Diversification in agri-food systems is crucial in feeding billions of people all over the world. It provides ways to deliver more crops using the same land area and enables farmers to introduce other crops during the fallow period. But, while diversification is essential in putting food on the table of millions of homes, we need to make sure it has a minimal environmental impact and remains sustainable for future generations.
A session on the importance of crop diversification in ensuring food security was held at the 5th International Rice Congress (IRC2018) and focused on the effects of intense diversification and its possible trade-offs.
“The need for food security has favored diversification,” said Jackie Hughes, deputy director general for research at IRRI. “But it is a complicated concept, especially when we speak of it in terms of agri-food systems. Keeping the land productive between cropping seasons seems intuitive enough, but data also shows trade-offs at the environmental, socio-economic, and nutritional levels.
“A failure in the supply chain of any of the crops globally consumed will put our food system in jeopardy,” Dr. Hughes added.
Developing varieties and production systems that need fewer inputs
Diversification and intensification go side by side. For example, the food-energy-water nexus is an acute challenge for rice producers. Water is critical to growing rice and it is a resource that is becoming more expensive. Additionally, irrigation and farm mechanization require energy. As the growing population and urbanization compete for these resources, the need for food security favored the intensive production of a few basic crops.
As a result, only four crops provide more than half of the world’s food: wheat, rice, maize, and soybean. More than seven billion people now rely on these major crops for food and raw materials for livestock feed and bioenergy systems.
The development of varieties that need fewer inputs such as water, fertilizer, and pesticide is essential to minimize the environmental impact of producing them. Similarly, the development of a sustainable production system is essential for us to ensure that the future of the supply chain system is at risk.
Addressing labor shortages
“Farming is a profession not seen by many as profitable. Groups of farmers are living at the poverty line,” said Dr. Jonathan Hellin, head of IRRI’s Sustainable Impact Platform. “To keep them from slipping under, we need to provide a secure agricultural basis in the event of a natural calamity or catastrophe.”
This is discouraging for the younger generation who are seeking a better quality of life. As young people choose to veer away from agriculture in favor of jobs in urban areas, the labor force needed to produce food becomes less available. It is essential to take advantage of of alternatives such as mechanized farming systems to mitigate the shortage of agricultural workers. It is also important to highlight profitability in the agriculture sector to attract more youths.
Gender inclusiveness is also a powerful tool for solving labor shortages. Women play an important role in crop production but are often unrecognized. For the longest time, women farmers have been part of the informal sector where their unpaid labor keeps them on the sidelines.
Collaboration with partners
There is a need for different nations and sectors to come together to facilitate a global intervention on intense diversification and ensure its efficiency and environmental sustainability. Partnerships must also be built and strengthened in order to develop, adopt, and translate technology options for the most vulnerable members of the farming sector.
“These are only a small fraction of the enormous task of ensuring a food-secure future,” said Dr. Hughes. “More research and development must be done and it is part of our job to facilitate the discovering and application of these solutions.”
Intense diversification is a crucial topic in the dialogue about food security. IRRI continues to collaborate with partners to ensure a food-secure future by maximizing the resource-use efficiency of rice-based farms and reducing rice’s ecological footprint.