This blog is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog's month-long series on Ecosystem Services.
Africa faces two major challenges in the coming 50 years: the conservation of landscapes along with the biodiversity in them and securing enough food for an ever-increasing population - all under a changing climate, which is negatively affecting Africa's agricultural productivity.
A biodiversity hotspot
What is at stake is the very home of humanity.
In a way, the first challenge is justified by the huge heritage of wild species found in Africa. East Africa in particular, is a hotspot for mammal diversity. Kenya for example, has 376 mammal species, which is enormous considering the size of the country (Ceballos & Ehrlich, 2006). Furthermore, African people as a whole have an even greater responsibility as a species called Homo sapiens also originated in Africa. In other words, what is at stake is the very home of humanity.
Much is already being done in these areas to conserve biodiversity and its landscapes, but in order to be more effective, we need to think not only of conserving species, but also the ecosystem services that they provide at local and regional scales. This requires focusing on the population levels of different species rather than just the species themselves. This is because population levels are a determining factor in the provision of ecosystem services, and, generally, they are more threatened than the species themselves (Eigenbrod et al., 2009). Conservation strategies should therefore aim at preserving the largest possible number of populations of species in and out of diversity hotspots (Ceballos & Ehrlich, 2002).
Conserve diversity and increase food production?
The other challenge is how do we conserve a vast heritage of diversity, and produce enough food to feed a fast growing population? Africa’s population is predicted to reach 1.8 billion people from the current 875 million by 2050 (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2010). Levels of malnutrition are still very high with over 200 million people chronically hungry (Horlings & Marsden, 2011). As a result of economic growth, diets will change and so will food demand, including higher demand for meat which has a high carbon footprint and competes for land use to produce biofuels (De Schutter, 2010).
Overall, it is expected that food production needs to increase by 70% to 100%. While this could already be seen as a big challenge, the conditions under which it needs to be achieved are even more severe. Climate is changing, affecting agricultural productivity in a negative way, particularly in Africa. Soils are less productive – it is expected that arid and semi-arid land in Africa will increase by 5-8% in the next 60 years (Boko et al, IPPC 2007) – water will become a scarce resource, urbanization will encroach on fertile agricultural land, and further destruction of ecosystems will lead to more biodiversity loss and associated vital ecosystem services. In addition, as a result of global land use change to produce biofuels and animal fodder, food price volatility will increase, as already experienced in the food price crisis of 2007/2008 (Godfray et al., 2010).
Some authors call it the perfect storm.
While food production is only one side of the coin, the other being food distribution, consumption and waste reduction (Garnett, Appleby, & Balmford, 2013), how we approach food production is crucially important for the sustainability of ecosystems and conservation goals.
Towards an agroecological approach for Africa
Agroecology is defined “as the application of ecology to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems” (Altieri, 2011). This entails the adoption of modern technologies to stretch ecological boundaries and reduce the negative externalities of conventional agriculture. For this approach to be effective it has to address the negative socio-economic consequences of the conventional approach and rethink the whole model of food production (Horlings & Marsden, 2011; Garnett et al., 2013). An agroecological approach, is one that recognizes the importance of local conditions and resources, and valorizes the role of farmers and their traditional cultures.
Several studies have demonstrated the potential of ecological approaches to address food security issues. Agroforestry, conservation agriculture, permaculture, low-input agriculture and other multifunctional approaches, have shown significant yield increases, particularly when adopted by smallholder farmers. Can these approaches also help to address conservation goals?
These topics and more will be covered during two conferences in Nairobi: The 1stAfrica Food Security Conference on ‘Harnessing Ecosystem Based Approaches for Food Security and Adaptation to Climate Change’ 20 and 21 August 2013 and the 6th Scientific and Policy Conference of the Ecological Society of East Africa. Stay tuned for live tweeting from @Seeds4Needs and @BioversityInt.
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Horlings, L. G., & Marsden, T. K. (2011). Towards the real green revolution? Exploring the conceptual dimensions of a new ecological modernisation of agriculture that could “feed the world.” Global Environmental Change, 21(2), 441–452. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.01.004
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About the Author:
Carlo Fadda is a Senior Scientist at Bioversity International. He has worked extensively on agricultural biodiversity, human well-being and conservation in East Africa.