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Africa Will Need a New Approach to Agriculture: Resilience Expert

Johan Rockström, the director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and recipient of a European Research Council Advanced Grant talks to Malnutrition Deeply about the big challenges facing the food sector and the way forward for a sustainable future.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A pastoralist in drought-stricken Kenya.TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

With agriculture in Africa booming, Johan Rockström, the director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, says this is a critical time to encourage new approaches to production that meet a country’s nutritional needs, but also combat climate change and account for scarce resources.

That may mean shifting away from the model that has driven previous agricultural revolutions, he said, with its focus on industrialized, large-scale designs to achieve food security. Instead, he is more interested in systems that are small scale and highly diversified and that promote water resilience.

Rockström’s Centre functions as the scientific hub for the EAT Foundation, which fosters conversations about science-based targets for achieving both healthy diets and sustainable food systems.

Rockström spoke to Malnutrition Deeply at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, about the big challenges facing Africa’s farmers and the role governments and businesses can play in ensuring a sustainable future.

Malnutrition Deeply: What are the areas of the world right now that are concerning to you in terms of food security and climate change?

Johan Rockström: I think there’s clear evidence that the hotspot zone in the world is Africa – it’s kind of the make it or break it if we are going to stand any chance of achieving the sustainable development goals.

The opportunity here is to have an African green water revolution with an African profile. That African profile will be a much more small-scale, diversity-driven, rain-fed revolution, which then has all the opportunity of being more agrobiodiversity-rich, which then would support nutritional diversity.

There is a need to raise the whole water resilience agenda. This means that we cannot expect to solve the water challenges in Africa just by doing what we’ve done in the past – mainly investing in large-scale irrigation. Rather, we need to work with small, smart innovations on building water resilience in small-scale agriculture.

There’s a double risk moving towards more industrialized, large-scale, monoculture-type agriculture, which has been the path we have followed in modernization of agriculture over decades, and largely copy and pasting the green revolution in Asia and what it represents in terms of large-scale systems.

There’s a tension there, in that there is this old-school thought which says modernizing agriculture means specializing and moving more into larger-scale monoculture. But, I think the African leaders have a great responsibility and opportunity to counterbalance that, to stay more in support of diversity-rich African agricultural development.

It’s one of the big challenges because often, small scale is perceived as being inefficient, as being less productive. The question is how to change that.

Malnutrition Deeply: How are some of these opportunities and challenges in the water sector going to influence nutrient deficiency in the region?

Rockström: Fundamentally, Africa is the most water-scarce continent in the world. Forty percent of the population live in semi-arid or arid regions. More than 95 percent of the food production is rain fed, and you have the lowest yields on earth, and you have the highest risk of droughts and dry spells and extreme weather events and extreme rainfall.

The exciting part there is that there’s such an enormous, untapped potential. Yield levels in Africa, average roughly one ton per hectare for staple foods like maize and millet and sorghum. The average in Europe or in Latin America, for example, is three to six tons. There’s no hydroclimatic excuse for not having that level also in Africa. It’s about nutrient deficiencies. It’s about erosion and soil crusting. There’s so much water resilience to be built that can then place the food system in a better position.

Malnutrition Deeply: Are there any countries that have done well in developing strategies for sustainable food which are also good for the planet?

Rockström: I must admit that we do not have any great example of any country that has moved right into a pathway that will decisively take us to sustainable food. But there’s a very rapidly rising interest in this area.

Malnutrition Deeply: What is the role of the private sector? Have you seen examples where the private sector has adopted planetary health in its operations?

Rockström: I would say that the food industry is a sector that increasingly is reaching out to adopt the science on planetary boundaries. This is an industry that is directly dependent on the stability of ecosystems. In turn, their stability is dependent on biodiversity, on water, on land, on nitrogen and phosphates, but also on climate.

The recognition there for that, it’s not enough to just focus on the emission of greenhouse gases. We actually also have to focus on all of the planetary boundaries. This is a sector that is both engaging with us, the scientific community, on defining scientifically healthy and sustainable diets, defining planetary boundaries for food systems and trying to operationalize this. So, Unilever is an example, as is Mars, as well, of kind of taking our science, and kind of running with it, and trying to define science-based targets or really getting quantitative scorecards for their businesses.

Malnutrition Deeply: Can sustainability be translated into a business strategy?

Rockström: There has been a kind of a sustainability revolution and we’re entering this phase where there’s a recognition that sustainability forms the very entry point for business. I think that will fundamentally also influence policy. An important element, which does not only apply for food, is that the driving force [in the push towards sustainability], be it in the food sector or the textile sector or the car industry, is no longer about taking responsibility for the environment. It is really about the recognition that to be a successful business in the future, you need to have sustainability as the entry point for your resource efficient, competitive, attractive business model, and that this is fundamentally shifting the whole agenda.

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