West African farmers have succeeded in cutting the use of toxic pesticides, increasing yields and incomes and diversifying farming systems as a result of an international project promoting sustainable farming practices.
Around 100 000 farmers in Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal are participating in a community-driven training programme (West African Regional Integrated Production and Pest Management (IPPM) Programme) executed by FAO.
Working in small groups, called Farmer Field Schools, smallholders are developing and adopting 'good agricultural practices' through learning-by-doing and hands-on field experiments.
To grow healthy crops, IPPM promotes soil improvement and alternatives to chemical pesticides such as the use of beneficial insects, adapted varieties, natural pesticides and cropping practices. Marketing and food safety issues are also part of the training programme.
"Trends in agriculture over the past decades in West Africa have seen an increasing use of highly toxic pesticides in higher-value, frequently irrigated crops. There is a general lack of knowledge in the region of the negative impacts of pesticides on the production, economy and health of communities and the environment," said William Settle, FAO Senior Technical Officer.
"Simple experiments in the field, as practised by the Farmer Field Schools, have given smallholders the means to produce in a more environmentally friendly way, to substantially increase yields and earn a better income," Settle added.
"Capacity building at community level is key to the sustainable intensification of food production, which will contribute to increased food security and improved livelihoods in the region, an important step towards achieving the first Millennium Development Goal, reducing hunger and poverty."
Collectively searching for alternatives
Typically, a group of around 25 farmers coordinated by a trainer prepares two training plots in their village, one using local conventional farming methods and another plot using best practices appropriate to the crop and location based on IPPM, to observe and compare results from the two plots.
Over 2 000 trainers coming from dozens of local government, private sector and civil society organizations have been taught to support farmers in applying sustainable farming methods.
In Mali, a survey conducted in 65 villages of cotton farmers who were trained in 2007-08 showed a 94 percent reduction in the use of chemical pesticides and a 400 percent increase in the use of organic material like compost and manure, substances that can reverse the decline in soil fertility.
In Burkina Faso, IPPM helped increase yields from between 14 and 70 percent. Almost 16 000 cotton farmers have been trained in the project, and that number should double by the end of 2011.
Data from Senegal and Mali show 90 percent reductions in the use of chemical pesticides among farmers one to two years after training. In Senegal, farmers also shifted towards the use of botanical and biological pesticides. Farmers' increased use of organic material such as compost and rice straw is one of the most striking results of the programme, FAO said.
Sustainable cotton production
Cotton production has one of the worst impacts on the environment of any crop in the region, due to the effects on the fragile soils and excessive use of pesticides.
The IPPM programme is working with farmers to sustainably intensify the cotton production system, by boosting yields through the application of compost, the planting of leguminous cover crops, and the use of improved seeds and plant management techniques. Farmers are diversifying their use of cereal and soil improving crops (legumes and forage) that can be fed to animals or sold on local markets.
This year, the IPPM project is also starting to monitor pesticide residue levels in water samples taken from multiple sites in six West African countries along both the Niger and Senegal rivers. The programme is working in partnership with Oregon State University (USA) to build capacities of local laboratories to detect pesticides in water.
The $9.5 million second phase IPPM project in Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal is funded by the government of the Netherlands. The purely economic returns easily cover the project costs within the lifespan of the project and there are multiple non-economic benefits, on community health, education and environment. Additional funding and partnerships are provided by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the UN Environment Programme, the European Union and Spain.
If resources became available, as many as 500 000 farmers could be trained in the next five years at an estimated cost of around $30-40 million, FAO said.
Investments in Agriculture Must Grow
Scottish Farmers' Markets Offer a Great Deal of Quality
MPs Targeted by Food-Supply Skills EDM