Water may offer the only chance

Groundwater resources remain dormant in the soil of African regions. Where does it make sense to use them – and where does overexploitation of nature begin? Caroline Milow (GIZ) and Ramon Brentführer (BGR) talk about potentials in the future and lessons from the past.

The Water and Energy for Food (WE4F) project supports smallholder farmers in Tanzania with solar-powered water pumps. ©GIZ, Fabiana Anabel Woywod, 2022

By Dr. Caroline Milow

Dr. Caroline Milow is GIZ Programme Manager at the Green Central Asia Project and has serveral years of experience in the water sector in Central Asia. Ms Milow has profound experience in international organizations, working on good governance, democratization, environmental protection and economic development.

All contributions

By Ramon Brentführer

Ramon Brentführer studied Geology and Integrated Water Resources Management in Cologne. After working stations at the „Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU)“ and „Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum (GFZ) he joint 2012 the Sector Project „Policy Advice Groundwater“ at the Federal Institute for Geoscience and Natural Resources (BGR) that he is managing since 2016. Ramon has 10 years experiences in groundwater management and governance mainly in Africa and the MENA region.

All contributions

By Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.

All contributions

What goes through your mind spontaneously when you think of groundwater – what does it mean to both of you? A tempting growth opportunity or endangered protective reservoir?

 

Caroline Milow: For me it is an endangered reserve. One that needs to be protected. And I’m not only referring to its quantity, but also its quality.

 

Ramon Brentführer: For me, it is a reservoir of water resources that must be handled carefully. It gives us the opportunity to make water available in a protected way over a longer period. In times of excess precipitation, the water can be stored underground and then used in times of drought. In other words, it would allow us to buffer dry periods.

 

Ms Milow, if you feel that groundwater is already endangered – what is the reason for that? In your opinion, does groundwater simply have a bad lobby? After all, it can be easily extracted.

 

Caroline Milow: Let’s look at it from the Central Asian perspective – I work on water management there. Relatively little is known about groundwater there. Many monitoring wells no longer exist, and the use of groundwater in agriculture is often structured like this: if there is a rich farmer who can afford a borehole and the big Chinese pumps, he just starts drilling. He doesn’t ask too many questions and simply sucks the water out. But what people don’t realise is that it takes a long time for groundwater to accumulate. I recently read that the German groundwater that we are currently using for drinking water is a hundred years old – and the situation in Central Asia is similar. That’s why you shouldn’t just pump it out. It’s extremely important to consider when, how, where and whether it really makes sense. In Central Asia, groundwater is also urgently needed for drinking water supply. Obviously, that should take priority. For agriculture, we should also try to explore other ways and see to what extent recycled water is used for irrigation.

 

Ramon Brentführer: Yes, drinking water must always take priority. However, your assessment of the age of water is not entirely correct: Groundwater can also be a few months old – for example, riverbank filtrate. That is relatively young water. But there is also very old water. These are mostly resources that lie at depths of several hundred metres to 1,000 metres and barely regenerate, if at all. But in shallow aquifers it does. Considering the possibility of regeneration, it is like sustainability in forestry: just because forests are being cut down and overused doesn’t mean that we can’t use any more wood at all. The better way to look at it is that we have to make sure we only take as much out of the forests as can grow back again. We need to do the same with groundwater.

 

Caroline Milow: There is a big difference between the regions of the world. In Central Asia, groundwater forms slowly. The region is one of the most water-stressed areas on earth. It rains much less because climate change is hitting the area hard. If things continue as they are, we will have up to six degrees of warming in Central Asia by the end of the century. And then, of course, it’s the end of the line in terms of groundwater regeneration. Therefore, in 2023, we will start a water project commissioned by the BMZ (Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development) in all five Central Asian countries for regional, climate-sensitive water resource management. One component is to map and examine the status of groundwater.

 

The regions may be different, but the people usually are not. How can you ensure that nobody abuses the system, that a rich farmer doesn’t just come and take water uncontrolled? Do you have confidence that something like that could be managed properly?

 

Ramon Brentführer: Well, in humid regions we have so far had less problems with groundwater quantity than with quality. In Germany, for example, we have a problem with water quality, especially in districts with extremely extensive pig farming. There is a noticeable amount of nitrate in the groundwater. Similarly, we have a governance issue in areas where water is a limited resource. That’s why we have to differentiate between the regions.

 

From the Middle East and North Africa to Central Asia, Spain and the Midwest of the USA, every region faces major governance issues to manage groundwater resources sensibly.

 

Even industrialised countries are struggling with it. You must have strong institutions and good water laws and implement them.

 

What is the situation in the sub-Saharan region?

 

Ramon Brentführer: The big difference to all the other regions is that we often don’t have a resource problem in the sub-Saharan region. There is an access problem. First of all, we don’t know enough about where the resource is available.

 

Generally there is no technology available in that area or insufficient on-site capacity to ensure drilling and thus access to water.

 

Can the potential be quantified?

 

Ramon Brentführer: In sub-Saharan Africa, there is no country that uses more than 25 per cent of renewable water resources so far. In many countries, it is not even ten per cent. That is an insane potential in a region where 50 per cent of the population in rural areas does not have access to safe water supply and where only five per cent of all agricultural land is irrigated.

 

Caroline Milow: This is a big difference to Central Asia, where groundwater is already overused. Currently, 85 per cent more groundwater is taken out of the ground than should be.

 

Ms Milow, do you see an opportunity for sub-Saharan Africa to deal more intensively with groundwater management?

 

Caroline Milow: I have less to say about this region, as I have been in Central Asia for ten years. However, I am generally on the cautious side when it comes to natural resources – especially because there is a governance problem in Central Asia. People like to look for quick solutions to boost the economy. And then practically all means are justified so that the ruling class has success stories. In water management, an important stakeholder takes priority over the environment.

 

Currently, it is still unknown exactly what groundwater resources there are in the African regions. So, the first step would be to explore them?

 

Ramon Brentführer: No, we know roughly what kind of groundwater resources exist. They also differ from those in many other regions. In sub-Saharan Africa, there are often shallow aquifers.

 

So it’s often a matter of simply making water available with hand pumps or with wells that are a few metres deep. This way, people can irrigate their own gardens and smallholders can water their fields.

 

This is also the difference to Central Asia and the Aral Sea, where we have very industrialised agriculture. The Horn of Africa is experiencing famines right now. This area desperately needs resilient water management to buffer the drought period.

 

How technically challenging would that be?

 

Ramon Brentführer: From a construction point of view, it’s not that bad. You have to pay attention to the water quality. In the 1980s, the British made shallow aquifers in Bangladesh available via hand pumps, which had negative consequences for the health of the population. But the technology is there. The better question is: How do we get the right equipment and capacities to the right location? Also, how do we train the local people to construct the wells and then establish a sustainable agricultural system? None of this is rocket science. The challenge lies more in the interaction of the agricultural sector with the water sector. That probably varies for every country. Moreover, financing is a key factor in enabling the rural population to drill wells at all.

 

There are often hardly any options for smallholders to get loans to build wells.

 

Caroline Milow: First, we need to check whether it is worthwhile to tap these reserves at all. If it would only support smallholders for a few years, it raises the question: Isn’t it then more reasonable to accept that certain areas of land are no longer able to sustain agriculture precisely because of climate change?

 

Ramon Brentführer: Yes, this can be explored via satellites and global data. We know approximately where the precipitation will fall. We can then use this information to estimate how the groundwater is regenerated. For example, there is certain potential in East Africa and in the southern Sahel.

 

Ms Milow, as a member of the ‘Vorsicht beim Grundwassermanagement’ (Prudent Groundwater Management) Team, what are your red flags?

 

Caroline Milow: I advocate first examining which agricultural products make sense where. We should also examine whether we can go back to old endemic varieties, like millet and other crops that need less water. I think that aid to developing countries and European influenced agriculture have made many mistakes with wheat. We have to realign the whole system. It is not only about water management, but also about land management. For Central Asia, I can say that this cross-sectoral interaction and these integrated approaches are very difficult to implement in the five Central Asian republics. And I can imagine that it is not easy in African regions either. It makes little sense to work on the water management sector from a silo perspective.

 

Mr Brentführer, how do you get that right? In your opinion, what should a conceptual framework for the management and protection of groundwater resources look like?

 

Ramon Brentführer: First of all, water must be integrated into the development planning of the countries. The water sector really needs to collaborate with the other sectors. Water is basically a service sector for many development goals, with food security being one of several. Safeguard mechanisms can then also be built in, because agriculture basically has an interest in long-term farming.

 

If several African countries have to collaborate with each other in groundwater management, could that create new problems?

 

Ramon Brentführer: Of course, tensions can arise, as can be seen with the Nile, for example. Otherwise, we can handle it. In southern Africa, for example, there is little water, but I don’t know of any tensions between the countries. Things are going quite well. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) manages to balance the interests of the countries. That is certainly a big contrast to North Africa. There is also little water in the regions around Lake Chad and the Niger Basin; but warlike conflicts or political tensions over water as a resource are not really a problem.

 

Caroline Milow: There are even scientific studies according to which water contributes positively to collaboration. There are fewer examples of wars over water than positive examples of collaboration. Generally, water is actually more of a peace-building element.

 

Ramon Brentführer: People used to think that the wars of the future would be fought over water. So far, this has not proven to be true. Even between Egypt and Ethiopia, which so far have the greatest tensions over water resources, there have been no wars.

 

To what extent are rural development and water management related?

 

Ramon Brentführer: In sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture is probably the only option for many rural regions to develop. Therefore, it is directly linked to water. Water is perhaps the only chance for many regions to undergo some socio-economic development.

 

Caroline Milow: It is the same in Central Asia. Water management is the key to keeping people in rural areas. For example, agriculture also uses water efficiently so that there is enough water for other sectors to create jobs.

 

Without water, nothing works in rural development.

 

Ramon Brentführer: We should use the resources and potential we have to offer people in Africa prospects, to create resilience, and to cope with major droughts and other crises. There is a lot of potential in it. Crises like the one in the Horn of Africa are happening now. We have to carefully consider the consequences and risks, but also act quickly. I hope that we are in a position to make a contribution with German development cooperation efforts as well.

 

Caroline Milow: For me, the most important thing is to build a bridge between technical and scientific know-how and the organisers. Unfortunately, I often see two groups talking past each other. The scientific community doesn’t manage to express itself in a way that is understandable to the political decision-makers. But I also noticed that the political decision-makers sometimes don’t want to understand the science because they are looking for quick solutions. I feel that we should avoid quick solutions. Instead, we should ask all stakeholders and partners to work together and look for long-term solutions in development cooperation. The quickest solution is usually the worst solution. Sometimes it takes time for reforms. Therefore, it’s better to take an extra year to consider all aspects. Then you end up with something sustainable, not a quick fix that backfires.

 

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The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) has released a video on the transformation of agricultural and food systems. In the video, Federal Minister Svenja Schulze also speaks about the urgent need to combat global hunger and contribute to resilient agricultural and food systems.

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The rush for green energy shouldn’t undermine rights of pastoralist communities

A contribution by Hussein Tadicha Wario

Africa’s drylands seem to be predestined for generating solar and wind power – especially given the current hype over green hydrogen. However, pastoral communities are often put at a disadvantage in this respect. Our author describes the arising conflicts and what successful coexistence of green energy projects and the communities could look like.

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CompensACTION aims to reward farmers for climate performance

A Contribution of the Initiative

The CompensACTION Initiative for food security and a healthy planet, launched by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in 2022, is gaining momentum. It aims to financially compensate smallholder farmers for their contribution to preserving ecosystems. Initial successes have been achieved in Ethiopia, Lesotho and Brazil.

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The Agri-Food Map: An interactive map to explore sustainable agri-food systems

A Contribution by GIZ

The complex interrelationships of the sustainable transformation of agricultural and food systems are not always easy to understand - the Agri-Food Map, an interactive online app, makes the comprehensive relations accessible by providing a wide range of comprehensibly prepared information.

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Climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies for the African livestock sector

A Contribution by ILRI and GIZ

The production of animal-source foods is becoming increasingly difficult due to the impact of climate change on the livestock sector in Africa. Though, Livestock make a crucial contribution to food security in Africa. Three papers by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), GIZ, ILRI and World Bank analyze, how Africas future livestock sector can look like.

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“It created hope. It created a life”

An interview with Ally-Raza Qureshi, WFP

Iraq suffered many years of war, sanctions and economic crises. However, Ally-Raza Qureshi from the World Food Programme in Iraq sees progress. But now the effects of climate change are becoming apparent in the country. What is to be done?

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New Podcast – Out now!

A Podcast by Food4Transformation

In a world facing crises – from pandemics, armed conflicts, and climate change – how do we ensure everyone has enough food within planetary boundaries? A new podcast by Food4Transformation discover solutions talking to government officials, scientists, NGOs and farmers around the world.

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Earth’s well, all’s well!

A Contribution by Fairtrade Germany

With the annual topic "Earth’s well, all’s well!", Fairtrade Germany is focusing on the concept of agroecology at all levels - and is thus taking the next step towards achieving greater global sustainability. At the Green Week trade fair, Fairtrade Germany will show how this can be achieved taking the cocoa supply chain as an example.

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Blooming landscapes? Only with biodiversity!

A Contribution by Arne Loth

What do chocolate, carrots and tequila have in common? What sounds like the ingredients for an experimental cocktail are foods that would not exist without certain animal species. They are examples of how nature works for us every day, often behind the scenes.

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Together for food security in Zambia

A Contribution by Claudia Jordan (GIZ)

The Agriculture and Food Security Cluster of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH in Zambia shows how synergies among different projects and partner organisations can help people to eat healthier, diversified food. A delegation of the Bonn based Division of Agriculture and Rural Development learned this in a field visit in the Eastern Province of the Southern African country.

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Reforming agricultural policies to sustainably transform food systems

A Contribution by IFPRI

Global food systems are confronted with multiple stresses. It is more urgent than ever to make them more resilient, healthier and more sustainable. A key tool in such a transformation is reforming agricultural policies and repurposing agricultural support, as discussed in an online seminar co-organised by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

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The Idea of Coffee entirely made by Women

A Conversation with Allan Mubiru

Allan Mubiru was standing in front of a shelf in Kigali, Rwanda, and discovered a local type of coffee. He took it, tasted it and was thrilled. A story about a grocery shopping trip that became the beginning of a successful business idea.

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Climate Resilience in the Apple Value Chain

A Contribution by Puneet Bansal

In Himachal Pradesh, India, natural disasters are becoming more frequent and climatic conditions are changing – with negative consequences for apple production and farmers' livelihoods. Holistic and multidimensional innovation bundles are required for the entire value chain in order to make the food system more resilient in the future.

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The Answer is Healthy Soil

A Conversation with Nina Mannheimer

The Berlin start-up Klim is forging an alliance between farmers and companies. The aim is to use regenerative farming to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it as carbon in the soil. An interview with Nina Mannheimer.

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"Pandemic increases violence against women"

Interview with Léa Rouanet

African countries still face huge gender gaps in terms of access to work and capital. What are the consequences of Corona for women in Africa? Jan Rübel interviewed Léa Rouanet on lockdowns and gender-based violence. The economist works at the Africa Gender Innovation Lab of the World Bank.

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(c) Simon Veith

The Big Bang is possible

Interview with Joachim von Braun

Happy youngsters in rural areas, green development and the connection to the digital age – professor Joachim von Braun believes in this future sceneraio for Africa. For three decades the agricultural scienties has been researching how politics can create prosperty on the continent. 

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'It has never been more possible'

Interview with Carin Smaller (Ceres2030)

Over a period of two years, the Ceres2030 team spent researching answers to the questions of how much it will how much it will cost to realize SDG 2 and where that money should be spent most effectively. IISD Senior Advisor and Ceres2030 Co-director Carin Smaller about small farmers, machine learning and women empowerment.

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Is the international community still on track in the fight against hunger?

Interview with Miriam Wiemers (Welthungerhilfe)

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2020 shows that the world is not on track to meet the international goal of “zero hunger by 2030”. If we continue at our current speed, around 37 countries will not even have reached a low hunger level by 2030.

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"Agricultural research unties the Gordian knot"

Interview with World Bank Vice President Voegele

The CGIAR agricultural research organization is systematically repositioning itself. We spoke with Juergen Voegele, Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, about progress to date - and discuss what needs to be done collectively to stop global hunger in ten years.

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GFFA 2021 focussed on climate and COVID-19

A report by David Sahay (Zeitenspiegel)

110 speakers from 120 countries met virtually at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) to discuss the challenges to global food supply. They asked the question: How can food systems support the health of people and the planet?

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“We have to prepare for the unexpected”

Interview with Dr Maria Flachsbarth (BMZ)

In August, Germany’s development ministry set up a division concentrating on One Health topics. Parliamentary State Secretary Maria Flachsbarth on knowledge gaps at the human-animal-environmental interface, the link between One Health and food security, and lessons learnt from previous pandemics.

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Video: 4 Questions to Claudia Makdristo

A video clip by Seedstars

Startups are booming in African agriculture. What are the current trend and challenges – and can other regions benefit from innovative approaches? A Video-Interview with Claudia Makadristo, Regional Manager of Seedstars  

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Turning many into one: CGIAR network restructures

A contribution by Jan Rübel

International agricultural research is responding to new challenges: Their advisory group is undergoing a fundamental reform process and unites knowledge, partnerships and physical assets into OneCGIAR.

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KLAUS WOHLMANN / GIZ

"Farmers are smart"

Interview with Maria Andrade

From the lab to the masses: Maria Andrade bred varieties of biofortified sweet potatoes which are now widely used all over the continent. She sets her hope on the transformation of African agriculture.

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(c) Kate Holt / Africa Practice

Leveraging investment impacts

A contribution by Heike Baumüller, Christine Husmann, Julia Machovsky-Smid, Oliver Kirui, Justice Tambo

Any initiative whose aim is to reduce poverty in Africa should focus first on agriculture. But what kind of investment has the greatest impact? The use of scientific criteria provides some answers.

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Small-scale farmers’ responses to COVID-19 related restrictions

A study by SLE

The lockdown due to COVID-19 hit the economy hard - including agriculture in particular with its supply chains and sales markets. What creative coping strategies have those affected found? The Seminar for Rural Development has begun a research study on th

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Karel Prinsloo/Arete/Rockefeller Foundation/AGRA

"Nutrition is a human right"

Interview with Joe DeVries (AGRA)

Joe DeVries is a breeder – and Vice President of AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa). What are the chances and risks of a ’green revolution‘ in Africa? A discourse between Jan Rübel and him about productivity, needs, and paternalism.

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ONE WORLD no hunger - Meet the people driving rural transformation

A program by the partners of the special initiative One World no Hunger

The future is rural. On September 24, meet leaders and visionaries from Africa and South Asia who will enter into dialogue with european key actors.

Join uns here to meet the people.

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JOERG BOETHLING / GIZ

Continent in an uptrend

A report by Dr. Agnes Kalibata (AGRA)

Partnering for Africa’s Century: Innovation and Leadership as Drivers of Growth and Productivity in Rural Areas

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A new attempt at Africa's industrialization?

A contribution by Helmut Asche

Afrika is about ready. There are promising approaches for a sustainable industrialization. However, the path poses challenges to the continent.

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City, Country, Sea: 6 Innovations in the Fight Against Climate Change

A listicle for climate-neutral agriculture

Vertically growing plants, magnetic cotton. Hairy leftovers fertilizing fields, tractors running on algae? These six innovations could lead agriculture’s next Green Revolution!

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What is Our Food Worth to Us?

A Contribution by the TMG Think Tank for Sustainability

Towards integrated accounting standards in the food and farming sector with the help of True Cost Accounting (TCA).

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A New Mindset to Reform Agriresearch

A Contribution by Lennart Woltering (CGIAR)

In context of the 15th CGIAR System Council Meeting, Lennart Woltering shares his assessment of the ongoing One CGIAR reform process.

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Diversity Is the Fundamental Principle to Use

An Interview with Shakuntala Thilsted

A conversation with aquatic researcher Shakuntala Thilsted on the long-neglected nutrition benefits of aquatic diets and the empowering qualities of a sustainable aqua-food systems transformation.

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For a just transition to a sustainable planet we must secure land rights

A contribution by TMG

At the UNCCD COP15, the Töpfer Müller Gaßner Think Tank (TMG) hosted four side events. The agenda of the kick-off event included discussions for the Human Rights and Land Navigator.

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The lessons learned from the last food crisis - A solution?

A Contribution by Agnes Kalibata

Inadequacy and fragility of food systems becomes more apparent with every food crisis. The question we must answer is “Where do we go from here?”

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Food security is more than production volumes and high yields

A Contribution by Adrian Muller, Catherine Pfeifer and Jürn Sanders (FiBL)

Taking Biodiversity Focus Areas under production or abandoning lower yielding, more extensive production systems is the wrong approach to mastering the looming global food crisis, say the authors of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).

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COVID-19 and Rising Food Prices: What’s Really Happening?

A Contribution by IFPRI

Taking a look at the data (as of February 11th 2022) what the current price hike means for world hunger and what can be done to prevent from another food crisis.

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The Rice Sector in West Africa: A Political Challenge

New insights on trade and value addition in the rice sector in West Africa

Low import tariffs, smuggling activities, unpredictable tax exemptions and weak enforcement of food safety standards: The potential of local rice value chains is undermined in West African countries.

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5 Questions for Jann Lay: What is Corona doing to the economy?

Interview with Jann Lay (GIGA)

The Corona pandemic is hitting economies around the world very hard - but developments in African countries are quite diverse. There are different speeds, resiliences and vulnerabilities. What are the reasons for this? Apl. Prof. Jann Lay of the GIGA Institute provides answers.

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The Insect Whisperer

A Contribution by Jan Rübel and Zain Jafar

Agriculture is coming under pressure worldwide: bacteria, viruses and insects are causing problems for crops. In Palestine, Dr. Rana Samara from the Palestinian Academy of Science and Technology is researching solutions to the problem. And she finds them in nature itself.

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