An impetus for eco-friendly agriculture

  • 2023-11-21
  • Christina Pfänder
  • Comment
© Alumniportal Deutschland / Lleshi

Competing ways to achieve an equitable transformation in food systems were discussed at International Day of the Tropics 2023 in Berlin. This included Germany alumni from emerging and developing countries who support the DAAD via the programme of SDG Alumni Projects. 

A dramatic situation in parts of the Global South is necessitating rapid action by the international community: increasing numbers of people are suffering from hunger or can’t afford healthy food, although more food is being produced than ever before. A report issued by multiple UN organisations reveals that in 2022 there was a global average of some 735 million people affected by hunger; 2.4 billion had no sustainable access to food. International Day of the Tropics 2023 at the Humboldt University of Berlin therefore bore the title ‘Competing ways to achieve an equitable transformation in food systems: compromises and synergies’ and presented different options for achieving a fundamental change. This included discussion of both technical solutions such as biologically fortified plants, but also the demand for a complete paradigm shift in theory and practice. The conference was streamed live via a conferencing app and was organised by the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) e.V. and the Humboldt University of Berlin. 

Insight into the latest technologies

Germany alumni from emerging and developing countries, who the DAAD funds via its programme of SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Alumni Projects, were also involved in the discussion. These early career academics and researchers spent a week attending seminars at Dresden University of Technology, the University of Kassel and TH Köln – University of Applied Sciences in the context of the International Day of the Tropics 2023, as well as the interdisciplinary conference at the Humboldt University of Berlin. This gave them an insight into the latest technologies and research results – alongside the opportunity for mutual interchange. Their SDG projects include aspects such as tropical and subtropical agriculture, natural resource management and rural development, with the result that these Germany alumni are working on the development of viable solutions relating to agriculture and food security. 

The SDG Alumni Project managed by Dr Bui Le Vinh, who founded the multidisciplinary research group Climate-Resilient AgriFood Systems (CRAFS) at the Vietnam National University of Agriculture, focuses for instance on climate-resistant agricultural and food systems in Vietnam and the Southeast Asia region. His research is enriched by practical experience: he has for over 20 years been working together with smallholder farms in the mountainous northern region of Vietnam that are struggling due to soil degradation, reduced productivity and a migration of people from the countryside to the cities given the rough terrain and unsustainable agricultural practices. ‘The use of technical solutions in mountainous terrain is often difficult and expensive’, he explains. ‘Conservation agriculture that restores biodiversity and soil fertility could however help to increase yields and thus create more jobs.’ 

International networks for projects in the Global South

One example among many demonstrates how holistic approaches and system analyses are required to achieve sustainable transformation of food systems. ‘Climate-smart agriculture that includes specialisms such as plant and animal sciences, soil science and fertilisers is an important part of the solution’, says Le Vinh. Albeit lasting success can only be achieved if food processing technologies, logistics and infrastructure are also improved – consumers also need to be educated about climate-resistant agricultural products. Political support at national and international levels is also deemed to be a significant aspect.  

In terms of his SDG Alumni Project, he relies on cooperation with colleagues at the University of Kassel. ‘This DAAD programme has enabled me to identify potential research partners and sources of funding’, says Le Vinh. ‘I hope that our joint commitment will result in major collaborative projects for the Global South in the future.’ International Day of the Tropics 2023 and the associated training week offered a next step in the enhancement of his network: ‘Exchanging ideas with other participants clarified the global challenges that we face – and sparked an interest in working together to tackle common problems,’ he says. ‘We also had the opportunity to update our knowledge by means of high-quality lectures and in-depth discussions with German professors.’  

Improving yields and respecting the environment

Germany alumna Alejandra Pedraza Luengas also used the event to establish contacts and exchange ideas: the co-founder of Danaus Consultants, an agricultural consultancy in Belize, benefited from the experience of other experts and from the presentation of novel methods and digital tools. ‘I found the workshop on effective communication with local interest groups to be especially interesting, for example, as it is extremely important in relation to my work’, she says. ‘The combination of seminars and a conference also enabled me to engage intensively with the topics of food security and biodiversity.’ This involved her realising that other Germany alumni are also grappling with similar problems – irrespective of nationality or specialist background. ‘This realisation helped me feel that I’m not alone in the search for viable solutions.’ 

The Colombian reckons that one of the greatest challenges in transforming food systems is capacity building on farms. My SDG project involves me teaching farmers to enable them to implement the necessary changes in their techniques and also to understand them and see them through’, Pedraza Luengas explains. ‘My objective is to teach farmers how to improve their income while respecting the environment.’ The use of technology relating to fertiliser management and the inspection of fields before the application of agrochemicals, for which Pedraza Luengas provides a drone with a multispectral camera, are important. New technologies should not however replace people despite all of this. ‘Solutions need to be considered holistically and aligned with the farmers’ interests. Albeit well-founded data provided by technical tools are important in making the right decisions in the interests of high-yielding yet eco-friendly agriculture.’  

Whether technical innovations or traditional practices ultimately result in greater food security and environmental protection is, according to the biologist, a question of local conditions and the economic position of the farms – along with availability. ‘Not every farm has the financial means to purchase effective equipment, fertilisers, biocides or a specific seed’, she explains. To transform the food system, she is therefore calling for increased advisory and financial services for farmers as well as a bottom-up approach that closes the gap between agricultural businesses and research institutes and strengthens public-private partnerships. International Day of the Tropics 2023 has meant that Alejandra Pedraza Luengas feels well equipped for her forthcoming tasks in Belize: ‘I’m returning to my home country full of new ideas, motivation and energy’, she says. My expectations of the SDG seminars and the conference were fully met.’  

Interview partner

Learn more about Tropentag:

* mandatory field