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Symposium 2015

Solution for Food Security through more Intense Crop Production

The Challenge

In order to secure the demand for food and biomass by a growing population, the production of biomass needs to double by 2050. Recent studies agree that better crop management on today’s cropland co ...

In order to secure the demand for food and biomass by a growing population, the production of biomass needs to double by 2050. Recent studies agree that better crop management on today’s cropland could increase biomass production by only about 60% (Bruinsma 2011, Tilman et al. 2011). This may be achieved by, for instance, expanding cropland, changing diets, adopting more efficient agricultural practices, or by using current cropland areas more intensively. This choice involves trade-offs. For instance, expanding cropland into non-agricultural ecosystems may reduce other ecosystem services such as biodiversity, and release greenhouse gases. Therefore, intensifying the use of current cropland areas may be a preferred option. In fact, current studies are able to identify regions where there is a capacity to intensify agricultural production (Zabel et al. 2014). Measures aimed at closing the gap between production possibilities and current production, however, are not sufficiently addressed.

Key principles for sustainability in food and agriculture - The “Save and Grow” approach—a model for sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production


The world’s population is projected to grow from around 7.2 billion today to 9.3 billion in 2050 (United Nations, 2013). That population increase and the expected dietary changes associated with income growth indicate that by 2050, agriculture will need to produce 60% more food globally, and 100% more in developing countries, if it is to meet demand at current levels of consumption. In the past, technological innovation and improvements in institutions have led to significant gains in agricultural production and productivity. Using high-yielding varieties, irrigation and high levels of chemical inputs, the Green Revolution boosted cereal yields in South Asia by more than 50% between 1975 and 2000 (World Bank, 2007). Global agricultural production increased as much as threefold in 50 years, with only 12% growth in the farmed area. Agricultural intensification not only allowed farmers to feed the world but, by saving millions of hectares of forests from conversion to farm land, it also saved an unquantifiable quantity of ecosystem services and avoided the release of an estimated 590 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (Burney et al., 2010). However, the situation is far from being ideal, and past agricultural performance is no longer a guarantee of future returns. While supplies have been growing, the current trajectory of growth in agricultural production and productivity is unsustainable. Food production on land and in aquatic systems already dominates much of the global terrestrial surface, and has major negative impacts on the earth’s ecosystems. At the same time, rural areas of developing countries are still home to the majority of the world’s poor and vulnerable populations, who rely heavily on “natural capital” for their livelihoods, and lack secure access to these resources. Weak or absent governance for tenure of natural resources results in their degradation, perpetuates inequalities, and exacerbates conflicts. Agricultural production systems, and the policies and institutions that underpin global food security, are increasingly inadequate. The world’s food systems are heading towards an unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years (Foresight UK, 2011) which, if the current trajectory is maintained, will seriously compromize our long-term global capacity to produce both food and the economic benefits needed for food security. Without a significant change of course, the following trends in food and agriculture will be exacerbated. Current food production and distribution systems are failing to feed the world. While agriculture produces enough food for 12 to 14 billion people, some 800 million—or one in eight of the world population—live with chronic hunger (FAO, IFAD and WFP, 2015). The vast majority of the hungry live in developing regions, where the prevalence of undernutrition is estimated at 14.3% (FAO, IFAD and WFP, 2015). The main cause of hunger and malnutrition is not lack of food, but inability of the poor and hungry to buy it. Disproportionately, 60% of the undernourished are women, who make up 43% of the agricultural labor force and suffer deep discrimination in access to land and other resources and services (Asian Development Bank, 2013). Inadequate diets lacking in protein, vitamins and minerals have left one-third of the developing world’s population with micronutrient deficiencies which, if severe, can lead to blindness, mental retardation and early death, while 1.5 billion adults are overweight or obese and at greater risk of noncommunicable diseases, owing to overconsumption of low-cost, high energy and nutrient-poor foods (FAO, 2012a). At the same time, enormous financial and environmental resources are being spent to produce food that is lost or wasted, currently at the rate of some 1.3 billion tonnes a year. Food losses and waste which are indicative of poorly functioning food systems represent wasted resources and emissions (FAO, 2012b).

Proposed solution—the “Save and Grow” paradigm

FAO’s vision towards sustainable crops, livestock, aquaculture fisheries and forestry
FAO’s vision for sustainable food and agriculture is that of “a world in which food is nutritious and accessible for everyone and natural resources are managed in a way that maintains ecosystem functions to support current as well as future human needs. In this vision, farmers, pastoralists, fisher-folks, foresters and other rural dwellers have the opportunity to actively participate in, and benefit from, economic development, have decent employment conditions and work in a fair price environment. Rural women, men, and communities live in security, and have control over their livelihoods and equitable access to resources which they use in an efficient way” (FAO, 2014). In order for food and agricultural systems to be sustainable, they must equally and simultaneously address social, economic and environmental dimensions. Neglecting any one area jeopardizes the attainment of sustainability in others. The following five interconnected principles can collectively guide the process of transition to sustainable agriculture (FAO, 2014):

Principle 1:
Improving efficiency in the use of resources is crucial to sustainable agriculture.

Principle 2:
Sustainability requires direct action to conserve, protect and enhance natural resources.

Principle 3:
Agriculture that fails to protect and improve rural livelihoods and social well-being is unsustainable.

Principle 4:
Enhanced resilience of people, communities and ecosystem is key to sustainable agriculture.

Principle 5:

Sustainable food and agriculture requires responsible and effective governance mechanisms.


The Save and Grow paradigm for sustainable intensification of crop production

In the future, most of agriculture’s products and services will continue to come mainly from the crop sector: plant products will continue playing a large role in direct provision of food, fuel, fibre and also feed for livestock and aquaculture. But farmers face unprecedented constraints and the present paradigm of intensive crop production, highly demanding in terms of natural resources and energy, cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium. FAO launched the Save and Grow initiative as a new paradigm for sustainable and intensive crop production that would enhance both productivity and sustainability (FAO, 2011). Sustainable crop production intensification aims at producing more from the same area of land and other natural resources while conserving resources, reducing negative inputs on the environment and enhancing natural capital and the flow of ecosystem services. Save and Grow calls for a further greening of the Green Revolution through an ecosystem approach that draws on nature’s contribution to crop growth, such as organic matter, water flow regulation, pollination and biocontrol of insect pests and diseases. It offers a rich toolkit of relevant, adoptable and adaptable ecosystem-based practices, that encourages use of improved technologies including labor saving technologies and equipments for land preparation to reduce drudgery and to make interventions more timely, simple but precise, small equipment that support judicious and efficient use of chemical inputs, to produce more with less, enhance resilience to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thus allowing for reconciling the five principles of agricultural sustainability described above. It proposes farming systems based on conservation agriculture practices, the use of good seed of high-yielding adapted varieties, integrated pest management, plant nutrition based on healthy soils, efficient water management, and the integration of crops, pastures, trees and livestock. It advocates policies that build and strengthen institutions, enhance capacity at all levels through participatory approaches; remove incentives that encourage mechanical tillage and wasteful use of fertilizers, water and energy; provide incentives for often direly needed mechanization services that would be in line with sustainable intensification and conservation agriculture (such as small equipment for reduced and no-tillage, precision tools for seeding, and precise and timely input application) in order to increase availability and access to these small mechanization innovations, provide farmers with seed of superior and adapted varieties on time; and make it easier and profitable for smallholders to produce and market their products through improved infrastructure and appropriate pricing. Implementing Save and Grow requires action on six complementary components that are key to a new approach to more productive and more sustainable crop production:

Component 1: Farming systems
Crop production intensification will be built on farming systems that offer a range of productivity, socioeconomic and environmental benefits to producers and to society at large. Farming systems for sustainable crop production intensification minimize soil disturbance, enhance and maintain a protective organic cover on the soil, and cultivate a wider range of soil species. By partnering with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and other resource partners such as the European Union, FAO in collaboration with private sector is implementing programs that build on the paradigms of sustainable crop production intensification but also focus on upscaling these principles and implementing it by introducing and supporting small businesses and service providers that provide mechanization services in line with Conservation Agriculture (CA). Such projects are ongoing in countries such as Zambia (led by FAO) and Ethiopia, Kenya, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zimbabwe (led by CGIAR/the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center [CIMMYT]).

Component 2: Soil health
Agriculture must, literally, return to its roots by rediscovering the importance of healthy soil, drawing on natural sources of plant nutrition, and using mineral fertilizer wisely. Massive use of mineral fertilizers allowed for huge gains in crops productivity, yet carrying important costs to the environment. Now that the natural resources’ production potential is threatened, governments, development partners and farmers need to come back to good soil health management practices. Promoting good soil health management practices at farm level is done through, for example, the development and dissemination of appropriate crop rotation patterns, or the integration of N-fixing legumes and trees into cropping systems that are complemented with critical chemical fertilizers applied at most appropriate crop stages and in a manner that increases the efficiency of their utilization by crops. Support to mechanization service providers to obtain and offer tools and services for land preparation with minimal soil disturbance, cover crop management, weed management and harvesting technologies that are recognizing the need for healthy soils will have to be encouraged with smart incentives that recognize the substantial role that a healthy soil has for sustainable production intensification.

Component 3: Crops and varieties
Farmers will need a genetically diverse portfolio of improved crop varieties that are suited to a range of agro-ecosystems and farming practices, and are resilient to climate change. They must also contribute to nutritional diversity and security. To move towards that direction, on farm, in situ and ex situ conservation initiatives are promoted, capacity to develop and improve varieties enhanced, and farmers supported to strengthen the community-based seed production. National and regional seed systems are strengthened, through the development of seed policies and regulatory frameworks. Research and extension also play a central role to develop and disseminate adapted varieties.

Component 4: Water management
Sustainable intensification requires smarter, precision technologies for irrigation and farming practices that use ecosystem approaches to conserve water. Improved water management can be promoted through improved husbandry and the adoption of water saving technologies such as water harvesting and microirrigation. Farmers’ monitoring of crop and soil water status is also important. Government’s investment in appropriate irrigation infrastructure and in irrigation service performance, as well as monitoring of groundwater tables and quality, and advisory to farmers is critical.

Component 5: Plant protection
Pesticides kill pests, but also pests’ natural enemies and their overuse can harm farmers, consumers and the environment. The first line of defence is a healthy agro-ecosystem. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the world’s leading strategy for plant protection. Improvements in agro-ecosystem management, through IPM, help to control pests. Governmental programs that focus on technical assistance and extension support to farmers, targeted research, private sector regulation, and the removal of perverse incentives help to further spread IPM.

Component 6: Policies and institutions
To encourage smallholders to adopt sustainable crop production intensification, fundamental changes are needed in agricultural development policies and institutions. For example, incorporating the value of natural resources and ecosystem services into agricultural input and output price policies is a good strategy to support the transition towards sustainable crop production intensification. Policies that discourage over- or misuse of agricultural inputs and natural resources in production are also key to producing more food now while preserving and even enhancing the capacity of the future generations to do the same are essential pillars of Save and Grow paradigm of crop production intensification. Another example may be strategies for sustainable mechanization to be developed for countries or regions in a participatory way and in close collaboration between governments, private sector and resource partners and in line with the Save and Grow paradigm. Such a strategy would specify the role of government (providing the enabling environment and the incentives that encourage sustainable intensification and the accessibility of appropriate and needed services), and the role of the private sector who would have to assure that mechanization technologies are suitable, simple, precise, affordable and accessible by smallholders.

Moving from sectoral to cross-sectoral perspectives

To further strengthen this effort focused on crops, FAO encourages countries to take a cross-sectoral point of view, and expand the Save and Grow paradigm more widely to crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture. Rather than considering agricultural sectors as competitors, opportunities for creating synergies must be sought and negative externalities among them minimized.



Asian Development Bank (2013). Gender equality and food security—women’s empowerment as a tool against hunger. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Asian Development Bank.

Burney, J.A., S.J. Davis, and D.B. Lobell (2010). Greenhouse gas mitigation by agricultural intensification. Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, 107(26), 12052–12057.

FAO (2011). Save and grow: a policy-maker’s guide to sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production. Rome.

FAO (2012a). Sustainable nutrition security. Restoring the bridge between agriculture and health. Rome.

FAO (2012b). Global Initiative on Food Losses and Waste Reduction. Rome.

FAO (2014). Building a Common Vision for Sustainable Food and Agriculture: Principles and Approaches. Rome.

FAO, IFAD, and WFP (2015). The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015. Meeting the 2015 international hunger targets: taking stock of uneven progress. Rome, FAO.

Foresight UK (2011). The future of food and farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability. Government Office for Science, Foresight, Final Project Report.

United Nations (2013). World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision. Via Internet.

World Bank (2007). World Development Report 2008. Agriculture for development.

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