Tag Archives: agriculture

Is there a definite value of water?

This blog post is written by Jennie Barron, Professor at the Department of Soil and Environment; Agricultural water management, SLU

Photo: Jennie Barron, SLU

Water is a multifaceted resource from simply being served our daily glass of water, to the complex flow through the landscapes to produce food, recreation and other ecosystem services. Because of the multiple uses and benefits of water, there are many challenges of valuing and weighting benefits and impacts for the different uses and users.

This becomes evident in times of shocks and in crises. For example such as when the landscape  or society runs out of water, as in the extreme drought of 2018 in Sweden, or when 2 billion of people lack health and sanitation facilities to simply wash hands to cope with COVID-19. The past years global and local crises of COVID-19 has left no one untouched. And the crisis of COVID-19, has really reoriented the issue of conversation of water, and the value of water. 

The projections of water related crises is on the rise, as food security, sustainable development and climate change takes place. The need to find metrics, process and practise to weight the benefit and impacts of water scarcity will therefore be the key. This year’s World Water Development Report is thus a first step to summarise and synthesise the current perspectives on valuing water. It builds on the recent developments such as the High Level Panel of Water  Statement (2018)  “Every drop counts” and  assessments on water security for food and nutrition by FAO (2020)  “ Overcoming water challenges in agriculture“.

 Going from high level statements to reality and practise

 Agriculture is such sector that is an intense water appropriator globally, both in using rainfall, and extracting water for irrigation. In addition, agriculture can have a negative impact on water quality, as a source of agro chemical pollution both from crop and livestock production. Valuing water for irrigation is a particular challenge, as the fresh water from surface and groundwater sources is contested for many users, including the environment, aquatic benefits and food. However, in regions where many people are affected water scarcity and hunger, the value water might bring into agriculture can make significant livelihood improvements. For example in the work assessing benefits for smallholder farmers in the dry area of Bundelkhand , India led by Garg et al (2020), evidence-based soil and water innovations introduced, improved landscape water use and the farmer incomes by up to 170%. At the same time downstream water availability reduced with 40% in a normal rainfall year. Here a dialogue on upstream benefits and values, may need to be negotiated with downstream users.  In a case of livestock systems intensification in Tanzania (Noetenbart et al 2020), choosing the most resource saving option of intensification can have negligible impacts on water use. For example a comparison of livestock production accounting for water appropriation into the fodder, showed that extensive dryland grazing could only marginally increased total water appropriation, whilst improving water productivity with 20-50%, when combining animal health, breeding and feed options.  Here the most water demanding livestock scenario was the system with import of high protein (and more water demanding) fodder crops.

Photo: Jennie Barron, SLU

 Investing to secure water for agriculture is an enabler of development. 

Globally, about 40% of food comes from irrigation-dependent crop production systems, helping to support nutritious and all year food supply. Whereas regions and countries are running out of water, we have other regions that could better support irrigation development to adapt to weather extremes and bring both steady supply of food and nutrition and income. In Sub-Saharan Africa, less than 3% of the crop area is under formal irrigation. Yet smallholder farmers are evolving and investing themselves in so-called farmer led irrigation, despite a number of technical , social and financial challenges (Lefore et al 2019).

It is becoming evident that water is a critical enabler in development and Agenda 2030 for human health, incomes, food and nutrition as well as ecosystem services. Water needs to be bothsafeguarded for multiple benefits, as well as negotiated and explored in some cases, for additional uses in anthropogenic landscapes. By opening for reflecting multiple values, we can develop data, tools and weight benefits and trade-offs more just and equal among uses and users. In 2022, it is the +30 years of the Rio Declaration (UN Earth Summit 1992), including the statement of Integrated water resource development (IWRM) Let’s hope that water is back on the agenda for enabling development as, carefully negotiated for its multiple use and value.


For the love of the spud in spite of its beauty spots

This article was written by Erik Alexandersson, Researcher at the Department of Plant Protection Biology, SLU

Small holder farmers together with Lerato Matsaunyane at ARC in Randfontein. Photo: Flip Steyn.

Today, 26 October, is the offical potato day here in Sweden and a good opportunity to look closer at this quite nutritional crop. The potato is grown and eaten all over the world and production is on the rise in many low income countries – primarily in Africa. The versatility and adaptability of this beloved spud is the key to it´s wide spread. However, diseases and drought due to changed climate present threats to yields in the future.

Potatoes have long been essential for Western cuisine. They are loved in many forms. Why not boiled together with meat and sauce, as fries accompanying that novel non-meat burger or simply as crisps, which can be seen as the centrepiece of cosy television time with the family. Worldwide potato is today the third most consumed crop.

The potato retains its popularity in spite the rise of the fast-boiling pasta and popularity of low-carb diets. Consumption in the industrialised world have been stable the last 20 years even if it now and again ends up in the dietary cold box.

In low-income countries, potato production is still on the rise though. In 2008, the total production even passed that of the industrialised world. Not the least in sub-Saharan Africa where incidence of malnutrition are among the highest in the world, and sadly more than 15% of the total population still lacks sufficient food.

In fact, its cropping area and production have increased more than those of any other food crop in Africa (1). Today, it is maybe foremost an important cash crop for small-scale farmers, but since the areal and demand are rising we can predict that it will have a greater importance to future food security in the region.

Potato has a fantastic ability to adapt and yield in different climate conditions. Originating from the Andes the potato is grown on all continents except Antarctica. Its ability to produce well in so many different environments is an important part of its success. Still many diseases affects the production. In temperate regions late blight is considered as one of the most dreaded plant diseases. Extensive research has gone into combating late blight and today we have both conventional bred and genetically modified potatoes carrying additional resistance genes with high level of resistance as well as efficient pesticides.

Potato trials in Roodeplaat. Photo: Flip Steyn

However, in an African perspective, other diseases such as early blight, which thrives in warmer climates and insect pests that destroy harvested tubers can cause larger problems. The underlying mechanisms of several other diseases than late blight are less studied and lesser known. Unfortunately, efficient resistance factors are unknown and remain to be discovered for use in breeding programmes. For early blight, there is also an increased problem with pesticide resistance.

For the small-scale farmers it is not easy to afford to protect their potato crop or take the right measures. One powerful way to convert research into practice are field demonstrations for farmers, advisers and policy makers, something we tried out with our colleagues Lerato Matsaunyane at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, South Africa and Tewodros Mulugeta at Kotebe Metropolitan University in Ethiopia.

Furthermore, for the farmers in Southern Africa, unpredictable rains have caused big problems for agriculture. In this context, potato will have a challenge as it is sensitive to drought, also to shorter micro-droughts and clearer focus on research on drought tolerant varieties is needed. Unfortunately, climate change is expected to have a very large impact on agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa. The need for a future drought tolerant potato is evident.

Luckily, the International Potato Center and other research institutes are doing multifaceted research to provide a disease free and drought tolerant potato suitable for different needs in African agriculture.

But, today is the official potato day here in Sweden, so let us just for a moment look away from these beauty spots of this loved spud. Did you for example know that the nutritional value of potato is not that bad! Tubers harbours fibre and important nutrients such as vitamin C, tocopherols and carotenoids! And with the right cultivar under the right conditions it can be one of the most high-yielding crops! With a production of 15, 40 or even 60 tonnes per hectare it can for sure feed many hungry stomachs.

References

(1) Ortiz, O., & Mares, V. (2017). The historical, social, and economic importance of the potato crop. In The Potato Genome (pp. 1-10). Springer, Cham

How can Artificial Intelligence improve African agriculture?

By: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff, Professor of Bioinformatics at the Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics, SLU

As climates change and populations increase, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be a key player in Africa in the creation of technological innovations that will improve and protect crop yield and livestock. 

Participants at “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa” in Nairobi, Kenya, April 2019. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

The work creating technologies that allows computers and machines to function in an intelligent manner is known as Artificial Intelligence or AI. The advantages of using AI based devices or systems are their low error rate and huge analysis capacity. If properly coded the AI systems have incredible precision, accuracy, and speed. They can also work independently in many, for humans, hard conditions and environments. One of the most interesting areas where AI is breaking into is agriculture. 

One area using AI and attracting a lot of attention is the area more known as “Precision Farming”. Precision Farming generates accurate and controlled technologies for water and nutrient management. It also gives optimal harvesting, planting times and produce solutions in many other aspects of modern agriculture.

In April 2019 a workshop was held at Strathmore University, Nairobi in with the aim to set up a “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa”. There where 60 international participants by invitation. The meeting was supported by Swedish SIDA and organised by the International Development Research Centre and Knowledge 4 Foundation (K4A).

Plenary discussions. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

The main goal of the workshop was to discuss the AI field with a bottom-up approach. The objectives of the workshop were to define the African Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (ML/AI) landscape, to create an African research roadmap and to find ways to incorporate cross continental development. Around these objectives, four thematic areas of discussion were developed: governance, skills/capacity building, applications and others. 

Discussions during a break. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

On the last day of the workshop we visited the IBM Research – Africa in Nairobi. The staff at IBM-Africa presented several AI projects and one example related to the future of AI in agriculture was presented by Juliet Mutahi, a software Engineer working at the IBM Nairobi THINKLab. She presented “Hello Tractor” a system comparable to Uber for taxi but in this case a system that allows farmers to share tractor resources by using an app on their smartphones. This is the kind of initiatives that are created in Africa as a bottom-up approach. Juliet told the audience that she got the idea to create this system inspired by the work and needs of her parents that are coffee farmers in Kenya.

Juliet Mutahi software Engineer, IBM Nairobi THINKLab. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

While identifying the different AI actors in the African continent, another initiative stood out among many: the “Deep Learning Indaba” initiative. This is an annual meeting of the African machine learning community. In 2018 the meeting took place in Stellenbosch, South Africa and gathered 600 participants from many African countries. The next annual meeting will take place in Nairobi, Kenya in August 2019 and the aim for this year is to gather over 700 participants. This shows the strength and vitality for this area of research in the Africa continent.

Many issues connected to agriculture will in the future be better handled using machine learning and artificial intelligence because AI can automate tasks that require human-level intelligence or beyond. This makes solutions that integrate AI better than today’s technologies. Most researchers involved in development research will in the near future learn how to use and how to incorporate AI in their work. Our young colleagues in the “Deep Learning Indaba” community are showing the way. The work in creating the “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa” is just one of the building blocks in this process and SLU will be part of it.

Final panel discussion. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

Watch an interview with Erik Bongcam-Rudloff talking about African bioinformatics and AI filmed at the Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in Nairobi, Kenya.

Report from the SIANI Annual Meeting 2019

By: Dr. Alin Kadfak, Department of Urban and Rural Development, SLU

Did you know that about half of migrants are women? And more migrants migrate within developing countries than crossing North-South borders? Migration does not refer only border crossing, but moving from rural to urban as well as rural to rural within the same country. There are many misperceptions about migration and the root causes of the phenomenon, which bring us to this year SIANI Annual Meeting’s agenda!

Every year the SIANI secretariat organises a meeting in Stockholm so our members have a chance to interact with each other and to provide input for the work plan of the year ahead. This year’s theme ‘Migration, Agriculture and Rural Development’, held on 23 January, is in the spotlight as we explore different dimensions of migration and its connections with food and agriculture. Together the members can reflect on this vital topic. And this year, the meeting is well attended from academic, NGOs, government agencies and civil society.

Starting off with welcoming speech by Annika Åhnberg, Chair of the SIANI Steering Committee, who reminds us that forced and voluntary migrations are parted of the human history, and we need to understand the phenomenon in the holistic way. Our first speaker, Sigrun Rawet, SIPRI, brings to the meeting the discussing around recent UN Security Council Resolution on hunger and conflict. No doubt that conflict brings hunger, but what if ‘ending hunger can reduce conflict!’. UN World Food Programme is now doing pilot projects in four countries, hoping to reduce famine, the main cause of conflict.

Ingela Winter-Norberg, Sida, raises an important point that often refugees and immigrants are being excluded from development policy. The key question we need to ask is ‘How can we increase economic self-reliance activities for migrants?’ to ensure that they can support themselves economically in countries of destination. 

Our next speaker Jesper Bjarnesen, Nordic Africa Institute, conveys a strong message that ‘migration is by far the most positive than negative, but it has been hindered by regulations’. And the challenge to migrant problem is when the government sees migrants as threat instead of source of labour. The way forward, he suggests, is to shift the narrative from ‘migrant rights’ to ‘labour rights’.

Aster Asgedom, County board Västra Götaland, shares how she continues supporting rural development back home in Ethiopia, by connecting the supports from Swedish NGOs, civil societies and academic. Being migrant herself, she reflects on how nature is very important for integration process. For instance, Aster together with other organisations in Gothenburg organised outdoor activities to welcome new refugees into the country.

Round Table Dialogue is the highlight of the day. This interactive platform asks members to join and help answer ‘How can you together with other SIANI members help to minimise non-voluntary migration and address its root causes?’. Each group has one and half hour to brainstorm, discuss and agree on the main statement to help directing SIANI’s work plan for 2019. Please stay connected to see the results from Round TableDialogue at SIANI.se, with more activities to continue the migration and rural development dialogue.

Link to SIANI’s webpage with videos and documentation from the meeting.