Types of Research
After cereals, root and tuber crops - including sweetpotato and yam (in addition to cassava and aroids), are the second most cultivated crops in tropical countries. This literature review examines the environmental constraints to, and impacts of, sweetpotato and yam production systems in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South Asia (SA). The review highlights crop-environment interactions at three stages of the sweetpotato/yam value chain: pre-production (e.g., land clearing), production (e.g., soil, water, and input use), and post-production (e.g., waste disposal, crop storage and transport). We find that sweetpotato and yam face similar environmental stressors. In particular, because sweetpotato and yam are vegetatively propagated, the most significant (and avoidable) environmental constraints to crop yields include disease and pest infection transmitted through the use of contaminated planting materials. Published estimates suggest yield gains in the range of 30–60% can be obtained through using healthy planting material. Moreover, reducing pest damage in the field can greatly increase the storage life of root and tuber crops after harvest – currently losses from rot and desiccation can claim up to 100% of stored sweetpotato and yam on smallholder farms.
Maize has expanded through the 20th and into the 21st century to become the principle staple food crop produced and consumed by smallholder farm households in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), and maize production has also expanded in South Asia (SA) farming systems. In this brief we examine the environmental constraints to, and impacts of, smallholder maize production systems in SSA and SA, noting where findings apply to only one of these regions. We highlight crop-environment interactions at three stages of the maize value chain: pre-production (e.g., land clearing), production (e.g., fertilizer, water, and other input use), and post-production (e.g., waste disposal and crop storage). At each stage we emphasize environmental constraints on maize production (such as poor soil quality, water scarcity, or crop pests) and also environmental impacts of maize production (such as soil erosion, water depletion, or chemical contamination). We then highlight best or good practices for overcoming environmental constraints and minimizing environmental impacts in smallholder maize production systems. Evidence on environmental constraints and impacts in smallholder maize production is uneven. Many environmental concerns such as biodiversity loss are commonly demonstrated more broadly for the agroecology or farming systems in which maize is grown, rather than specifically for the maize crop. And more research is available on the environmental impacts of agrochemical-based intensive cereal farming in Asia (where high-input maize is a common component) than on the low-input subsistence-scale maize cultivation more typical of SSA. Decisive constraint and impact estimates are further complicated by the fact that many crop-environment interactions in maize and other crops are a matter of both cause and effect (e.g., poor soils decrease maize yields, while repeated maize harvests degrade soils). Fully understanding maize-environment interactions thus requires recognizing instances where shortterm adaptations to environmental constraints might be exacerbating other medium- or long-term environmental problems. Conclusions on the strength of published findings on crop-environment interactions in maize systems further depend on one’s weighting of economic versus ecological perspectives, physical science versus social science, academic versus grey literature, and quantity versus quality of methods and findings.
In this brief we examine the environmental constraints to, and impacts of, smallholder sorghum and millet production systems in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South Asia (SA). Millet in this paper primarily refers to pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), although a number of other millets of significance to smallholder production and food security are also discussed. Sorghum and millets are known for being more tolerant of major environmental stresses including drought and poor soil quality than other major cereals. But water availability is still among the greatest constraints to increased grain production, and soil fertility also significantly limits yields, especially in cases where cultivation occurs on marginal lands and where crop residues are removed for alternative uses. Ultimately sorghum and millets’ relatively higher tolerance to abiotic stresses is expected to promote an increase in global cropping area for sorghum and millets as an adaptation to climate change. Sorghum and millet exhibit relatively few of the environmental impacts commonly associated with more intensively cultivated crops such as fertilizer runoff, pesticide contamination, or water depletion, since both of these crops are overwhelmingly grown by smallholder farmers with few, if any, chemical or irrigation inputs. Nevertheless, the tendency to grow sorghum and millet on marginal and heavily sloped lands does pose some environmental risks – including soil degradation and erosion – that can be mitigated through the adoption of best practices as described in the brief.
Rice is the most important food crop of the developing world and is grown on over 155 million ha worldwide. Food security of the poor, especially in Asia, depends critically on rice availability at an affordable price. In this brief we examine the environmental constraints to, and impacts of, smallholder rice production systems in South Asia (SA) and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), noting where the analysis applies to only one of these regions. We highlight crop-environment interactions at three stages of the rice value chain: pre-production (e.g., land clearing), production (e.g., water and other input use), and post-production (e.g., waste disposal). At each stage we emphasize environmental constraints on production (e.g., poor soil quality, water scarcity, crop pests) and also environmental impacts of crop production (e.g., soil erosion, water depletion, pest resistance). We then highlight best or good practices for minimizing negative environmental impacts in smallholder rice production systems. Evidence on environmental issues in smallholder rice production is uneven. Far more research is available for Asian rice production systems, as compared to African rice systems. And with the possible exception of the evidence on water limits to increasing productivity, conclusions on the strength of published findings on crop-environment interactions in rice depends on one’s weighting of economic versus ecological perspectives, physical science versus social science, academic versus grey literature, and quantity versus quality of methods and findings.
This literature review examines the environmental constraints to, and impacts of, wheat production systems in South Asia (SA) and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The review highlights crop-environment interactions at three stages of the wheat value chain: pre-production (e.g., land availability), production (e.g., heat, water, and soil), and post-production (e.g. storage, crop residues, and transport). At each stage we emphasize environmental constraints on production (e.g., poor soil quality, water scarcity, crop pests, etc.) and also environmental impacts of crop production (e.g., soil degradation, water depletion and pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.). We then highlight published best practices for overcoming environmental constraints and minimizing environmental impacts in wheat production systems. We find that wheat is a significant crop that will need to increase production to meet increasing demand. Most land suitable for wheat production is already under cultivation. Improved production methods are needed to address the demand and avert environmental impacts of producing wheat. It should not be assumed that improved varieties alone will be able to realistically address growing demands for wheat. Improved variety seeds should be combined with best practices of improved crop management techniques: optimal planting time, zero tillage, fertilizer management, intercropping, crop residue incorporation, and improved storage techniques.
As our understanding of the impacts of hidden hunger on human nutrition grows, understanding the link between fertilizer use and human nutrition becomes increasingly important. This report presents an analysis of both grey and peer-reviewed literature on the effects of fertilizer use on nutritional quality of food, particularly the staples of maize, rice, wheat, cassava and legumes. We find that some nutrient deficiencies, such as zinc, can be effectively addressed through fertilizer use while others, such as iron deficiency, are more difficult to address. Promising breakthroughs with fortified and complete fertilizers present the opportunity to correct multiple deficiencies. Current fertilizer products exist that, when applied with the proper agronomic methods, can have a significant effect on nutrition in the developing world. However, it is important to recognize that there are many factors in the developing world that have the potential to inhibit the benefits of fertilizer for human nutrition. Two significant factors are poor farmers’ difficulty in procuring the correct product and the relative sophistication required to apply fertilizers at the correct amounts and time to achieve desired results. In addition, researchers have not focused on fertilizer and nutrition studies until recently, particularly micronutrient fertilizer studies, and few studies specifically study the impacts of fertilizer on human nutrition. More research needs to be done to understand the most effective combinations and techniques, and to understand whether these methods truly increase the amount of nutrients bioavailable to humans.
This brief reviews the literature on the links between agriculture and human nutrition in rural South Asia, exploring why South Asia has experienced enormous growth in agricultural productivity without subsequent reductions in hunger. An annotated review of relevant articles is included in addition to the analysis. The articles are presented by sub-topic, including sustained economic growth versus lack of progress in nutrition rates and hunger in South Asia, primary determinants of improved nutrition at the household level, agricultural productivity/reform and interventions in nutritional status.
We conducted a literature review of strategic grain reserves (SGRs) are used to mitigate food crises. Our brief includes a short overview of the literature and a bibliography of top-cited articles relevant to specific sub-topics related to SGRs.