Ticking Time Bomb

Agriculture versus forests PDF Print E-mail
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Restoring natural capital in degraded landscapes
The interests of farmers are often perceived to be in conflict with those of both the ecosystems and the markets in which they operate.  Rather than seeing the use and development of agricultural lands as the conversion of natural systems into human-dominated ones, there are increasing opportunities for win-win solutions.

Fuelling the growing demand for food, fuel and fibre, 13 million hectares are converted annually for agricultural use, mostly from forests. Together, crops and pasture make up more than any other land use - over 40% - and are projected to grow by another 15% over the next 50-100 years. The conversion into agricultural lands is perhaps one of the greatest single impacts on the Earth.

These impacts include the greenhouse gas emissions that make up a third of global emissions since 1950, the 70% of freshwater used for irrigation, and growing loss of biodiversity, among others. The use of the planet's resources is no longer sustainable.

A recent study by WWF, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network revealed that humans now use in excess of 25% of the productive capacity of the biosphere and that two planet Earths will be needed to support our projected demand.

The scope and scale of agriculture and the projected growth in demand for food, biofuels and other commodities puts it on a crash course with identified pathways for environmental sustainability. With a growing awareness of the value of the goods and services that nature provides, governments and institutions are looking for ways to both decrease per capita demand and increase the efficiency of current land use practices.

How can agricultural landscapes produce more with less impact?

Coffee wake-up

While the interests of farmers are often seen to be at odds with others in the supply chain, a dialogue is taking place about ways to build on shared interests across the global supply chain. Creating dialogue across sectors that typically do not interact in this way has led to some interesting advances.

Critical to success is our ability to define how to pay for the costs of maintaining the goods and services, and who pays. Incentives are evolving, including certification standards such as Fair Trade and the newly developing payments for ecosystem services like those for water, or the trading of carbon. Developing our understanding of the relationships and trade-offs among forests, soil, biodiversity, water, and food production among other key ecosystem components is driving a new paradigm for applied scientific research.

So are there interventions that can create win-win situations for both land owners and the regional community at large? Two examples from the world of sustainable coffee production follow. Coffee is one of the top five traded global commodities. A hundred million people depend on it for their livelihoods and the evolving models provide insight into the opportunities and challenges for sustainable agriculture. Pollinating insects help with the production of over 65% of the world's crops.

Recent declines in native and managed bee colonies have created concern about food production. An ongoing project by Earthwatch illustrates the connection of these pollinators to the landscape and how different stakeholders come together to identify potential solutions. A recent research project by Valerie Peters from the University of Georgia in the US, using teams of Earthwatch volunteers, found that wild and domesticated bees enhanced both the yield and quality of coffee berries near Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Wild bees and other pollinators were in turn attracted by plants, other than coffee, which the farmers had grown around their fields. Recognising the value of these other management practices in boosting yields helps farmers understand the benefits of biodiversity in the landscape. Citizen science Dr John Banks of the University of Washington Tacoma in the US and Earthwatch are expanding on this work in the Tarrazu coffee region of Costa Rica.

Working with farmers, volunteers from organisations such as Starbucks Coffee Company, are identifying the value of nearby forests in boosting bee populations and coffee production. These volunteers and other citizen scientists are helping to collect and analyse field data as it relates to bee activity and coffee plant growth. These diverse teams of volunteers are also exploring the financial mechanisms that help recognise and reward the goods and services that farmers and forests provide to local and global communities.

Volunteers in particular will assist the Costa Rican cooperative managers in their effort to improve their business practices and develop better pricing structures for sustainable coffee production. While the increase in intensive agriculture and the use of fertilisers and pesticides has produced dramatic increases in yield, this has come at the cost of degraded habitats, particularly the soil.

New sustainable techniques are needed to mitigate the negative consequences of intensive agriculture. Rebuilding healthy, diverse soils requires great effort to yield not only nutritional, healthy food, but also to mitigate erosion, capture carbon, and act as a sponge to prevent flooding, among other benefits. Providing farmers with ways to enhance their soils for these diverse benefits takes a multi-sectoral approach. By engaging local organisations and Starbucks employees, Earthwatch is finding that useful tools can be developed that benefit farmers.

In Costa Rica, like much of the world, there is a need to protect against practices that acidify the soils, and rebuild their organic matter and thus natural capital. The linking of research with both ends of the supply chain is enhancing the uptake of better soil conservation measures. Rather than seeing the use and development of agricultural lands as the conversion of natural systems into human-dominated ones, there are increasing opportunities for win-win solutions.

Rural farming communities are among the poorest on Earth, yet they are often open to change - and have much to lose otherwise. Adoption by consumers, governments and businesses of financial mechanisms such as certification and payment for ecosystem services is needed to ensure that the cost burden by producers of enhancing the environment is adequately compensated. Solutions to address this challenge are being drafted through unlikely collaborations - consumers, farmers, corporations and governments. Learning and trust across this global community is essential.

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