Crop diversification finds home for ‘orphan crops’

Farmer from Teso. Knowledge of orphan crops should conserved © Bioversity International/ Y.Wachira

Farmer from Teso, Kenya. Indigenous knowledge of orphan crops should be conserved © Bioversity International/ Y.Wachira

The term ‘orphan crops’ refers to plant species and varieties that of recent decades have been ignored by governments, seed companies and scientists due to their limited importance in global markets. Instead, only a few major staples have been of interest. From fruits and vegetables to grains and nuts, many orphan crops are highly nutritious, resilient to climate extremes and are well adapted to marginal soils. They are therefore of great significance for food security and the generation of income to the world’s poorest communities.

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Could Food Insecure Africa Have Found a Saviour in Farming God’s Way?

Proponents term it the long awaited messiah that food-insecure Africa has been yearning for! ‘Farming God’s way’ promises to end fertilizer woes of resource-poor farmers in the continent by providing a cheaper and less labour intensive farming method.

Elizabeth showing how high and dense her "Farming God's Way" - farmed maize has got (A Rocha Kenya)

Elizabeth showing how high and dense her “Farming God’s Way” – farmed maize has got
(A Rocha Kenya)

Food security remains the number one major challenge that citizens across the African continent contend with. While the Green Revolution of the 1960s allowed erstwhile food deficient regions of Asia and Latin America to triple crop yields, food production in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has remained stagnant and in many instances it has even declined. According to IFPRI, among the factors fuelling the continent’s low agricultural outputs include poor resource endowments, minimal use of inputs (fertilizer, improved seeds and irrigation) and adverse policies undermining agriculture. Additionally, continuing environmental degradation, crop pests, high population growth and low levels of investment in agricultural infrastructure has further aggravated the resource limitations of agriculture in Africa.

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New Video: Interview with Plant Doctor Kija Edith, Tanzania


Contributed by Stefan Toepfer, CABI Switzerland with Peter Karanja, CABI Africa

Tanzanian frontline agricultural extension workers had an opportunity to refresh and improve their skills in diagnosing crop health problems of small holder farmers during a practical training course in Morogoro, Tanzania. This was part of a set of trainings provided by Plantwise Tanzania, which certifies extension workers as plant doctors, enabling them to operate local plant clinics. Kija Edith is one of the trained plant doctor who has been running a plant clinic over the past year in a village market in Kiroka, Central Tanzania. She explains her experiences identifying pest problems and advising farmers to one of Africa`s most experienced Plantwise trainers, Peter Karanja from CABI Africa. Watch the video and find our more at

Agroecology – benefiting farmers around the world

Farmers is Malawi are realising the benefits of acroecology © CIMMYT ( CC BY-NC-SA licence)

Farmers in Malawi are realising the benefits of acroecology © CIMMYT (CC BY-NC-SA licence)

This week, the UK Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, David Heath, has announced his support for the use of agroecological farming methods which are seen as the foundation of sustainable agriculture. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (IAASTD) define agroecology as “the science and practice of applying ecological concepts and principles to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems”. In practice, this means simulating natural ecosystems and using low inputs to increase productivity.

In 2011 the UN reported that by using agroecological methods, projects carried out in 20 different African countries were able to double crop yields in 3-10 years. The projects also recorded a reduction in the use of pesticides, leading to savings for the farmers. The agroecological approach has multiple benefits, beyond these economic gains. It also takes into account social and environmental issues, including soil fertility, water availability and climate change.  Read more of this post

Is sustainable agriculture the answer to climate change?

Drought can have devastating effects on crop yields (Credit: USAID Africa Bureau)

Drought can have devastating effects on crop yields
(Credit: USAID Africa Bureau)

As the most recent set of climate change talks draw to a close, the focus is once again on the policies that could help in the resolution of this global issue. There has been little faith in the outcomes of these talks before, with targets continuously missed. The conference aims to secure a new treaty by 2015, replacing the 1997 Kyoto protocol, which has seen a range of success and failures. The current talks are being held in Doha, Qatar, which has the highest per capita carbon emissions and gets the majority of its income from the sale of fossil fuels.

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Earthworm-farmer friendship, redefined

Earthworms suppress fungal diseases in the soil © pfly (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

Earthworms are known as farmers’ best friends because of the multitude of services they provide that improve soil health and consequently plant health. The density of earthworms in the soil is considered to be a good indicator of a healthy soil because they improve many soil attributes like structure, water holding capacity, moisture content etc., and also increase nutrient availability and degrade pesticide residues. As scientists understand these ‘ecosystem services’ provided by earthworms, they discover that this earthworm-farmer friendship is a lot deeper than previously imagined! Read more of this post

Ecosystem services and the need for sustainable intensification

Our first guest blog is from Professor Tim Benton. Tim is Professor of Ecology at the University of Leeds, where his research interests focus around agriculture-ecological interactions.  He also currently has a role as “Champion” for the UK’s Global Food Security programme which aims to coordinate food security related research across the major public funders. Read more of this post

The problems of achieving food security for 1.6 billion people in China

Agriculture in China has grown at a remarkable rate over the past 50 years © Gabriele Quaglia (Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license)

It is predicted that the population of China will stabilise at 1.6 billion within the next two decades. In order to feed this many people, crop production will need to increase by 2% each year to provide the estimated 580 million tonnes of grain that will be required. Mingsheng Fan and colleagues have published a review of past trends in agricultural production in China and the solutions that they think will allow China to produce more food in the future without an increase in available agricultural land. The main crops produced in large quantities in China are cereal crops, particularly wheat, maize and rice. The main limiting factors for the continued increase in agricultural production are water availability and soil quality. There is also the requirement to reduce use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers because they pollute the air and water.

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Clash of the food security threats

“On a planet with sufficient food for all, a billion people go hungry.”
The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change

The growing global population will continue to need more staple foods such as wheat © Brad Smith

As the global population grows, it is not just one factor that threatens food security but several interconnected threats that will continue to make it difficult to produce enough food for everyone. The combination of population growth, climate change and inefficient use of resources will continue to pressurise the food system, and a concerted effort will have to be made to tackle these issues. A new report from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change details the actions that will need to be co-ordinated globally to achieve food security as the climate changes.
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Increasing Food Security and Empowering Women

Efforts to help developing countries increase their food security and to empower women should be considered together as both are dependent on one another. The FAO has said that if women had the same resource access in agriculture as men then food output in developing countries would increase by enough to pull 100-150 million people out of hunger (FAO Report). By comparing the work by BirdLife and Plantwise’s own plant clinics (plant clinics around the world) you begin to see the first signs of how empowering women can lead to increased food security.

CABI Plantwise Image

Recently a project in Paraguay by Nature Canada (partnered with BirdLife) helped 478 women farmers in efforts to promote sustainable agriculture in the region.  They aimed to balance conservation objectives, such as preventing deforestation and monocultures, with benefiting farmers.

They were successful in this and were also able to improve the awareness of gender equality as well as the rights of women. It has led to some women actively demanding their rights be respected and the formation of 10 committees by the women farmers who have successfully obtained municipal recognition.

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