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Is agricultural diversification necessary for achieving global food security?

GORDON CONWAY

“Growing more, growing better for Africa’s food security”

The combination of population growth, urbanisation, climate change, and – in some countries –conflict, is placing increasing pressure on Africa’s food systems. By 2050, Africa’s population will top 2.5 billion, 55% of whom will be in urban areas. To feed and nourish its people, the continent desperately needs to increase agricultural productivity. Currently African countries import over €32 billion worth of food a year. Farm yields are low – maize production is little more than 1 t/ha on average – while levels of child undernutrition remain high. So, the continent also needs to diversify its production to provide easier access to more nutrient-rich crops to help reduce all forms of malnutrition. If we are to meet Sustainable Development Goal 2 to end hunger, agricultural policies and development initiatives need to reach beyond just simply increasing levels of production to improving the actual quality and diversity of diets.

Why farmers need to diversify


Currently, 75% of the world’s food supply depends on just 12 plant species. This reliance is very dangerous because it leaves food systems highly susceptible to pests and diseases, as well as to climate change. Agricultural diversity helps to combat these challenges. What is more, diverse diets improve nutrition, which in turn contributes to good cognitive development among children, increased productivity and learning, and eventually supports a healthy and vibrant economy. It is therefore crucial that more emphasis is placed on some of the less commonly cultivated crops, like sorghum, millet and pulses to improve the resilience of Africa’s food systems.

The choices that farmers make regarding the crops that they cultivate and sell have a direct bearing on nutrition outcomes which, in turn, impacts societal development and economic growth. Not only is agricultural diversity good for building resilience among Africa’s farmers, it is also imperative for the continent’s economic growth.

Thankfully, Africa’s farmers are already diversifying their production, driven by a growing urban middle class who are demanding more food, more varied food and more nutritious food. 

How agricultural productivity can be sustainably increased


Sustainable intensification is one of the cornerstones of the Malabo Montpelier Panel, of which I am a member. Sustainable intensification is all about the prudent and targeted use of inputs, such as fertiliser or water, to increase yields while preserving our natural resource base, which we are fundamentally dependent on. The Panel argues that there are three pillars of sustainable intensification:

Ecological: harnessing nature to support agricultural production. For example, crop rotation or agroforestry are production methods that work with nature to improve soil fertility and build a more sustainable food and nutrition system. 
Genetic: new hybrid crops and improved livestock breeds. The introduction of improved seeds and selectively bred livestock provide higher yields, better nutrition and more resilience against climate change.
Finally, socio-economic: far too often smallholders participating in food value chains do not receive sufficient rewards. African smallholders require better access to input and output markets so that they can be a part of better-paying value chains. It is critical that farmers are compensated sufficiently for their efforts.
Each of these pillars have to be more productive, but they also have to be more sustainable in order to unlock the potential of Africa’s agricultural sector. And a stronger agricultural sector in Africa will contribute to improved food security and nutrition, poverty eradication, inclusive economic growth, and resilient communities.

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