DevRes 2021: Takeaways that may help us in reaching SDGs in low-income countries

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This blog post is written by Adan Martinez Cruz, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Forest Economics and SLU Global coordinator.

From 14 June to 16 June 2021, DevRes 2021 allowed us to exchange insights on challenges and opportunities to accomplish the 2030 Agenda –with a focus on low-income countries. Originally scheduled for June 2020 to take place at Umeå University campus, DevRes went digital. The success of this adaptation strategy can be illustrated by the 500 registered participants from all over the world, the 125 speakers in 51 sessions, and the variety of topics covered.

I was fortunate to chair two sessions and I will tell you my takeaways from these sessions.

During the “Gender and inclusion in agriculture” session, we learnt about the relevance of empowering women to fight poverty among smallholder farmers in Nigeria, and about the role of ethnicity and gender in adopting agroforestry strategies in Vietnam. In particular, Mai Phuong Nguyen, who works at World Agroforestry, reported her findings from semi-structured interviews to 60 farmers (30 men and 30 females) across three provinces of northwestern Vietnam. These interviews explore preferences, constraints, and opportunities to adopt agroforestry practices among Thai and H’mong people. These two ethnic minorities rely on farming sloped land, which results on high levels of soil erosion –hence the need to explore the opportunities for adoption of agroforestry. The finding I wish to highlight here is the difference across gender in interest and perceptions about benefits from agroforestry –women are less certain about what agroforestry entails, and therefore are less interested in adopting agroforestry practices. This difference seems to be originated in the different channels of information that men and women have access to –while men have formal and informal learning channels, women rely mostly on informal channels. The implication is that formal agricultural extension services, which are not currently reaching out to women, must be tailored to inform women or otherwise agroforestry practices may spread at a slower pace than desired.

During the “Climate change –resilience, mitigation, and adaptation” session, we discussed how climate impacts efficiency of subsistence farming in Ethiopia, the effect of the Sloping Land Conversion Program on Chinese farmers’ vulnerability to climate change, and how capital assets enable resilience to water scarcity among small farmers in Indonesia. Francisco X. Aguilar, who is Professor at the Department of Forest Economics in SLU, and co-authors have explored the association between rural livelihood capitals (natural, human, social, financial, and physical) and the avoidance of, adaptation to, and inability to withstand water scarcity among 200 small farmers in South Sulawasi, Indonesia. Their findings illustrate not only heterogeneity in the association but also the relevance of social and human capitals as assets to enable resilience. In particular, physical and natural assets in the form of irrigation infrastructure and direct access to water sources were saliently associated with resilience to water scarcity; factors associated with capacity to adapt were more nuanced with social capital being closely linked. Years of farming experience as a form of human capital asset was strongly associated with resiliency.

DevRes aims to explore the challenges that require societal transformation in order to accomplish the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As illustrated by the couple of findings I have highlighted here, DevRes 2021 delivered insights that we have taken with us in our pursue to design policies that empower citizens of low-income countries to accomplish by their own means the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs.

“Planting trees is always good”

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– A Master’s thesis about Swedish carbon offsetting initiatives through tree planting projects in the Global South.

This blog post is written by Emil Planting Mollaoglu, Research Assistant at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, MSc in Rural Development at SLU

Image by João Lima from Pixabay 

Over the past two years, I have studied the Rural Development and Natural Resource Management Master’s Programme at SLU. During the spring and summer of 2020, I wrote my Master’s thesis – which focused on the role of companies and consumers in mitigating climate change. More specifically, the thesis explored how two Swedish companies, MAX Burgers (MAX) and ZeroMission, presented carbon offsetting on their websites. MAX is a fast-food restaurant chain that has received a lot of attention for its engagement with climate change and ZeroMission is an intermediary company that sells carbon offsets to MAX and many other Swedish and Scandinavian businesses. Through interviews with customers at MAX, my thesis also explored how carbon offsetting was perceived by a sample of Swedish consumers. The thesis illustrates how planting trees in Uganda has enabled MAX to communicate to its customers that they will solve climate change by eating at their restaurants – in spite of the company’s yearly increase of greenhouse gas emissions.

In recent years, many Swedish companies have voluntary made commitments to reduce their climate impact. An approach adopted by several Swedish food and beverage companies (among others) to lower the impact is to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. This is commonly called “carbon offsetting” and it means that emissions occurring in one place are compensated for by reducing emissions or storing carbon somewhere else. This is done through projects producing carbon credits – for example through capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by planting trees. The carbon credits can then be traded on carbon offsetting markets as a way for people, companies, organisations and governments to offset their negative climate impact.

Although it may sound good that actors offset their climate impact, carbon offsetting by planting trees in the Global South is not without contestation. Critique has for example been raised regarding uncertainties of the permanence and additionality of projects. These are two of the conceptual pillars of carbon offsetting. Offsetting projects are also meant to deliver sustainable development benefits to stakeholders in the Global South, and yet, there are documented cases of a lack of such benefits and even of negative impacts on communities. In addition, so-called natural climate solutions (such as forest preservation) and methods for carbon dioxide removal (such as afforestation) are not infinite. To meet the targets of the Paris Agreement we need these tools for negative emissions to counter the impact we already have had on the climate. Researchers have therefore argued that we should change how we think about carbon offsetting and move away from the idea that we can compensate for continuing to emit greenhouse gases.

From Vi Agroforestry in Kitale, Kenya. Photo: Malin Planting.

Since 2008, MAX has been offsetting 100% of its emissions through Plan Vivo certified tree planting projects – mainly in Uganda. Since 2018, the company has expanded its investments in planting trees and now offsets 110% of its emissions. MAX calls this approach “climate-positive” because the carbon offsetting extends beyond the company’s own emissions and captures an extra 10% of CO2. The Swedish company has gained international recognition for this approach. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has praised MAX for introducing the world’s first “climate-positive” menu and in 2019 the company received the UN Global Climate Action Award, which was presented at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid.

The results of my thesis show that the two companies describe climate change as a problem of both reducing emissions and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but that MAX’s emissions have continued to increase on a yearly basis. My analysis also show that the companies highlight consumption as a cause of climate change, but that the “climate-positive” approach attempts to turn consumption into the very solution to the problem. In this regard, a lot of responsibility for solving the problem was put on consumers, who were expected to choose products and companies based on their climate impact. The two companies also highlighted that deforestation is a major cause of climate change and that companies within the food industry in particular are part of causing deforestation. The argument here was that deforestation occurs as a result of land-use change, from forest land to agricultural land for cultivation of food crops. Both MAX and ZeroMission therefore argued that companies within the food industry have a responsibility to counter the loss of trees by planting new ones. The final theme of the analysis emphasised how carbon offsetting was represented as a solution to sustainable development challenges in the Global South.

Image by João Lima from Pixabay 

The thesis concludes that all the abovementioned representations reinforced each other and created a strong narrative for offsetting by planting trees in the Global South. At the same time, the customers’ responses implied that the view on how private actors and individuals can mitigate climate change is not homogenous, as they partially contrasted the two companies’ representations of climate change. The customers’ responses also illustrated a mental distance to the tree planting project in Uganda. This was for example apparent as one of the customers expressed that they did not understand the connection between MAX in Sweden and a tree planting project in Africa, but that “planting trees is always good”.

Finally, and as mentioned above, the thesis illustrates how a lot of responsibility for solving the problem of climate change is put on the individual consumers. Planting trees in Uganda has enabled MAX to communicate that climate change will be solved by its customers, that choose to eat at the Swedish fast-food restaurant chain instead of somewhere else, in spite of the company’s yearly increase of greenhouse gas emissions.

At the Department of Urban and Rural Development at SLU, there is an ongoing project that explores how Swedish companies and consumers perceive carbon offsetting through tree planting projects. I am part of this project as a research assistant and currently work on an academic article that partly is based on my thesis. If you are interested in or want to know more about carbon offsetting, you can find out more about the project here and you are also most welcome to read my thesis, which is available online.

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

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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

Smallholder farmers in Kenya know how to meet climate challenges, but lack the means to do it

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This article was written and first published by SIANI in collaboration with PhD Ylva Nyberg, Department of Crop Production Ecology, SLU. The findings and conclusions in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of SLU.

A more diversified farming system spread the risks better and has higher delivery of ecosystem services even if it needs more knowledge and labour. Photo: Ylva Nyberg.

Many smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are caught up in a negative spiral. Often farming on one hectare of land, they struggle to make ends meet and, in most cases, they cannot afford enough farm inputs, which leads to declining soil fertility of their farms, resulting in low yields. Many farmers have to look for casual jobs to get by. Poverty pushes them to reduce the number of meals they eat, so they also lack the energy to farm.

Climate change with its changing rain patterns, droughts and floods doesn’t make the life of smallholder farmers easier. Contrary to the popular belief, recent research by Ylva Nyberg, highlights that smallholder farmers are well aware of the climatic challenges and know how to adapt and cope. However, they would be reluctant to adopt sustainable agricultural practices due to the lack of access to credit, land, knowledge and labour.

Nyberg carried out her field work on smallholder farms across a gradient of landscapes in Kenya, from Kisumu by Lake Victoria to Trans Nzoia in the western highlands. She summarized her findings in her PhD dissertation which she defended at the Department of Crop Production Ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. 

Initially, Nyberg embarked on her journey to gain a better understanding of how small farms can increase yields without damaging nature. She used a variety of research methods, such as group and individual interviews, tree density measurement, soil sample analysis and randomized control trials. During the group interviews, Nyberg explored whether the farmers had experienced rainfall-related challenges and if they had planned to adapt to changing rainfall patterns. She quickly learnt that smallholders were well aware of climatic changes and also knew many adaptation and coping strategies, though men happened to be better informed than women

Then Nyberg spoke with farmers individually to find out how they applied their knowledge of adaptation measures. The results varied in accordance with access to social capital. Men tended to have higher education, better access to agricultural advisory services and more time for social networking, and they also were able to use more adaptation measures than women, especially those who lack education. Farmers with regular access to agricultural advisory services used more adaptation measures, especially those measures that they perceived most effective.

During these interviews many farmers also mentioned that having trees and livestock makes them less vulnerable, providing insurances or savings. Therefore, Nyberg has also considered these parameters in her work. It appears that higher tree density increased the workload on farms, but the income that came from these farms was higher too. In addition, trees were important to all farmers by providing shade for recreation. High livestock density showed signs of higher soil nitrogen turnover, even though collecting and using the manure can be challenging. Low tree and low livestock density were often an indicator of high dependency on off-farm revenues.

Agroforestry was one of the practices found to positively affect maize yields as well as being perceived effective among farmers. However, agroforestry is also labour-intensive. Photo by Ylva Nyberg

Lastly, Nyberg compared farms that took part in Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project over four years with those farms that weren’t engaged in carbon farming. She found that maize yields were positively related to terracing of fields and to growing more trees on the farm, the so-called agroforestry. Farmers working with the Carbon Project used more sustainable management practices, had higher yields and better food self-sufficiency as well as more savings than farmers who weren’t involved in the project.

However, the farmers who participated in the Carbon Project had higher yields to begin with and the difference in yield between the two groups of farms were similar in the first and the fourth year. Thereby, the increases in yield cannot be explained by the project only, unless the neighbouring farms outside the project had actually learnt methods and started practising them as well.

Smallholders have great potential to improve their production in a sustainable way, but they lack sufficient labour, land, money or knowledge to adopt sustainable agricultural land management practices.

Nyberg suggests that policy should address the farming and food production system as a whole, increasing inclusivity, particularly in regards to women with poor education. Agricultural advisors should also promote packages of simple but effective measures, encourage diversified farming systems where feasible and focus on the limiting factors, such as access to credit, knowledge and labour. This way, farmers will have the means to practice sustainable agriculture. Only then smallholder farmers will be able to build sustainable livelihood, supply ecosystem services and be climate action agents.

Check out Ylva Nybergs PhD thesis here.

Agroforestry – an act to fight climate change?

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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)