Understanding Past and Present to Create a Better Future
– Pablo Titonell, Professor of Farming Systems, Wageningen University
Agricultural research has developed countless new technologies to support more intensive farming, but adoption rates on the promise of improvement alone are often disappointing. Farming households make decisions based on a more complex set of factors, such as cash crops and food production, varying rates of return on investment or labor and balancing higher productivity with minimum risk of losing crops or investments.
The Trajectories and Trade-Offs for Intensification of Cereal- Based Systems (ATTIC) project, a collaboration between MAIZE and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is studying how and why farming systems in Ethiopia, Mexico and Nepal have changed over time to show how research into new technologies, practices and policies can have a greater impact in the future. A key dimension of the project is to study the interactions between farming systems and the landscape, with farms both contributing to and benefiting from the features of the landscape and the services it provides, including water flows, soils and biodiversity.
Funded in part through the MAIZE Competitive Grant Initiative, ATTIC research is being carried out through three PhD projects. The three studies are using similar research processes in very different locations; all involve field-based studies and link participatory research, field measurements and experiments and systems models at different scales. Operational funds are provided by three other MAIZE key partner projects – CCAFS, CSISA and SIMLESA.
Competitive grants awarded in 2012 and 2013 will also fund training of local staff (CIMMYT and close regional partners) in use of the systems analysis tools developed during the study period. The first training program will begin in Zambia in March 2014.
In Ethiopia, Yodit Kebede is studying the social and ecological processes that have shaped the landscape in order to understand some of the ecosystem services that agriculture is providing, particularly pest control. By analyzing the frequency of maize fields and how this affects the incidence of the maize stem borer, Kebede aims to find out how farmers can reduce pest pressure even when they cannot afford to buy pesticides. Her work is also assessing push-pull options for pest management in conservation agriculture systems, and informing the design of new, diverse cropping systems that have a pest control advantage.
In Nepal, Victoria Alomia’s PhD thesis examines alternative forms of crop-livestock integration, through intensification of maize and wheat production in association with fodder crops, in order to diversify diets and incomes. Studying resource management and decision-making in zones prone to climate change risks, and where migration is high and labor is scarce, her research combines system models, field experiments and participatory research, and focuses particularly on nutrient cycling.
Leendert van Wolfswinkel is working in the central highlands of Mexico, where he is studying how the landscape has evolved in response to changes in land use, migration and urbanization. He is particularly focused on hydrological services linked to agriculture, such as increased recharge of groundwater aquifers and reduction of downstream flood risk.
His work aims to quantify the water regulation services provided by agriculture (particularly maize farming, but also wheat and oats), in comparison to other land uses such as urban areas or forests.
He is also comparing how different cropping systems – conventional, conservation agriculture, fruit-maize agroforestry and maize-legume intercropping – perform in delivering these services at the micro-watershed level.
“Effects at field-scale may be different from effects at the watershed scale,” says van Wolfswinkel. “I work to bridge the gap between these scales, looking at such questions as: if this cropping system is beneficial, which location on the landscape would be the most favorable? And if the location of different land uses and cropping systems within a watershed matters, which external drivers have influenced the configurations of different landscapes within the central Mexican highlands?”