Unlocking the potential of grassland

17 October, 2009 by (comments)

Better use of tropical grasslands could be as effective in the fight against hunger as investment in irrigation schemes, and could also help to protect the environment. The findings come from the first phase of the CGIAR-wide Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF), due to be completed in December 2009.

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The CPWF’s Basin Focal Projects studied water use in ten major river basins, including the Nile, Ganges and Mekong to see how to improve water productivity – the amount of water required per unit of food produced. Researchers found that vast quantities of water pass through grassland systems, which could be used more productively through the introduction of crops, changes in livestock production or better integration of crop-livestock systems.

The results come at a time when food and water systems are under increasing pressure. Last week, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicted that global food production must rise by 70 per cent by the middle of the century to meet the demands of population growth and a changing climate. It recognized the crucial role of water in agricultural systems, recommending investment in improved water control and management.

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The findings of the Basin Focal Projects suggest there are important gains to be made simply by using available water more effectively. “Grassland is by far the major water user in Africa, for example,” explained project leader Simon Cook. “If there is enough water available for grassland, there is a strong chance that more resource-efficient, productive and high-quality food or forage crops can be grown instead. This represents an opportunity for improving water productivity over huge areas.”

Tentative calculations indicate that improvements to grassland systems offer gains in food production that would otherwise require a major hike in irrigation productivity. Measures could involve the introduction of improved forages with higher nutritional quality, and an increase in the stocking rate. These relatively low-cost, low-technology solutions could be of particular importance in developing countries, contributing to improved livelihoods while at the same time reducing pressure on land and water resources.

There are wider environmental benefits too: a recent article about Brachiaria in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, describes how this forage grass acts as a nitrification inhibitor, helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the need for nitrogen fertilizer.

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Michael Peters, leader of CIAT’s Tropical Forages Program supported the findings of the Basin Focal Projects: “Using improved forages to ‘capture’ some of the available water, and then increasing the stocking rate not only increases food production, it could also improve efficiency of land use, freeing up new areas for production, conservation and reforestation.

“It’s a great example of how eco-efficient agriculture could work – achieving both improved livelihoods with benefits for the environment.”

But to completely unlock the potential of grassland, Simon Cook suggests that structural reform is also fundamental: “The answer is institutions,” he said. “Currently many river basins are chronically mismanaged and we see food and water systems being treated as separate systems, whereas in reality they interact. A key need seems to be filling institutional gaps and enabling people to have access to, and be able invest in, agricultural land while also sharing the benefits from water use equitably.”

“The next step is to get this information to the right people.”

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Filed Under: Crops @en, Tropical Forages