As the world’s population grows to around 9 billion by 2050, global demand for food, feed and fiber is predicted to nearly double. The number of people at risk of hunger is likely to increase from 881 million in 2005 to more than one billion. Agriculture is the main source of food in Africa and it accounts for 65% of Africa’s workforce and 32% of the continent’s GDP. In some of Africa’s poorest countries, it accounts for more than 50% of GDP. The 2015-2016 El Niño, and the current food crisis in East and Southern Africa that has affected the food security of over 20 million people. It is posing challenges for countries in the region to develop new ideas and new investments for transforming the agricultural sector. We urgently need to find new ways of growing food that can simultaneously deliver food security, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity. Millions of small-holder farmers will need to play an important role in meeting this need. They will need better information to help them increase agricultural productivity while avoiding unintended consequences for soil quality, water availability, and other benefits from healthy ecosystems. Yet today, in the face of some of the world’s most pressing development and environmental challenges, the right data and technology, applied at the right scales, has not been available.
The Vital Signs Experience
The Vital Signs monitoring system (www.vitalsigns.org) was established in 2012 to provide better data and risk management tools to optimize agricultural development decisions with the needs of the human beings they serve and the ecosystems upon which they depend. Working in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ghana and Kenya, the Vital signs sampling frame targets areas, usually at a subnational scale, that have been prioritized by governments or the private sector for agricultural development. The data collected aims to guide these agricultural investments to areas where returns are likely to be maximized, and where changes in land use need to be properly managed to avoid major threats to key ecosystems and natural capital that support human wellbeing.
Case studies from Vital Signs data in four countries have demonstrated how nature is a vital safety for agriculture. Case study one preliminary analysis showed that many Vital Signs communities rely on natural resources in their daily lives including both food (e.g. fish) and other items (building materials). In our analysis, we focused on natural foods with the results indicating that households that collected a greater value of natural foods spending a smaller proportion of their budget on food. This finding may suggest that availability of such resources allow families to save money on food and increase investment in other expenditures (e.g., home improvements, agricultural tools). Alternately, it is possible that families that cannot afford to spend much on food (e.g., if a family member is sick and has extensive medical expenses) are more likely to seek out natural foods, which may help buffer against hunger in hard times.
The second case study results showed focused on the role that forest resources play in nutrition and the toll that missing forests may. These is demonstrated in a study of three landscapes in Uganda: Masindi in Western Uganda, Kisoro in the southwest, and Yumbe in the Northwest.
Masindi is one of the most agriculturally productive parts of Uganda – households grow maize and sunflower, as well as cash crops like tobacco and sugarcane. Farmers use ample agricultural inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, and most use ox ploughs, with others preferring tractors. The average household in Masindi produces $341 a year worth of crops with some households producing over $1,000 annually. This high agricultural output means that malnutrition is relatively low with only 22% of children surveyed being stunted. Kisoro, on the other hand, has some of the lowest levels of agricultural production – farmers have small fields because of the high population density, and erosion is a major issue given the rugged terrain. The average household’s total annual agricultural production is valued at only $120. Unsurprisingly, given the poor agricultural trends, rates of malnutrition are very high – 55% of the children under five surveyed by Vital Signs were stunted, indicating long term malnutrition.
Both Kisoro and Masindi illustrate how agriculture is critical to nutrition in subsistence and smallholder farmers – there is often a strong direct relationship between agricultural output and rates of stunting. One landscape in the north of Uganda, however, bucks this trend. The average household in Yumbe produces less agriculturally than Kisoro ($90/year), but has lower rates of stunting than Masindi (18%) which has the highest agricultural production across the three landscapes. How do people in Yumbe sustain such positive nutrition rates with relatively little agricultural production? By significantly supplementing their diets with forest products. Households in Yumbe use large quantities of honey, bush meat, shea nuts, and insects from the forest – nearly $100 worth per year. These resources are not available to people in Kisoro or Masindi, who mostly only use building materials from the comparatively smaller forests they have nearby. The forests adjacent to the landscapes in Kisoro and Masindi are some of the largest in Uganda but they are protected and hence inaccessible by the locals. However, the woodlands in Yumbe are less destroyed and accessible for wild food and honey.
The above results underscore the role that nature play in improving household wellbeing including income and or nutrition. They also highlight an integrated measurement towards the sustainable development goals manner that encompasses a broad range of information from household wellbeing, biophysical information, household production among others to provide a holistic view of progress towards while providing holistic solutions towards addressing the challenges.