Preserving nature while feeding a growing world

27 October 2010 | News story

Agriculture is the principal land use on the planet, and it depends on managing nature to produce food. Today saw experts from the field get together in Nagoya to look at how farmers can be assured the best help in developing strategies to protect biodiversity and their livelihoods.  

Speaking at the event, which was held at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Tenth Conference of the Parties (CBD COP10), was IUCN’s Andrew Seidl, Head of the Global Economics and Environment Programme:

Why do we need to talk about agriculture at CBD?

A.S. If agricultural practice does not incorporate the costs and benefits to biodiversity in production decisions, we will fail to stem biodiversity loss and, eventually, agricultural lands will fail to produce adequate food and fiber to feed our growing population. In addition, agricultural production is the principal occupation of the world’s poor. Reducing poverty requires profitable agriculture that takes full account of ecosystem services.

What is the challenge facing the agricultural sector here at CBD?

A.S. The challenges facing the agriculture sector at CBD are many, but are surmountable. First, agriculture needs to fully account for its negative external effects on the environment. Polluted run-off and soil erosion, sedimentation, landslides, flooding, introduction of invasive species, dependence on fossil fuel inputs, green house gas emissions from livestock, transportation and production practices are all potential negative effects of modern agricultural practice on nature.

On the other hand, through the valuation of ecosystem services agriculturists can take better advantage of biodiversity business opportunities and compensatory policies that might reward producers for managing lands for the public benefits of sustainable eco-agricultural practice, increase household incomes, reduce income variability, and thereby improve food security.

At least one significant challenge remains, however. As agriculture becomes more profitable, rural lands that are not in agriculture, primarily forests and protected areas, become fruitful targets for conversion to agriculture. Legal frameworks to safeguard alternative land uses will be required to stem unintended direct and indirect land use change.

Finally, the food industry in the developed world needs to engage in supply chain management and procurement practices that embrace accounting for ecosystem services in its business balance sheets and encourage profitable and sustainable land management in developing countries.

A lot of the time the agricultural sector is seen as the enemy of conservation, is that how we should view it?

A.S. It is a non-starter to view the agricultural sector in this way. There is scarcely a more important human activity than feeding the world. However, that agriculture is incredibly important, doesn’t mean it cannot be improved, transformed, even revolutionized. Agriculture that results in the death of the planet is a short-sighted and irresponsible solution.

Agriculture that isn’t profitable is gardening. Agriculture that fails to take into full account ecosystem services is missed opportunity. We should view agriculture as a uniquely important land use that must be managed respecting the wealth and opportunity of nature or we will most certainly fail to fulfill our mission and responsibilities to both humans and the rest of nature.

What can governments do here at CBD to improve this situation?

A.S. Among many other useful measures, governments can explore change-inducing policies such as removing environmentally damaging agricultural and fossil fuel subsidies, encourage ‘beneficiary pays’ policies such as payments for ecosystem services (PES) and REDD(+), support agricultural research that illustrates the likely paths from business-as-usual to sustainable ecosystem management, encourage locally-appropriate micro-finance, community banking and other means to bridge the investment gap between business-as-usual and sustainable ecosystem management, and create land tenure regimes that protect ecologically sensitive lands from intrusion when agriculture becomes more profitable.

Governments can also pledge to follow the sustainable procurement practices recommended for the private sector.