The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that Mauritians should be less reliant on imports for their food supplies. Experimenting with small-scale agricultural practices kept many of us busy during the 70 days of confinement. Is this glimpse of enthusiasm a precursor of the “agricultural revolution” it will take to ensure better food self-sufficiency?
Although Mauritius produces most of its vegetables in favourable conditions, it imports 77% of its food needs. This strong dependence on imports can be partly explained by limited land resources and difficulties to innovate and tackle the uncertainties imposed by nature on agriculture and farming. With the increasing impact of climate change, cultivating the land has become increasingly difficult.
Changing skies and their impact
Farmers and their lands have been considerably affected by the effects of climate change in the past few years. The damage caused to crops by torrential rains has been estimated at 80% in some regions, with a significant impact on the availability and price of local vegetables.
Surprisingly, not much has yet been done to build resilience against the changing climatic conditions, and local growers keep cultivating the land in the same way as they did before. Many of them remain unaware that simple techniques like contour farming would reduce the amount of topsoil and seeds that are washed away during heavy rains.
Time for innovation
Industrial agriculture has promoted monoculture in Mauritius. This has reduced biodiversity, changed the behaviour of pests and pathogens, deteriorated soil biology; and reduced climate resilience in agricultural production systems. To enhance resilience to climate change, integrated agricultural systems such as agroforestry or agroecology are being proposed by the Food and Agricultural Research Extension Institute (FAREI).
Agroforestry practices that combine perennial and annual crop species could bring important ecosystem services to farming communities in Mauritius. This includes the reduction of soil losses; and an increase in carbon stocks both above and below ground. More broadly, the application of agroecology design principles can help improve the productivity of small farming systems by integrating mixed cropping, build on crop habitat; and enhance the biodiversity of flora and fauna. The GEF Small Grants Programme implemented by UNDP is pioneering agroecology practices and bioswales as “new” field drain systems based on the topography of fields. These techniques will be tested on 3 pilot sites in Mauritius, namely La Chaumière, Britannia, and Plaine Sophie.
Attracting new-generation farmers
As the population of Mauritian farmers ages, questions about the future of agriculture in Mauritius need to be addressed. Following COVID-19 and its disruptive effects on livelihoods, it may be high time to consolidate the foundations of tomorrow’s agriculture. This implies attracting new-generation farmers keen to use innovative agricultural techniques and approaches that will contribute to improve their yields sustainably and strengthen their resilience.
A new generation of farmers will need to work together with old-generation farmers to re-design the future of Mauritian food production systems based on innovative solutions and including traditional ecological knowledge. The support of government and non-government institutions to these initiatives is crucial.
Towards digital solutions
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that “Emerging digital technologies have the potential to change farming beyond recognition”. The Disruptive Technologies Brief on Digital Agriculture: Feeding the future posits that a ‘digital agricultural revolution’ could help to ensure that agriculture meets the needs of the global population in the future. Numerous affordable and simple digital innovations are already being developed by some new-generation Mauritian farmers at Farmcity. Today, it is possible to control the irrigation of a field via a simple-to-use mobile phone application.
While “digital farming” is encouraging, in Mauritius the “agricultural revolution” will obviously take more than enthusiastic box-gardeners and automatized digital solutions to sustainably yield fruit. Improving food self-sufficiency and quality will also require changes in food consumption practices, visionary policies and the capacity to combine the best of traditional and modern approaches to agriculture. It will especially depend on new-generation farmers, conversant with concepts like innovation and sustainability.