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Are we ready for a ‘new agriculture’ that won’t cost us the Earth?

Sustainably feeding seven billion people will require a more holistic approach.
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Foto cortesía de Susan von Struensee/flickr.
Foto cortesía de Susan von Struensee/flickr.

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BOGOR, Indonesia (10 April 2012)_Our current food production model clears biodiverse forest ecosystems for agriculture, simplifying our diet so much that 98 percent of the world’s food is supplied from just 12 plant crops and 14 animal species. Experts are now concerned that this simple diet is actually hurting our health and that of our environment.

“To feed the world’s growing population efficiently and equitably, we need a ‘new agriculture’ that does not cost the Earth in terms of biodiversity,” said CIFOR scientist Terry Sunderland, author of a recent paper on why biodiversity is important for food security.

“If we want to feed the world’s growing population without compromising the natural capital that will provide future resources, we need to take our cue from smallholder farmers worldwide who maintain diversity in their farming systems. We need innovative and acceptable ways of combining biodiversity conservation and food production.”

The ‘natural capital’ Sunderland refers to here are the many, little-understood ways that biodiversity and forests support modern agriculture, including regulating water flow and quality, providing pollination services and germplasm for crop improvement, maintaining nutrient cycling and soil fertility, mitigating climatic extremes, and controlling agricultural pests and diseases — for a start.

“Although biodiversity underpins much of modern agriculture, we persist in approaching agriculture and biodiversity conservation as mutually exclusive things,” said Sunderland.

And this is to our detriment. Once, our diet comprised up to 7,000 plant species and several thousand animal species. Now, even amongst those of us with access to food, many people in both the developed and developing world are suffering from ‘hidden hunger’: deficiency in micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. A recent World Agroforestry Centre study found that these micronutrients are abundant in indigenous fruits and vegetables that macro-production tends to ignore.

Food security has become a hot topic as the world’s population ticked over to 7 billion in 2011, and world leaders are now looking for ways to increase food production to meet rising demands. We already produce enough food to feed the world, but around one billion of us were still classified ‘hungry’ in 2009, while there is an equal number who are overweight or obese.

“Clearly there is something awry with our means of agricultural production if poor nutrition and over-consumption co-occur, with negative human health implications at both ends of the food security spectrum,” explained Sunderland, who co-edited a recent special issue of the International Forestry Review on forests, biodiversity and food security.

The narrowing of the genetic base for our food also makes us more vulnerable to crop failures, and ultimately, famine — add the increasing weather extremes that will come with climate change and the resilience of these monocultures begins to look even more fragile.

The system is also highly inefficient. Worldwide, about 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted annually — one-third of the edible parts of food produced for human consumption. With each rotting tonne producing methane emissions of 3.8 tonnes carbon equivalent, world food waste contributes some 5 billion tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent per year, more than twice the amount produced by the world’s cud-chewing livestock.

So while technological and methodological advances have allowed us to take domesticated crops to today’s industrial level, this has generally been at the expense of biodiversity, forests, the ecosystem services these provide, and ultimately, human wellbeing.

A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report estimates that the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem service benefits associated with the loss of forests worldwide is costing us between $US2–5 trillion per year.

The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity estimates that we still discover about 6,200 species every year (excluding microbes), and we are still finding out how these species can help us. The recent discovery of plastic-eating fungi in the Amazon forest is one such example.

All this potential is being lost to us — but Sunderland’s article also has some good news: a new agriculture that combines food production and biodiversity conservation is a more than viable option, with many farmers already effectively utilising the incredible biodiversity our planet offers.

“More diverse agricultural systems not only increase yields, they can also increase resilience against extreme climate events. Many small-scale farmers have been practising biodiversity-friendly measures for generations, and are using agrobiodiversity against environmental and climatic uncertainties,” said Sunderland.

For example, in a 2011 United Nations survey of eco-farming projects in 57 countries, it was found that integrating natural pest control and improving soil fertility resulted in yield increases of up to 80 percent. A review of agro-ecological approaches in Africa showed that yields improved 50–100 percent when integrated methods of production were used.

“These results show that managing landscapes on a multi-functional basis, in ways that combine food production, biodiversity conservation and the maintenance of ecosystem services, should be at the forefront of efforts to achieve food security.”

To ensure that  Rio+20 delivers a global message that forests matter to sustainable development, CIFOR will coordinate one of the most important conferences on forests on 19 June, 2012. Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20 will discuss new research findings, remaining knowledge gaps and policy implications for integrating forests into the solutions to four key challenges to progress toward a green economy: energy, food and income, water, and climate. Seats are limited so register here to avoid disappointment! 

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  • Johan Weintré

    Interesting article, especially by highlighting the concept of natural capital, to emphasis the capacity of value.