Asking the right questions about the future of agriculture

Leading experts and representatives of major agricultural organizations worldwide – including Tony Simons, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre -were asked to identify the most important questions facing the future of global agriculture.

The result is a paper in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability which aims to improve dialogue and understanding between agricultural research and policy.

The questions address the challenge of how to feed a growing population without increasing prices, and in the face of climate change, concerns over energy security, regional dietary shifts and the Millennium Development target of halving world poverty and hunger by 2015. They are divided into four sections, reflecting the stages of the agricultural production system: natural resource inputs, agronomic practice, agricultural development, and markets and consumption.

Questions relating to agroforestry feature prominently in the first two sections:

  • What combinations of forestry, agroforestry, grass cover, water-collecting systems and storage facilities, drought-resistant crops and water-saving technology are needed in arid and semi-arid areas to increase food production, and to what extent can they become cost-effective?
  • How can long-term carbon sinks best be created on farms (e.g. by soil management practices, perennial crops, trees, ponds, biochar)?
  • What are the best integrated cropping and mixed system options (including fallow rotations and other indigenous cropping systems for cereals, tubers and other staples, agroforestry, crop-livestock and crop-aquaculture systems) for different agroecological and socioeconomic situations, taking account of climate and market risk, farm household assets and farmers’ circumstances?

As the introduction to the paper states, the “goal for the agricultural sector is no longer simply to maximize productivity, but to optimize across a far more complex landscape of production, rural development, environmental, social justice and food consumption outcomes.”

The paper outlines how, more and more, discussions are shifting from defining a single path that will transform agricultural production to “many paths of sustainable intensification based on a wide variety of systems (from fallow rotation, agroforestry, mixed crop-livestock and crop aquaculture systems to minimum tillage and precision agriculture) that are appropriate to a large number of specific agroecological and socioeconomic contexts.”

Science needs to meet the challenges faced by agriculture and produce results which can be applied to a range of circumstances. But effective national and international policies are also needed that support more sustainable forms of land use and efficient agricultural production.

Funded by the UK Government’s Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures project, the paper aims to help address the poor communication between scientists, practitioners and policy makers.

The authors believe that if these questions are addressed, there will be a significant impact on agricultural practices worldwide and greater synergies between agricultural policy, practice and research.'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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