Save and grow in practice: maize, rice, wheat – A guide to sustainable cereal production

Sustainable crop production intensification can help to feed the world while protecting its natural resource, says a new report by FAO.

This report by the Food and Agriculture Organization published in early 2016 deals with maize, rice and wheat, the three cereals fundamental to world food security. In most of the developing world, farmers obtain barely a fraction of potential yields of these cereals, owing to natural resource constraints and lack of access to knowledge and technologies that would enhance productivity. Climate change adds new pressures on cereals, including rising temperatures and a higher incidence of pests, diseases, droughts and floods.

José Graziano da Silva, Director-General, FAO notes in the report’s foreword that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires a “transition to a more productive, inclusive and sustainable agriculture – one that strengthens rural livelihoods and ensures food security for all, while reducing agriculture’s demands on natural resources and building resilience to climate change”.

The report makes a strong case for renewing an ancient bond with cereals in a context where potential for increases in cereal production is further constrained by stagnating yields and diminishing returns to high-input production systems. As climate change in Asia pushes wheat into less productive rainfed areas, consumers will face steep food price increases. Rising demand for maize and declining productivity could triple the developing world’s maize imports by 2050. Sustainably increasing the productivity of existing farmland is the best option for averting large increases in food prices, improving rural economies and farmers’ livelihoods, and reducing the number of people at risk from hunger and malnutrition.

The ‘Save and Grow’ model of crop production intensification, proposed by FAO, aims at increasing both yields and nutritional quality, while reducing costs to farmers and the environment. This guide explains Save and Grow concepts and practices, presents examples of their practical application in the production of maize, rice and wheat, and outlines the policies, institutions, technologies and capacity building needed to upscale lessons learned in national and regional programmes.

The report deals with how farming systems need to be reconfigured worldwide for sustainable intensification. Cereal growers have already begun that transition by adopting key Save and Grow components and practice. These are –

  • Conservation agriculture – By minimizing soil disturbance and using surface mulch and crop rotation, maize and wheat growers are reducing costs, boosting yields and conserving natural resources. Farmers in irrigated rice systems are shifting to dry-seeding without tillage. To increase their incomes and build resilience to climate change, cereal growers are diversifying crops and integrating trees, livestock and aquaculture into their production systems.
  • Healthy soil – Conservation agriculture practices are improving the organic matter content and physical properties of the soil, which reduces erosion and enhances water-use efficiency. Nitrogen-fixing legumes improve soil fertility and reduce the need for mineral fertilizer. Matching crop nutrient demand and supply helps farmers to reduce fertilizer applications and harmful losses to the environment.
  • Improved crops and varieties – Save and Grow systems use diverse, complementary groups of crops, and their improved varieties, to achieve higher productivity and strengthen food and nutrition security. Cereal varieties that are more resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses are now grown in farmers’ fields. The development of more productive and nutritious cereals needs to be matched by systems for the rapid multiplication of quality seed.
  • Efficient water management – To produce ‘more crop per drop’, many rice farmers have reduced the flooding of fields, which also lowers methane emissions. Growing rice without flooding cuts water use by up to 70 percent. Supplemental irrigation of wheat, using stored rainwater, has quadrupled water productivity. Furrow-irrigated, raised-bed planting saves water and produces higher yields of wheat and maize.
  • Integrated pest management – The first line of defiance against pests and diseases is a healthy agro-ecosystem. Rice farmers trained in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) have greatly reduced insecticide applications – with no loss in yield. Planted together with maize, legumes help to smother weeds. Wheat growers have overcome rust epidemics with resistant varieties, and fight insect pests by rotating crops.

While each of those components contributes to sustainability, the maximum benefits will only be realized when all of them are integrated fully into Save and Grow farming systems.

The report through examples, drawn from developing countries around the world, describes Save and Grow farming systems in practice. For example, across the developing world, pigeon peas, cowpeas, groundnuts, soybeans and jack beans are familiar sights in farmers’ maize fields. The high productivity of maize-legume systems make them especially suitable for smallholders. Also, in Asia, raising fish in and around paddy fields helps to control rice pests and fertilize the rice crop. Higher yields, income from fish sales and savings on agrochemicals boost farmers’ income by 50 percent.

The adoption of Save and Grow by smallholder farmers requires concerted action at all levels, with the participation of governments, international organizations, the private sector and civil society, the report says.

The full report is available here

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