Freezing the Footprint of Food?

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September 20, 2011

An interesting article, “Freezing the Footprint of Food,”  from a recent issue of the journal Nature landed in my e-mail inbox this morning. In the article author Jason Clay of WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund) outlines eight steps that taken together could enable farming to feed 10 billion people and keep the world inhabitable. The article calls for efficiency through technology – specifically the need to double the efficiency of every agricultural input, including water, fertilizer, pesticides, energy and infrastructure.

Focusing on the challenges and opportunities in Africa, Clay says that the following eight areas are key for achieving real progress to sustainable global agricultural production:  genetics; better practices (including improvements in the adoption of fertilizer best management practices); efficiency through technology; improvements in degraded land; property rights; elimination of waste in agricultural production; a change in the imbalance of over consumption of food in the developed world and the lack of access to food in developing nations and increasing the carbon content of soils.

From where we sit, it appears that the efficient use of fertilizers is central to achieving many of these goals. To that end, and a continent away, Dr Roland Buresh of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines is leading work on site-specific nutrient management (SSNM) aimed at bringing precision agriculture techniques to small- scale farmers in developing countries including farmers in West Africa. 

Dr. Buresh led the development of a mobile phone application of Nutrient Manager for Rice using interactive voice response (IVR). With this service, a rice farmer calls a toll-free number, answers questions by pushing the phone keypad as prompted by a voice recording and then receives a text message with fertilizer guidelines customized for his  field and cultivation practices. Nutrient Manager is expected to be adopted in many more countries and local versions for Bangladesh, China, India, Vietnam and West Africa are under development. Dr. Buresh received the International Fertilizer Industry Association’s Norman Borlaug Award in 2011 for his efforts.

This kind of innovation is promising for both food production and environmental protection and could very well be a means of bringing 4R nutrient stewardship (the use of the right nutrient source at the right rate, time and place) to farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.