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How to Feed the World Without Killing the Planet?

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  • How can we balance demand for agricultural products with biodiversity protection?

By July 7, 2017 The Nature Conservancy  read full blog article here

….Agriculture contributes one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, uses 70% of freshwater resources, and harms wildlife through conversion and fragmentation of biodiversity-rich habitats, water diversions, pesticide poisoning and creation of oceanic dead zones.1–3 And, as the human population grows and becomes more affluent, demand for food production is increasing, especially for luxury products that are more environmentally demanding.4 How can we balance demand for agricultural products with biodiversity protection?

This question has prompted the land-sparing land-sharing debate.5–7 Land-sparing advocates argue that intensifying agriculture to produce higher yields is a necessary first condition to allow agriculture to contract to a smaller land footprint, providing opportunities for “sparing land for nature.”…The fallacy of the land-sparing land-sharing debate is its seductive simplicity.14….That logic is: ‘Biodiversity fares poorly in agriculture, therefore we must make agriculture as high-yielding as possible, to spare land for nature.’…

The most immediate way to prevent further agricultural expansion into natural habitats is to have strong environmental policies and governance that prevents the expansion. Over the longer term, however, we can prevent further agricultural expansion by reducing consumption, and its companions, waste and inequity.32 Such solutions are not politically popular because they push back against the growth economy; yet there are three obvious places to start that could yield huge dividends for biodiversity and for current and future quality of life.

  • First, we could reduce meat consumption and the large land area that is devoted to producing it…Reducing meat consumption by those who eat too much, stabilizing it at current levels for those who are eating the right amount (about the size of a pack of cards per capita per day),33 and increasing access to meat for the 2 billion people who suffer from iron-deficient anemia,37 could help to solve several global disease crises at once. Finally, re-integrating livestock into smallholder farms could help to reduce nutrient overloads produced at contained animal feeding operations, reduce the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, and return critical nutrients to the soil and to the diets of small-holder or subsistence farmers.
  • Second, we could reduce the current wastage of 30 – 50% of the food that is produced annually….
  • Third, the growing human population also increases consumption — but we could stabilize human populations at lower levels than currently projected by meeting the unmet need for family planning.42,43 Many families wish to reduce the number of births, but do not have the means to do so. If these unmet needs for limiting reproduction could be met, human population could potentially stabilize at 6 – 7 billion people instead of the 9 – 13 billion people currently projected for 2100.44,45….

FARMING FOR THE FUTURE

….Assuming that we could stabilize the existing agricultural land footprint primarily by reducing consumption (as described above) and creating strong environmental policies and governance that ensure nature protection, how should we farm in a manner most compatible with biodiversity conservation?

…promote wildlife dispersal between protected areas to reduce long-term negative effects of isolation…by strategically restoring or protecting corridors of native vegetation surrounded by or interlocked with the most hospitable types of agricultural habitats, such as agroforestry,49 silvopastoral50 or other diversified agroecological systems,51 as has been proposed for the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.52

…Use agroecological methods in the agricultural matrix that rely on the underlying biodiversity and ecosystem services,

…Maintain productive, sustainable agriculture that supports livelihoods of local people living in the vicinities of protected areas. Agro-ecological methods, such as agroforestry, integrated pest management, and livestock integrationimpacts of agriculture on adjacent habitats and downstream regions….these agroecological methods increase resilience to drought, pests, diseases, floods, hurricanes and climate change,51,71–73 and help to preserve the sustainability of the system, by maintaining soil organic matter, water infiltration and holding-capacity, pest and disease control, pollination services, etc.41

…Invest in agroecological and agronomic research and development to improve yields in diversified systems (with low reliance on external chemical inputs) in different cropping systems and regions.

Conservationists should instead focus on other research questions and actions that will affect biodiversity conservation more directly….There is an urgent need to understand how different types of agriculture, as well as other matrix types,78 affect the dispersal capacities of wildlife. ..it is critical to determine which agricultural methods create the fewest negative spillover effects into adjacent natural habitats.

Finally, incorporating socio-economic studies and participatory research can aid in focusing research questions on outcomes that can help inform pragmatic strategies appropriate to the conservation and agriculture needs of a given region.14,52 These types of studies, and others,14 would help to guide specific conservation actions to reconcile biodiversity conservation with agriculture….

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