinely grow as much as 5 times more corn per acre as smaller farmers in Africa. "Yield gap" exists because farmers do not have sufficient economic incentives to adopt yield enhancing seeds or cropping techniques. This could be due to several factors such as the lack of access to information, extension services and technical skills. Other factors would include poor infrastructure, weak institutions and unfavourable farm policies.
INCREASING INPUT USE EFFICIENCY
There are several ways to close this "yield gap". One such method would be to increase the input use efficiency. This is important in agriculture as the natural resources are getting scarcer and prices of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, nitrogen and phosphorus are only going to be more expensive as time passes. In order to increase the input use efficiency, here are a few suggested ways.
1) Conservation Agriculture (CA)
First, let us define what is Conservation Agriculture (CA). CA is a set of soil management practices that minimise the disruption of the soil's structure, composition and natural biodiversity. Despite high variability in the types of crops grown and specific management regimes, all forms of conservation agriculture (CA) share these specific three core principles:
a) The maintenance of permanent or semi-permanent soil cover (using either a previous crop residue or specifically growing a cover crop for this purpose)
b) Minimum soil disturbance through tillage (the bare minimum to get the seed into the ground)
c) Ensure regular crop rotations in order to combat the various biotic constraints
CA also uses the management practices listed below where possible:
a) The utilisation of green manures/cover crops (GMCC's) to produce the residue cover
b) Prohibit the burning of crop residues
c) Integrating disease and pest management
d) Limited human and mechanical traffic over agriculture soils.
Conservation Agriculture is a "win-win" situation for both the farmers and environment. However, there are still many people in the agriculture industry that is still unaware of its many advantages and consider it to be a viable alternative to the conventional way of producing food which have obvious negative impacts to the environment.
CA is able to increase the productivity of:
Land - Conservation agriculture is able to improve the soil structure as well as protects the soil against erosion and nutrient losses by maintaining a permanent soil cover and minimising soil disturbance. Also, CA enhances soil organic matter (SOM) levels and nutrient availability by utilising the previous crop residues or growing green manure/cover crops (GMCC's).
Labour - CA is able to reduce labour cost. This is due to land under no-till is not cleared before planting and involves less weeding and pest problems following the establishment of permanent soil cover/crop rotations. Study shows that farmers in Ghana reduced 22% in labour cost in maize production. Much of labour cost is reduced due to the absence of tillage operations under CA, which uses up many labour days during the planting season.
Water - Because of the increased infiltration and enhanced water holding capacity from crop residues left on the soil surface, CA will use significantly less water.
Economic Benefits - Farmers using Conservation Agriculture technologies reported increased in yield. This is due to fewer water, fertiliser and labour inputs. Hence, overall increase in the farmer's profit.
Environmental Benefits - CA uses resources more efficiently compared to traditional methods. The significant reduction in fossil fuel use under no-till agriculture results in fewer greenhouse gases being emitted to the atmosphere. CA also uses less agrochemicals, thus reducing air pollution.
With that being said, CA is very knowledge intensive and location specific. This would require increased in investments in research on suitable varieties, management practices and appropriate machinery.
2) Fertiliser Consumption
Fertiliser consumption is only going to increase in the future especially in developing countries. Nitrogen represents about 90 percent of fertiliser consumption. Fossil energy accounts for approximately 70 - 80 percent of the cost of manufacturing nitrogen fertiliser. The price of fertiliser is expected to continue increase in line with energy prices due to much of the major efficiency gains in manufacturing nitrogen have already been made. Precision agriculture and integrated plant nutrient management system are tools that will be able to further increase efficiency.
3) Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
The main goal of IPM is to minimise the amount of pesticides used by farmers by using other control methods more effectively. Pest incidences are monitored and action is only taken when the crop damage of the farms exceeds a certain threshold. Many countries such as Jordan, India and Bangladesh have started using IPM and have reportedly experienced increased in production while simultaneously lower the environmental impact.
4) Irrigation Water
FAO estimates that approximately 1.2 billion people live in countries or regions defined as "water-scarce" and this situation is only going to get worse, with the projected number of people rising up to 1.8 billion people by year 2050. However, the benefits of irrigation could not be overstated. There is a productivity differential between irrigated and rainfed areas of roughly 130%! Over the past decade, irrigation on its own accounted for about 0.2% out of the overall annual yield growth for cereals of 1.1%. It is estimated that at present in developing countries, irrigated agriculture, with roughly 20% of all arable land, accounts for 47% of all crop production and around 60% of cereal production. In order to address the yield challenge, it may be required to expand irrigated areas as well as the wider use of successful management practices that will help increase the efficiency of water use
Plant breeding techniques, particular modern biotechnology, have in recent times caused a lot of controversy. Modern biotechnology has the ability to speed up the development of improved crops, which could increase yield. For example, marker-assisted selected increases the efficiency of conventional plant breeding by allowing rapid laboratory-based analysis of thousands of seedlings without the need to grow plants to maturity in the field. Tissue culture techniques have the ability to allow rapid multiplication of clean planting materials of vegetatively propagated species for distribution to farmers. Genetic engineering on the other hand, is able to help transfer desired traits between plants more quickly and accurate compared to conventional plant breeding techniques. Genetic engineering for biotic stress and herbicide resistance has been reported to be successful in some cases there it has permitted to reduce pesticide applications as well as increase yield of crops subject to insect attacks. Engineered herbicide tolerance in soybeans, maize and canola has facilitated conservation tillage and permitted more timely planting with modest benefits for yields.
Genetically modified crops (GMC) are plants that are used in agriculture where the DNA of the said plant has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. The goal of GMC is to introduce new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species. Examples such as food crops that are resistant to certain pests, diseases, or environmental conditions. Experts suggest that using genetically modified crops that are stress resistant could be one of the potential methods to bridge yield gaps. It is predicted that by year 2050, genetically modified technologies would be much cheaper, far more available and used to a much greater extent to improve the yield of staple food crops.
With that being said, using genetically modified crops is not without its criticism. There is a scientific consensus that currently available food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food. With that being said, each GM food needs to be tested and verified safe on a case by case basis before being introduced. Nonetheless, members of public are much less likely to perceive GM foods as safe. There are many concerns over genetically modified organisms (GMO). Some of the concerns include ethical misgivings, anxieties about possible negative effects on human, plant and animal health and concern about the impact on our environment and biodiversity. Other concerns include the concentration of economic power in the hands of few large trans-national companies and consequent technological dependence on those corporation. Other barriers that will prevent poorer farmers from using modern biotechnology include regulatory procedures, complex intellectual property issues, poor functioning market and also weak domestic plant breeding capacity.
INVESTMENTS IN AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
Agriculture R&D is the most productive form of investment and support of the agricultural sector in low-income countries. Massive investment from the public and private sector is required today in order for agriculture to benefit from effective technologies in the future as there is always a time lag before the benefits start to materialised. In year 2002, the FAO estimated that an incremental USD1.1billion would have to be invested every year for knowledge generation as well as dissemination to reduce hunger effectively. There is also a huge need for more investments to combat challenges such as climate change which would have a tremendous effect on the agriculture industry. There is also a need to invest in human and institutional capacity in order to tackle the broadening of agriculture research agenda. These investments would include the development of more effective public agricultural research systems, more efficient financing mechanisms and also an increased in agricultural education.
As of today, most of the agricultural R&D in low-income countries are funded by public sector and this is expected to remain for the foreseeable future as the private sector does not view the investment as an investment with lucrative rate of return. More effective regulatory system should be adopted to encourage private investment as they are crucial to the future of the agricultural industry.
Spreading knowledge, skills and technology is crucial to the future of the agricultural industry. Agricultural extension programs are put in place to ensure that the right information, new technology, plant varieties or cultural practices reaches the farmer. Women form the majority of farmers in developing countries. However, it is common for developing countries to direct extension and training services primarily towards men. Recent survey by the FAO reports that female farmers only receive 5% of all agricultural extension services worldwide and only approximately 15% of the world's extension agents are women. Many policies have been based on the assumption (which has been proven wrong) that information conveyed to the male head of the household would be passed to the female members.
More efforts need to be made in order to satisfy the needs of women into dissemination and capacity development programs. Information and communication technologies (ICT) looks very promising as one of the tools for dissemination. Rebuilding public institutional capacity in developing countries and empowering farmer's organisation and women will help in this endeavour.