Sandy J. Andelman, vice president of Conservation International and executive director of Vital Signs Africa, writes on the need for integrated measurements of agriculture, ecosystem services and human well-being by pooling near-real time multi-scale data into an open-access on-line dashboard for policy makers.
Recently I sat in the stunning new African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, with several African Heads of State and private sector leaders, in the "Grow Africa Investment Forum", discussing a set of bold new investment initiatives for food security in Africa. Soon after, I was in Botswana, sitting with several of the same Heads of State and private sector leaders, discussing an equally bold agenda for environmental sustainability in Africa.
So why are these playing out as two distinct conversations, when, in reality, they should be one? The truth is, we can't have food security without environmental security. Pursuing single-sector investment objectives, focused exclusively on agricultural outputs, without understanding the larger social, political and agro-ecological systems that will influence long-term sustainability creates risks for governments, investors and farmers. Sustained food production and security in Sub-Saharan Africa depend on the continued supply of fresh water and other essential ecosystem services, such as pollination. But increases in agricultural production could elicit unintended ecological or social impacts, such as diminished capacity of nearby ecosystems to provide key services (e.g., water, fuel, fiber, food), or diminished access to land and resources for women and other vulnerable populations. The key question is therefore: How can we simultaneously increase agricultural production, improve agricultural management and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers - up to 70% of whom are women - while conserving the environment and the services it provides?
There is an urgent need for better data, analytical methods and risk management approaches to guide sustainable agricultural development and ensure health and resilient livelihoods and ecosystems. To address this challenge, Conservation International (CI), recently received a ground-breaking grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch Vital Signs Africa, an integrated monitoring system for ecosystem services in African agricultural landscapes. Vital Signs is co-led by CI, the Earth Institute, Columbia University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa. Vital Signs will initially be implemented in 5 regions of Africa, including Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana, plus two more to be identified soon. It provides integrated measurements of agriculture, ecosystem services and human well-being by pooling near-real time multi-scale data into an open-access online dashboard that policy makers can freely use and customize for smart decision making. Vital Signs will quantify sustainability and provide analytical tools to evaluate risks and tradeoffs among agricultural development, ecosystem health and human well-being outcomes: An evidence-based mechanism for establishing baselines setting targets and monitoring progress.
The basic framework for the monitoring system is already in place, including a small set of holistic indicators, e.g., a local food sufficiency, adequacy of water supply, biodiversity health, climate forcing, inclusive wealth and resilience of socio-agro-ecosystems to climate variability. The indicators are based on a set of measurements collected through a combination of ground-based and remotely sensed data collection, at four scales:
(1) a household, using surveys on health, nutritional status, income and assets;
(2) a 1 hectare plot, tracking agricultural production, including which seeds go into the ground, where they come from, what kind of fertilizer is used, what yield of crops the deliver and what happens after the harvest;
(3) a landscape (100 km2), measuring the relationships between agricultural intensification, water availability for household and agricultural use, ecosystem biodiversity, soil health, carbon stocks and other ecosystem services - together with human well-being, in a coordinated manner; and
(4) a region (200,000-300,000 km2), tying everything together into the big picture, to provide insights at the scales at which agricultural development decisions are made and to make comparisons among different regions.
Technology and information have been essential to the transformation of every imaginable sector of human endeavor. Yet today, in the face of some of the world's most pressing issues - food security and environmental security - the right data and technology, applied at the right scales, is sorely lacking. Unless the metrics and indicators for monitoring the success of agricultural development investments in Africa are expanded to track changes in ecosystem services, at best, the gains in food production and in income for smallholder farmers are likely to be unsustainable; at worst, they could lead to environmental degradation. In today's world of rapidly increasing population and diminishing resources, we can no longer afford business as usual.
We can't afford to make important development and security decisions, based on incomplete silos of information, without seeing the whole picture. To make smart decisions, we need systems-level data and systems-level understanding. Let's make sure we grow Africa sustainably.