Deagrarianisation: From South Africa to Europe

This blog post was originally posted on SIANI:s website by researcher Klara Fisher, SLU.

Photo: Klara Fischer, SLU

In recent years, rural people have increasingly abandoned agriculture. This trend, often referred to as deagrarianisation in academic debate, occurs in both smallholder contexts and industrial farming. However, the abandonment of farming has the clearest negative effects on rural food security and livelihoods in the smallholder farms of the Global South.

On May 5, 2020 SIANI and the South Africa Sweden University Forum (SASUF) co-hosted a webinar about deagrarianisation where experienced researchers from Europe and South Africa presented, discussed and compared agricultural trends in South Africa with those of Sweden, Hungary and Ukraine. The webinar attracted an audience of 100 people and generated lively discussions between participants and presenters.

Today, farmers across the world experience increased competition, high costs of inputs and low price at farm gates. In the face of the increasing pressure on agriculture, farmers react differently. Large commercial farmers often see upscaling as the only viable option for remaining competitive.

As a result, South Africa’s large commercial farms as well as European farms are becoming fewer and larger, when more competitive farms purchase or lease the land of less competitive neighbours.

Cecilia Waldenström describes here how this general trend has played out in three regions in Sweden. In the south of the country with the best agricultural lands there was a clear trend of upscaling and increased mechanisation. In more marginal areas with lower quality agricultural land and longer distances to markets farmers employed strategies of low input -low output production, similar to what is seen in many smallholder contexts in the Global South. Cecilia also pointed out the lack of availability of agricultural education and advisory services in marginal regions, a trend seen equally in the Global South.

Brian Kuns and Ildikó Aztalos Morell presented research from two post-communist contexts in Eastern Europe. Under the soviet authoritarian regime, land was commonly allocated in large field areas outside of the villages, while most households also had a plot in the village for subsistence. There are clear similarities between this land allocation and the top-down instituted reorganisation of fields into communal areas outside villages and the homelands during apartheid in South Africa.

In Hungary and Ukraine the landscape creates by the soviet authoritarian regime has facilitated elite capture and large-scale investments. In the Ukraine smallholders today lease out their plots for small sums of money to food processing oligarchs and foreign investors and this has led Ukraine to host some of the largest commercial farming operations in the world.

In South Africa such investments are rare, and instead, there is widespread abandonment of fields in communal areas as described in some detail during the webinar by ProfessorSheona Shackleton.

Most of smallholders in South Africa as well as in Ukraine, testify that it is difficult to work on the communal fields individually. These areas are far away from their house and it takes time to get there, so it is difficult to tend to the field. Lack of capital is also a major barrier for investing in machinery, fencing and inputs.

While Ukrainian farmers make a profit from their farms by leasing the land to a large landowner, it is important to remember that today’s industrial farms employ very few people, which has been contributing to joblessness and rural poverty.

David Neves and Flora Hajdu described the increasing importance of the South African welfare system, with child grants and pensions, for reducing vulnerability and food insecurity in the face of deagrarianisation and increasing joblessness.

Several of the presenters pointed out how the general trend of deagrarianisation does not mean that farming is no longer important for rural people. Also, there are countertendencies to the general trend. In Sweden and across Europe, contestations of the industrialisation and upscaling of farming are emerging in slow food movements, local farmers’ markets and efforts to preserve traditional crop varieties, where farmers capitalise on other values than quantity and price.

Paul Hebinck provided examples where South African smallholders had decided to continue to farm their fields, or re-open them, and how they take pride in maintaining their agricultural lifestyles, local varieties of seed and livestock.

The presenters also noted that both in South Africa and Ukraine many people have homegardens, growing their food, even when they abandon field farming. Thus, abandonment of distant fields isn’t the same as the abandonment of farming.

Flora Hajdu also described how the small money from welfare payments could be important for being able to reinvest in intensifying household gardening and the local sale of vegetables.

Despite the general trend of deagrarianisation, the seminar showed that it does not equal to abandoning of agriculture – farming will remain an important livelihood strategy for those living in rural areas and with access to land, although it will not always be managed in the same way as in the past.


This post is written by Klara Fischer, researcher at SLU. Her research concerns how smallholders’ adopt and adapt new technologies and practices, the relationship between smallholders’ practices and agricultural policy and advice and broader societal discourses on agriculture development and natural resource management.

Controlling health threats that could spark future pandemics

Written by: Kristina Osbjer, Researcher at the Department of Clinical Sciences, SLU and Technical Specialist for Animal Health, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The findings and conclusions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Bat samling
Bat sampling. Photo: Kristina Osbjer

Although the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic came as a surprise to some, the seeds of a Coronavirus pandemic, the weak signals, have been present for more than a decade. As governments and the civil society across the globe are struggling with containing COVID-19 and limit the impact, the research community can play an important role in formulating research to heed warnings and prevent devastating impacts of the next pandemic.

The COVID-19 origin is unknown, but we do know that Corona viruses are circulating in animals, in particular bats, and that some of these Corona viruses have an ability to transmit to humans. Most emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) and almost all recent pandemics originate from animals, most commonly wildlife, and the emergence is often involving close interactions between wildlife, livestock, and people with an elevated risk detected in forested tropical regions experiencing land-use changes and where wildlife biodiversity is high.

Asia – a hotspot for EIDs

South, Southeast Asia and China are recognised as hotspots for EIDs. The region is undergoing fast economic development, resulting in societal and environmental changes. Parallel with a growing population and rising incomes, the demand for higher-value and quality food such as meat is rapidly increasing. A preference for fresh meat from animals butchered at the counter together with limited access to chilling facilities lead to meat being commonly purchased in ‘wet markets’ where live animals are sold and slaughtered on site. In the case of avian influenza and SARS, viral spread to people from poultry and wildlife, respectively, was traced back to wet markets. Wet markets are also suspected to have played a key role in the initial spillover of Corona virus to humans, resulting in COVID-19. High animal density, limited hygiene and biosecurity practices in these wet markets are contributing to dissemination of viruses. Efforts have been made to change, and in some countries to ban wet markets—especially where many species, including wildlife are mixed. A temporary ban in wildlife trade was recently imposed in China as a result of COVID-19, however, enforcement of such bans remains difficult. The strong consumer demand for fresh meat and a range of social, economic and cultural factors contribute to sustain the markets.

Wet market in Asia. Photo: Kristina Osbjer

The rising demand for meat is spurring expansions in industrial-scale animal farming

More than half of the world’s pork and poultry is produced in Asia. In 2018, China alone had around half of the global pig herd and accounted for half of the global pork consumption. The rising demand for meat is spurring expansions in industrial-scale animal farming resulting in challenges in preventing and confining diseases. Low profit margins and weak animal welfare requirements commonly result in poor farm biosecurity and animal health management which in turn lead to an increased use of antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance, largely driven by the antibiotic consumption, is considered a growing global health threat and it is estimated that the livestock industry in China alone, will use up to 30% of the global antibiotic production by 2030.

The fast pig expansion has also resulted in the emergence of new diseases. In 2018 African Swine Fever (ASF) hit China as the first country ever in Asia, spreading rapidly to nearby countries leading to a loss of a quarter of the world’s pig population by the end of 2019. The ASF infect only wild and domestic pigs, but the high death rates and enforced massive culling to prevent further disease spread has led to huge economic losses and pork prices soaring to record highs. The extent of the impact of ASF on the global live animal and meat trade was unpredicted, and the disease has put a high pressure on Governments and a shift in animal movements. The lack of pork and higher pork prices have encouraged Asian consumers to substitute towards alternative protein sources, which most likely have changed the meat sourcing and supply in wet markets, including wildlife.  

Poultry sampling. Photo: Domingo Caro

A stronger multi-sectoral approach for disease prevention and control

The ASF spread to Asia and the global emergence of COVID-19 are reminders of how vulnerable our interconnected world is to global impact of diseases in humans and animals and highlight the need for broader systems thinking in the fight against EIDs. A single sector approach, neglecting the human-animal-environment interface and the socio-economic and cultural bearings of diseases will cause future failures in controlling health threats that could spark future pandemics. A stronger One Health approach in which multiple sectors work together to enhance health security and better public health outcomes needs to be fully adopted. Early evidence indicates that the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 are being disproportionately borne by poor people. The biggest impact will be seen in low and middle income countries. It is of global concern to strengthen capacities in low and middle income countries to prevent, detect and control infectious diseases at the source, with an emphasis on early identification of, and response to, health threats in animals before they cause serious public health, economic, and development concerns. Here, the research community can play an important role in raising local research capacities and generate science to enable evidence-based policies and decision making to prevent future pandemics and safeguard public health and livelihoods.

Covid-19 lessons: Wildlife as our ally, not our enemy

Written by Joris P. G. M. Cromsigt, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies, SLU.

Zebra
Photo: Joris Cromsigt, SLU.

The origin of the covid-19 pandemic, like previous major zoonotic disease outbreaks such as Ebola and HIV, has been linked to wildlife and the consumption of wild meat. Although the exact source of covid-19 still is a matter of debate, the repeated emphasis on wildlife as the original source is putting wildlife and the consumption of wild meat in a bad spot. Others, however, have emphasised that the problem is not the eating of wild meat per se. The problem lies in unsafe handling and processing of wild meat as well as in large-scale international trade and wildlife markets that keep wild species under crowded conditions and sell and slaughter wild meat on site. If wild meat is prepared locally immediately after the hunt following normal sanitary standards, the risk of zoonotic disease is negligible. Sweden and its moose harvesting culture are an excellent example of this. The problem also lies in the massive degradation of wildlife habitat, increasing the contact between wildlife and humans and in the management of the livestock-wildlife interface, since zoonoses frequently first jump from wildlife to livestock and then to humans. What I miss in the current debate, however, is the bigger picture. The fact that humans have been destroying wildlife and the ecosystems they live in for over 10,000 years. Below, I argue that this destruction lies at the root of many of our sustainability challenges, including increased zoonotic disease risk, and that solutions for these challenges lie in the large-scale restoration of wildlife and their habitats.

Restoring wildlife to fight zoonotic diseases

Many studies have highlighted that restoration of mammal diversity reduces disease risk, because predators and competing species prevent disease-carrying species to reach high densities and because in diverse communities species vary in susceptibility to infection by a pathogen. A recent meta-analysis by colleagues at my department at SLU confirmed that across the world increasing animal diversity reduces disease risk. Similarly, colleagues showed how predators, such as fox and stone marten in the Netherlands and Tengmalm’s owls in northern Sweden, reduce zoonotic disease risk. Using the owls as an example, they highlight that wildlife may even act as an effective early warning system of future zoonotic disease outbreaks. A recent paper goes even further by linking the Late Quaternary large mammal extinctions to the emergence of > 100 zoonotic disease outbreaks of the last 60 years.  The authors suggest that the concept of herd immunity goes beyond human-human interaction and that reduced interaction between human and non-human animals during the last 10,000 years reduced our resistance to emerging zoonotic diseases. This thought-provoking hypothesis remains to be tested, but what these examples really tell us is that we should not treat wildlife as the cause of the pandemic, but rather as part of the solution to fight it. Restoring wildlife communities and their habitats may be a very effective strategy to reduce zoonotic disease risk.

Photo: Graham Kerley

Rewilding as a nature-based solution for global sustainability challenges

I would like to zoom out even further by emphasizing that the current pandemic is not “just” a zoonotic disease problem but also a symptom of the global sustainability crisis. Solutions should thus focus more broadly on restoring planetary sustainability. Recent work suggests that the restoration of wildlife and their habitats can be a major part of these solutions. In the Megafauna & Sustainability unit we study how large mammals can be part of a nature-based solution for several of the Sustainable Development Goals. For example, in the programme Wilder Rangelands, a collaboration with Nelson Mandela University and Utrecht University, we look at the climate change mitigation and adaptation benefits of restoring native wild herbivore communities in African rangeland systems. In another example, we look at the effects of urban rewilding and greener cities on wildlife and people living in these cities.

Our work echoes others that highlights rewilding, i.e., the restoration of wildlife communities and their habitats, as a major natural solution. Rewilding increases the carbon sequestering capacity of ecosystems worldwide, from elephants and other mammals in our tropical rainforests, to wild grazers in the world’s grasslands, and the great whales in our oceans. Closer to home, reindeer help slow-down warming of the tundra in northern Scandinavia by limiting woody encroachment, and increasing surface albedo. Rewilding may also be a sustainable, long-term, solution for managing the risks of wildfires that are increasingly ravaging large parts of the world and even help mitigate the global phosphorus crisis through restoring global nutrient recycling. I could give many more examples.

How covid-19 threatens global wildlife conservation

Despite these examples, we still do not take wildlife restoration serious enough. For many high-level decision makers it remains a “nice to have” that is low on the priority ladder. In fact, the global response to the current pandemic forms a huge threat to global wildlife conservation. The emphasis on wildlife as the origin of covid-19 risks further alienating humans from wildlife, degrading support for its conservation. More urgently, the current pandemic highlights the weakness of a conservation model that depends on income from ecotourism and philanthropy and times of economic prosperity. This model is currently rapidly collapsing due to short- and mid-term travel bans and longer-term effects on economies. Already, in many societies communities are going hungry and increasingly depend on “bushmeat” to survive the crisis. We face a serious risk of conservation entering the dark ages, further marginalising wildlife into increasingly small corners of the world. Ironically, this will likely further increase the risk of future zoonotic pandemics.

The urgency of embracing wildlife as a natural solution to our sustainability challenges

Now is the time to come with a new model to conserve and, especially, restore wildlife. We can no longer accept conservation and wildlife restoration in the margin, for the show or as an indulgence. We need a model that sees the restoration of wildlife and their habitats as a serious natural solution to heal our planet and thus ourselves. Initiatives, such as the EU’s green deal, provide a shimmer of hope but are not enough. We need a serious global “Marshall Plan” for wildlife restoration. Accepting wildlife as a natural solution asks for massive, wide-scale restoration beyond our protected areas and beyond the introduction of certain flagship species. Such rewilding should not be confused with a wilderness without humans but restore a natural world that humans can actively benefit from. Natural solutions are SLU’s core business and it is our responsibility to now speak out and step up. We are in the hot seat in terms of finding more sustainable, nature-based, solutions. The alternative, of course, is driving all remaining wildlife species, and their associated zoonotic diseases, to extinction. I do not want my children to inherit such a world. Solutions towards the current, and future, pandemics do not lie in further alienating us from wildlife. Solutions do not lie in treating wildlife as our enemy, but in embracing it as our ally.

COVID-19 and Food Security: Reflections on Sweden’s Global Contribution to Agenda 2030

Written by: Assem Abouhatab, Sofia Boqvist, Sara Gräslund, Ylva Hillbur and Rodomiro Ortiz
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)

Farming close to Mbeya, southeastern Tanzanian highlands.
Photo: Rodomiro Ortiz, SLU

During a short time span, COVID-19 has spread rapidly across the globe, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The underlying causes of the pandemic are linked to the virus crossing the species barrier from animals (likely wildlife) to humans, with subsequent spread within the human population. While the links between livestock and human health are well established and increasingly acknowledged, there is great potential in developing the One Health approach further. In 2019, the UN biodiversity panel established that emerging infectious diseases in wildlife, domestic animals, plants or people can be exacerbated by human activities such as land clearing and habitat fragmentation.

The outbreak has so far hit Europe, East Asia and North America the most and there is fear that the infection will spread uncontrolled in Africa with severe consequences for poor peoples’ health and food security. The World Food Program recently alerted the UN Security Council that the pandemic could push another 130 million people into hunger this year. Poor people are particularly vulnerable for infections like COVID-19 as they often live in areas with poor sanitary conditions, have restricted access to health care and lack economic safety nets.

While the outbreak of COVID-19 has led to both a global health emergency and is unfolding a global economic crisis, it could also result in food insecurity, particularly when food supply chains are disrupted. Preliminary reports show that the pandemic has indeed disrupted global agricultural supply chains; slowed down global agricultural trade; and obstructed transportation, logistics and distribution channels as borders have been shut. In this regard, about 16 countries have issued food export restrictions or bans to ensure national stock and avoid food price inflation. The spread of the pandemic has further disrupted many activities along the agri-food supply chains and posed significant challenges to the food systems, especially in low-income countries where employment, livelihoods, food and nutritional outcomes, and many other essential services are derived from agriculture. As an example, the number of people at risk of food security may rise to 50 million  in West Africa – a region in which 35% of the economy depends on agriculture.

The immediate threats posed by COVID-19 to agricultural supply chains include the disruption of rural labor markets, which may impede farming and food processing activities. Some food supply chains in low-income countries are facing challenges related to growers –particularly smallholders– accessing inputs for their farming, being in their fields for planting, cultivating and harvesting their crops or breeding and feeding their livestock, managing animal and plant health in their farming systems, and actively participating in the output markets to sell their produce. In addition, farm labor shortages may result from mobility restrictions, while urban food processing may be put on hold due to delays on getting raw materials. In terms of consumption, the closures of restaurants and reduced visits to grocery and food markets decrease demand for fresh food and livestock products, affecting producers and suppliers. Food demand in low income countries is closely linked to income, and the loss of income-earning opportunities could affect consumption. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that the pandemic may cause 140 million (of which 2/3 are from Africa and remaining 1/3  from South Asia) to fall into extreme poverty in 2020.

Grazing livestock, West Pokot, Kenya. Photo: Eva Wredle, SLU

Food supply chains may be further troubled when considering that many nations depend on trading among each other staples, animal feed, fertilisers, machinery or pesticides. Hence, in order to guarantee affordable access to safe food for meeting the demand of their populations, it is crucial that international trade continues. Another global recession may further reduce the demand for rural output and labour. The announced economic stimulus packages by many nations should therefore provide means for stimulating the recovery of the rural economy in low-income countries to build an agriculture that should be increasingly resilient to shocks such as pandemics. In this way, they will also show their commitment to Zero Hunger and meeting the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 2, aiming to warrant that everyone everywhere is able to eat enough good-quality food to ensure a healthy life. Such an objective needs to improve sustainably the agricultural productivity and increase the profits of smallholder farmers by allowing them to fairly access land, technology and both input and output markets.

Sweden has a strong commitment to Agenda 2030 and to supporting low-income countries as demonstrated by its international development cooperation, government strategies and research agendas.  In the current crisis, we must keep the momentum towards the Sustainable Development Goals and move into the post-pandemic era with an ambition to increase resilience of communities and sustainability of the food systems by:

  • Reinforcing international partnerships. International collaboration focusing on exchange of knowledge and ideas and mutual capacity development is crucial for a sustainable development across the globe. International collaboration and national development go hand in hand.
  • Increasing resilience and sustainability of the food systems. Climate change has profound impacts on the food systems. Increasing farmers’ resilience to climate change will reduce their vulnerability also to pandemics and other shocks. As described by the UN climate panel, there are great opportunities for response options that provide co-benefits for climate change mitigation and adaptation as well as food and nutrition security.
  • Implementing One Health approach in practice. In order to fight health issues at the human-animal-environment interface a multidisciplinary and holistic approach is needed. Increasing collaboration between sectors is crucial, with integration of human health, animal health and conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems, to prevent future pandemics and other health threats.
  • Enhancing the understanding of the effects of the pandemic on food security. Pandemics will happen again. So, we need to learn and adapt to be more resilient next time. It is important for all countries, including Sweden, to minimise the impacts of pandemics on domestic food chains and markets, e.g. the potential impact through disruptions to the global agricultural supply chains and agri-food trade.

International research cooperation will boost the productive and resilient capacity of low-income countries’ agriculture, particularly if embracing a holistic, transdisciplinary and enlarged One Health strategy; i.e., integrating human, animal, plant, soil and environmental health following an innovative approach for research in development under a changing climate. The outputs of such an approach will contribute to a fair remaking of the social contract that may emerge after the COVID-19 pandemic. To increase food and nutrition security for all, it is therefore crucial to keep the momentum towards Agenda 2030.


SLU contributes to Agenda 2030 through our mission to develop knowledge and capacity for sustainable management and use of the biological resources. To contribute to food security and Zero Hunger, we are for example currently partnering in Sida’s long-term bilateral research capacity programs through training of researchers in fields of relevance to food security in Bolivia, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. AgriFoSe2030 is another Sida financed program where SLU jointly with Stockholm Environment Institute, Lund University and the University of Gothenburg supports actors in Africa and Asia to develop capacities to translate food security science into policy for impact. SLU furthermore works with the African Union and the EU Commission to map and capture knowledge from past and ongoing initiatives for food and nutrition security in Africa in the Leap4FNSSA program to improve efforts in the future. Explore more of SLU’s global partnerships and programmes at www.slu.se/slu-global

Flowering plants for the fight against malaria

Each year, more than 200 million people suffer from malaria around the world and every two minutes, a child dies from the disease. Globally, an estimated 3.4 billion people in 92 countries are at risk of being infected with malaria and developing disease. In conjunction to World Malaria Day, marked each year on 25 April, SLU Global highlights the importance of research by asking Professor Rickard Ignell about his ongoing and novel research to fight malaria.

Professor Rickard Ignell photographing one of the plants that are included in the study of potential sources of nectar at the Ifakara Institute, Tanzania. Photo: Sharon Hill

Please tell us about yourself, Rickard.

I am professor in chemical ecology, and have been working on disease vectors, predominantly on mosquitoes that transmit malaria, dengue and other arboviruses, since 2005. My group has a keen interest in understanding the ecology and evolution of olfactory (editor’s note: the sense of smell) communication in disease vectors, and we use a cross-disciplinary approach to assess how behaviours of these insects are shaped by various factors. Our fundamental research has been a spring board for us to identify novel tools that can be used to complement current integrated vector management methods. In relation to e.g., malaria control, we have expanded our work in sub-Saharan Africa over that last few years in order to increase the impact of our results.

You have recently received a large grant from The Swedish Research Council for research about utilisation of flowering plants for the fight against malaria. That sounds very interesting! What is it about?

Malaria mosquitoes, along with most other species of mosquitoes, require sugar and other nutrients for survival and reproduction, and obtain these through e.g., floral nectar. Mosquitoes prefer to feed on different flowers, and locate these using their sense of smell. Ongoing research has shown that we can harness the properties of attractive plants for the development of odour-bait technology to be used against both males and females of a wide range of mosquito species. We have also shown that toxic metabolites in floral nectar can have damaging effects on the development and survival of malaria parasites. Using a forensic approach, we will now expand our understanding of which plants are fed upon by malaria mosquitoes in the wild to assess if mosquitoes carrying malaria parasites change their floral preference in a way to self-medicate.

Why is this research important and what do you hope to achieve?

Malaria prevention and control strategies have resulted in a remarkable reduction of malaria mortality and morbidity throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa over the past two decades. However, over the last five years this impact has stalled, and we are now witnessing an increase in malaria in part of sub-Saharan Africa. Factors contributing to this include both physiological and behavioural resistance among the malaria mosquitoes, which has led to a need to control mosquitoes outside for which there currently are limited tools available. We have in a recent study shown that we can drastically reduce malaria incidence through mass trapping of mosquitoes by using an attractant that targets a broader spectrum of female mosquitoes. The floral attractant, which we now have available, increases this spectrum to include males, and we thereby have a better way of controlling the entire population of mosquitoes at a local scale. While the work we will do on toxic metabolites is still at an early stage, we hope that this research in the long run could provide leads for the development of drugs for the treatment of malaria.

How does this research differ from other research on combating malaria?

Until now the only viable option for controlling malaria has been to target the mosquito vector, partly due to the rapid development of resistance of the malaria parasites. The novelty of our research is that we embrace the natural ecology of the malaria mosquitoes in our efforts to identify novel tools for their control.

Anything you would like to add?

We are grateful for the support from various funding sources, including e.g. the Swedish Research Council (VR), which continues to support us over the years. This long-term funding has allowed us to generate a much-needed understanding of the ecology of malaria mosquitoes, which we now can use and share with our collaborators. There is, however, a need to increase our efforts, which we hope to achieve through increased collaboration both within SLU and other partners, but within academia and industry.

Thank you Rickard and good luck with your research!

Written by Malin Planting, communication officer, SLU Global.

Agroforestry – an act to fight climate change?

Written by: Agnes Bondesson, communication officer at SLU Global, Swedish University of Agricultural Sceinces

Agroforestry - pines and cotton
Agroforestry with pine and cotton
Photo: National Agroforestry Center/Wikimedia commons

22nd of April is every year dedicated to our beloved earth, so called Earth day. SLU has research projects in a wide range of areas and today it is time to give attention to one of them, agroforestry. This is a method where trees are planted among crops and animals and it is seen as a sustainable nature-based solution which can contribute to several of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Agroforestry provides various ecosystem services which are beneficial both locally and globally in the fight against climate change. This way of farming can limit the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by binding carbon and nitrogen in vegetation and soil. At the same time, the cultivation system contributes to positive effects in the local area, as trees shade, bind soil and increase resistance to pests, drought and floods, as well as providing access to firewood and a variety of nutritious food. It creates a favourable microclimate around the trees for a variety of flora and fauna.

SLU has several research projects running about agroforestry, many in collaboration with other universities and organisations around the world. SLU Global asked Ulrik Ilstedt, researcher at SLU, a few quick questions about agroforestry.

1. How does SLU work with research in agroforestry?

There are many people at SLU who work with different aspects of agroforestry in low-income countries, both from economic, social and environmental aspects. I myself have worked mostly with how agroforestry can contribute to carbon binding and how it also affects the water balance. Especially the water balance has been a much debated issue where hydrologists have previously thought that all trees – in forest or agricultural land – have a negative impact on water supply as trees use more water than grass and crops.

For tree planting organisations and the general public it has been difficult to realise that forests are bad for water supply. Many people think of the forest as a sponge that sucks in water. Instead, we have developed a new theory in which we believe that indeed the trees’ soil-improving ability can contribute to more water entering the soil and groundwater but up to a certain limit. If the trees grow too fast and too dense, their water consumption will take over and there will be water loss compared to pure agricultural land.

2. What are the benefits in a global sustainability perspective?

You can get a productive and sustainable cultivation system that can at the same time maintain many environmental values, such as biodiversity, water regulation and carbon storage. Because the trees contribute to soil improvement, farmers who are poor can cope with less or no commercial fertilizer. There are also advantages to being able to get different alternative products from the same fields and to spread risks.

3. What projects are SLU currently running?

One of the larger collaborative projects led by one of my colleagues, Gert Nyberg, where several researchers from SLU work together with other universities, is about studying different aspects of an area in Kenya. The organisation Vi-agroforestry previously used the area to influence how the pasture was organised. Through a better organisation of the pasture with fences, grass and trees could come back into the area and the pasture became more productive. This collaboration project is now being developed in other areas with both Swedish and international partners.

I myself would be particularly interested in continuing with the water issue. We now know that it is possible to grow trees and at the same time increase the water supply. Can we improve the groundwater supply further through maintenance with for example what kind of trees we use, if we prune them and how the trees are spread.

4. If you mention some positive effects with agroforestry, what would it be?

Agroforestry can contribute to many of the Sustainable Development Goals, for example to combat poverty and hunger (# 1 and # 2), better access to water (# 6), to help us combat and manage climate change better (# 13) and to contribute to higher biodiversity (#15). Agroforestry can also contribute to give women more time and opportunity to develop and take control of resources.

More information:
News page at SLU website
Debate article at Aktuell Hållbarhet (Swedish)

Migrant workers exposed during Covid-19 crisis

Written by Alin Kadfak, SIANI-SLU Global Communicator and Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. This blog post was originally posted at SIANI website.

Photo: SeaDave/Wikimedia Commons

The ongoing global pandemic may increase job insecurity and ruin rudimentary social welfare structures, amplifying the vulnerability of migrant workers.

I could not see many signs of concern when I was doing my fieldwork in Thailand and Myanmar in February – March 2020. Migrant workers in a Thai border city of Ranong were more concerned about such everyday struggles as ‘When to extend the work permit?’, ‘Where to find work today?’ or ‘How to send kids back to Myanmar when a few Burmese schools were forced to close down?’.

The fear of catching the virus was not a major concern. Due to the nature of temporary and short-term employment, migrant workers are more worried about losing their source of income than about health.

The ongoing pandemic, and the economic slowdown that’s likely to follow, will hit the poor harder than the rich, increasing the already stark inequality. Migrant workers are on the frontline of this crisis. Here is why:

Restricted mobility – Lack of movement may result in unemployment. Many countries are going into lockdown, so workers, the new and the returning, cannot travel to their destinations during the crisis. At the same time, millions of workers are looking forward to celebrating New Year with their family (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar share the same new year celebration mid-April every year). Like everybody else, migrant workers are advised against traveling home. If they do, they have to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their return. Two weeks of self-isolation is un-achievable when you and your family depend on daily wages and receive no compensation for the sick days.

Lack of social support – Social support and networks are crucial determinants of resilience. The importance of social capital is especially high in the time of crisis. Social exclusion is common to migrant workers, they rarely have social support networks in their host-communities, so accessing help in times of need is tough. For example, many migrant workers don’t speak Thai and don’t interact with their host communities on a daily basis, so they may stay behind on the up-to-date information about the COVID-19 spread and be unaware of the suggested precaution measures. What is more, even when migrant workers manage to build social relations in their host community, the crisis may disrupt collective memory production and weaken the capacity of newly formed social networks, meaning migrants members may be the first to get a cold shoulder.

Limited welfare – In Thailand, migrant workers have only recently started to receive a minimum wage, social security and health insurance. However, as the resources for testing and treatment of the virus are limited, migrant workers won’t be the first to access health services. At the same time, because of the short-term employment contracts and legal status in the host country, migrant workers will be the first to face layoffs too.

Living in limbo – Informal border crossing and illegal status provide migrant workers with an opportunity to earn a living without having to pay the fees for recruitment agencies or visas. However, living in the legally grey area may push workers into extremely vulnerable situations when crossing borders –  not only won’t they be covered by healthcare in origin and host countries, but also risk facing charges due to their illegal status. For example, it is still impossible to hold a record of how many migrant workers have lost their lives in Thailand after the tsunami of 2004.

What is social distancing? – Nearly 4 million Burmese, 2 million Cambodian and million Laotian labourers are working in Thai factories, construction sites, farms and fishing boats. These physical jobs require close contact. Minimum wages mean that migrant workers usually live in simple congested housing and in densely populated areas. The concepts of ‘social distancing’ or ‘working from home’ are far away from their everyday reality.

The COVID-19 crisis has not only accelerated the existing problems but also created many catch-22 situations for migrant workers in Southeast Asia and around the world.

These issues are complex and don’t have an easy answer, but one can start from granting migrants a legal status, allowing their families to be documented too. The implementations of the legalisation process should also reflect the reality of everyday life and the movement of migrants.

For instance, due to the nature of short-term employment, many migrant workers live by the border and move between Myanmar and Thailand every three weeks for 40 years and don’t get to live with their family. Besides, immigration regulations keep changing every year, which complicates any long-term planning, like education for their kids. And without basic education from either side of the border, the children of migrant workers have no means for upward mobility, so they follow in the footsteps of their parents, taking on low-paid unskilled jobs.

Additionally, the length of stay in a country for migrants is often attached to their employment status, which creates unbalanced power dynamics, favouring employers. However, one can promote labour rights by permitting migrant workers to unionize. This could allow for some forms of representation and negotiation between workers and employers. In the long term, improving legal status and worker representation will result in better welfare and improved living conditions.


How can we avoid another virus outbreak?

By: Maja Malmberg, Researcher at the Section of Virology at the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Veterinary Public Health at SLU and Ekaterina Bessonova, Communications Officer at SIANI. This blog was originally posted at SIANI website

Photo: Peter Schaefer (EyeEm) / Getty Images.

Few of us have ever imagined living through a pandemic. With all the global progress and achievements in medicine, a contagion seemed like something from the dark ages. And here we are, battling a noxious virus that set foot in every country, bringing disease, disruption and dismay.

Covid-19 outbreak is still unfolding, and we are yet to fully experience its effect on our societies and lives. However, it’s worth looking into how this coronavirus came about and reflecting on what can be done to diminish the possibility of another pandemic.

How did Covid-19 emerge?

SARS-CoV-2 or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is most closely related to coronaviruses in bats, meaning it’s a zoonosis – a disease that pass from an animal or insect to a human.

Other examples of zoonotic diseases include such scary names as HIV, Zika and Ebola. But Covid-19 belongs to the same family of coronaviruses as SARS and MERS.

The outbreak of SARS in 2002 resulted in 8,098 cases and 774 deaths in 26 countries. Emerging in Saudi Arabia in 2012, MERS brought about 2,494 cases and 858 deaths in 27 countries. Both of them are thought to be bat viruses that got to humans through an intermediate host (civet cat and camel).

Comparing to its “family members”, SARS-CoV-2 has certainly been more effective in infecting humans – the number of reported cases has already passed over 400 000 and rising. The virus was only discovered in January 2020 and much more research is needed to fully understand it. Nevertheless, there are things we already know.

Thanks to its structure, which is essentially a spiky ball, the virus easily attaches to the surface of certain human cells, initiating infection. Unlike most of the respiratory viruses that infect either upper or lower airways, SARS-Cov-2 seems to infect both. Generally, upper-respiratory infections are easily transmitted and usually mild; lower-respiratory infections don’t spread as easily but are more severe. Additionally, the new coronavirus can be stable on surfaces for as long as 24 hours, which along with the fact that humans do not have immunity against it, facilitated such rapid spread around the world.

Exactly when and how the virus has first infected humans remains to be determined. It could have come from bats to humans directly or passed through another animal. Coronaviruses are famous for their ability to exchange part of its genome, the so-called recombination, something that makes them prone to change hosts.

Covid-19 is believed to originate from a wildlife market in Wuhan, China where alive wild animals were sold and butchered on the spot, usually using the same slaughtering tools for different species, which creates favorable conditions for the virus to jump from animals to humans. Such markets are a perfect melting pot for new viruses to emerge and spread. However, there are reports of early cases of Covid-19 in people with no links to the market, suggesting the initial point of infection may have been in a different place.

Photo: Ulet Ifansasti (Stringer) / Getty Images

Biodiversity, biosafety, bioinformatics: A virus risk management strategy

Prompt by the ongoing epidemic, China announced a permanent ban on wildlife trade and consumption. The global community greeted this measure as a major step, though the ban has already been criticized because it allows the trade of animals for fur, medicinal purposes and research. Additionally, China announced a similar ban in 2002 in connection to the SARS outbreak, but enforcement was relaxed after the epidemic was over and the trade rebounded.

Banning trade of wild animals is a straightforward measure to limit exposure to new pathogens. However, it is not the only reason behind the Covid-19 outbreak. Diminishing the emergence of new zoonotic diseases requires holistic strategies that reduce risks across several dimensions and make our societies more resilient to virus outbreaks.

First, all development strategies and activities must prioritize biodiversity and find a way to create jobs, generate incomes and increase wellbeing, without destroying nature.

The emergence of new pathogens tends to happen in places where a dense population has been changing the landscape – agricultural expansion, deforestation, construction, mining – all contribute to the loss of natural habitat. So, the area occupied by human activity is becoming larger, while wild animals are squeezed into shrinking spaces. That is why animals that wouldn’t normally come in contact with humans do so to a higher extent, increasing the risk for exposure and spread of viruses wild animals carry and that we have not experienced before.

For instance, recent research from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) indicates that large forest fires can increase the spread of rodent-borne diseases in Sweden. However, the risks of emerging zoonotic diseases are especially high in the forested tropical regions experiencing rapid land-use changes and with high wildlife biodiversity.

Second, livestock industry and farmers have to implement adequate biosafety measures

Covid-19 sparked discussion about whether animal-based diets play a role in the emergence and spread of unknown and dangerous viruses. While there is plenty of research pointing that moderate consumption of meat has strong health and climate benefits, to what extent livestock production represents a risk of emergence of zoonosis depends on production management factors and country context.

For instance, small scale organic livestock farming is based on the principle that animals roam close to natural forests. This method is praised for animal wellbeing and lower environmental impact, but it makes contact between domestic animals and wildlife more likely. At the same time, industrial farms would usually keep animals isolated, creating conditions that prevent the spread of diseases from wild animals, however, because the animals are kept so densely to each other, diseases spread fast within the herd. Furthermore, plant-based diets that utilize a lot of commodities like almonds, soy, avocadoes and cocoa aren’t necessarily deforestation-free.

Another key point to consider is that vegan diets may not be the best option for people in low-income countries with high malnutrition. Milk, eggs and meat are highly nutritious, so many people keep animals at home for food and for insurance in times of need. There are also traditional pastoralist communities who live in drylands. For them animal husbandry is not only a source of food security, but also the core of culture.

For these reasons, increasing biosafety standards may offer a more appropriate way to reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases than excluding animal-based foods. Some common measures include keeping animals outside of the house, introducing designated areas for slaughtering and ensuring these facilities and people who work there practice well-executed hygiene and sanitation of all processes and equipment.

Third, funders need to ramp up investment in virology and bioinformatics, while the international community needs to improve cooperation, increase local capacities and raise awareness about these fields of knowledge.

The risk that new viruses can emerge and spread will always be there. But it is possible to minimize the losses by means of fast accurate detection and early response. Mapping the existing viruses in all animals will help us know what is out there and start developing technologies and strategies that can help us prepare and cope with possible outbreaks, pivoting from reactive to a proactive response. Advancing bioinformatics and virology will not only help us develop vaccines, but also anticipate pandemics through monitoring of threats while they are still evolving in animal populations.

Raising general awareness about what viruses are, how they spread and how one can protect from them is also key. Knowledge can conquer panic and prevent the creation and spread of conspiracy theories and fake news.

Tanzanian-Swedish collaboration at the World Urban Forum 2020

By: Edson Sanga, Happiness Mlula, Lazaro Mngumi, Maglan Sang’enoi and Said Nuhu.
PhD candidates at SLU enrolled in the Capacity Building Research Training Partnership with Ardhi University in Tanzania.

On 8-14 February, the tenth session of the World Urban Forum (WUF 10) was held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). This year SLU arranged two side events presenting research results in the field of sustainable urban development, and participated with an exhibition stand at the Urban Expo. A group of five SLU PhD candidates, enrolled within the Capacity Building Research Training Partnership with Ardhi University in Tanzania, participated in the forum together with their supervisor Zeinab Tag-Eldeen, researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development.

From left: Maglan Sang’enoi, Said Nuhu, Zeinab Tag-Eldeen, Lazaro Mngumi, Happiness Mlula and Edson Sanga; Photo: Anna Villaplana Casaponsa

The overriding theme of the WUF10 was Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovations. As part of the global pathways for realising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), UN-Habitat convene this forum for sharing information, best practices, discussing emerging issues and possible options. SLU participated in the forum, by sharing research grounded innovative ideas relating to rural and urban development. SLU participated under the sub-theme Sparking Research into Global Transformation which has a niche on theorising and practicing planning and decision analysis in different national and international contexts.

PhD candidates respond to questions related to their projects during one of the side events. Photo: Anna Villaplana Casaponsa

Side events

The SLU team convened two side events where we presented our research results; Side event 38: Urban-rural nexus: challenges and innovations to govern land, municipal and ecosystem services, on the fringes of resources constrained cities and small town and Side event 36: Beyond informality: informal settlements as contemporaneous urban heritage. The aim was to discuss new and innovative solutions of the dynamic shifts of activities that contribute to the well-being of rural as well as urban survival, particularly in the transforming areas of rural Africa. Topics that came up during the discussions were for example food security matters in relation to rural and urban interactions; informality, land governance and climate change in developing countries context.; and how to take research results and recommendations into practice.

The Urban Expo

The Urban Expo promoted innovative and sustainable solutions to the challenges facing cities and communities, including perspectives from national governments, the private sector, international organisations and academia. SLU’s exhibition stand highlighted how to strengthen social cohesion, exchange cross-disciplinary perspectives and link arts to sustainable development. Our booth received many visitors from both the academia and practice (both national and international organisations) with varying interests related to SLU’s global agenda. Academic matters offered by SLU, in particularly degree programmes, respective teaching language(s), preliminary conditions for enrolment as well as how to get scholarships, were some of the general issues that visitors wanted to know about. More specifically visitors asked about the role of SLU in conducting agriculture in hot climates like desert areas; food security related matters and SLU’s research agenda towards this topic; SLU research collaboration with UAE countries; and opportunities for collaboration with universities from some institutions in low-income countries.

Hon. William Lukuvi, the Minister of Land, Housing and Human Settlements Development of Tanzania visited SLU’s exhibition stand. From left: Zeinab Tag-Eldeen, Happiness Mlula, Hon. William Lukuvi, Said Nuhu. Photo: Anna Villaplana Casaponsa

Hon. William Lukuvi, the Minister of Land, Housing and Human Settlements Development of the United Republic of Tanzania, visited our stand, and got information about our five PhD projects conducted in Tanzania with the collaboration of between SLU and Ardhi University. The minister in his remarks emphasised that it is important to put the research into practices, and in this case this can be achieved through cooperation with the Local Government Authorities (LGAs) in Tanzania. 

Outcomes and take-home messages

By taking part in this conference we have established networks with people from various agencies, universities and organisations from across the globe. As the forum congregated people from all over the world with different exposure and ways of doing things, we have got experience from preparation of world class exhibition materials, art of presentation as well as confidence.

We think that participation in such international forum is imperative for the university’s internationalisation as it exposes the work done at the university and thereby attract new collaboration pathways. Networking and advertising SLU in matter related to land governance, climate change and rural-urban linkage can be done in this kind of forum.  

Background information

The World Urban Forum is organised and convened by UN-Habitat and addresses one of the most pressing issues facing the world today: rapid urbanisation and its impact on communities, cities, economies, climate change and policies. SLU’s participation was supported by SLU Global and led by Zeinab Tag-Eldeen, Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, and coordinator of the Research Platform Sparking Research into Global Transformation.

Capacity Building Research Training Partnership with Ardhi University in Tanzania
Within this programme, funded by Sida 2015-2020, several research projects are carried out in collaboration between the Urban and Rural Development Department at SLU, and Ardhi University.

Inclusion of youth – SIANI Annual Meeting 2020

By: Emelie Olsson, student in agronomy rural development and intern at SLU Global

How can development, food security and business include rural youth? This was the subject of SIANI (Swedish International Angricultural Network Initiative)’s Annual Meeting in Stockholm in the end of January. The subject is relevant since much of the rural world is young. 42 % of people around the world are under the age of 25. Many of them live in low-income countries and in rural communities. Investing in young people can lead to poverty reduction, a higher level of education and food security. Including youth is therefore key in achieving the sustainable goals of 2030.    

Hans Olof Stålgren from the Swedish Rural Network (Landsbygdsnätverket), here addressing the urban norm.
Photo: Emelie Olsson

Many interesting speakers took on the stage during the day. Hans Olof Stålgren from the Swedish Rural Network (Landsbygdsnätverket) was first out and spoke about their work in Sweden involving inclusion of immigrants and youth, business possibilities in rural areas and ecosystem services. He touched on the urban norm and the importance of different kinds of qualified jobs in rural areas for the community to thrive and the area to live on. Francesca Romana Borgia from IFAD (International fund for agricultural development) continued saying that if there are no general opportunities, then opportunity for youth is not possible either. IFAD’s practical work in nurturing young talent include finding land solutions, teaching the right skills and coming up with digital solutions, to mention a few. Another speaker that spoke on a concrete solution was Liisa Smits, CEO at Ignitia Tropical Weather Forecast. They help smallholders in several countries in Africa to make the right decision at the right time by using a text message. It includes the weather forecast for today and tomorrow in simple keyword design. 1.35 million farmers are subscribed and receive the text message daily. Since Ignitia launched, the farmers has increased their yield by over 50 % compared to farmers without the service and this year the weather service will launch in South America as well.  

Francesca Romana Borgia from IFAD presenting the five ways IFAD works with youth in practice.
Photo: Emelie Olsson

Other people who took on the stage were Hanna Sinare working on her PhD in Burkina Faso, Riitah Nayemba from Oikos Youth Enterprise, Vi-Agroforestry in Eastern Africa and Pius Hiwe from YPARD. We were then divided into groups to discuss how our organizations can help build an attractive future together with rural youth. Some of the suggestions that came up were:

  • to use communication channels attractive and available to youth
  • to raise the social status of jobs related to food
  • provide insurances to workers
  • structural changes including access to land and urban-rural linkages
  • youth networks
  • teach skills necessary for certain jobs
  • create a safe space for youth to share ideas
  • tackle cultural norms such as gender and age
  • help in the transition from old to young farmer
Group discussions on youth inclusion.
Photo: Emelie Olsson
Some examples of what came up during the discussion. The red dots indicate that someone at our table thought that idea was urgent and important, while the blue dots indicated that someone thought an idea was innovative and/or new.
Photo: Emelie Olsson

After lunch we were introduced to three of the SIANI Expert Groups of 2020. These were Steven Carr from Agripreneurship Alliance, Femy Pinto from Non-Timber Forest Products-Exchange Program Asia and Annette Almgren from Hidden in Grains.

Steven Carr from Agripreneurship Alliance. The five people on his slide have created new products on the market and started their own businesses out of them.
Photo: Emelie Olsson

The day ended with SIANI themselves presenting what lies ahead for them and then wrapped up the day with fika and networking. The day provided us with thoughtful cases, interesting things to include in our work, good food and lots of conversations with old and new friends. Thank you SIANI!