Food for thought

22 July 2009 | News story

By Jeff Sayer, IUCN’s Scientific Advisor
The world is facing a food crisis. Human populations are growing and consuming more staple crops. Yields of these staples grew rapidly with the green revolution in the 1970s-90s, but that growth is not being sustained.  

At the same time, eating habits are changing. More people are now consuming meat, which takes much more land and energy to produce than vegetables and grain. A billion people are still under-nourished while in the rich world over-consumption is creating a global crisis of obesity. We need not just more food, but more equitable distribution of food and better quality.

These needs have to be met at the same time that agro-industrial crops, some for food but many for biofuels and industrial raw materials, are competing for land. How are we going to get more and better food for nine billion people? How will we do this in the face of climate change? And how do we satisfy these demands and still leave some room for nature?

Conservationists have often been in opposition to hunters, gatherers and farmers. Hunters are seen to decimate wildlife, yet the hunting fraternity has made huge contributions to conserving species and habitats around the world. Ducks Unlimited is responsible for the enormous growth in waterfowl populations in North America.

Are the bushmeat hunters of central Africa really the biggest threat to wildlife or could tens of millions of African hunters and consumers of bushmeat be a more powerful lobby for conservation than a tiny handful of rich world eco-tourists? Could the people who live from harvesting Brazil nuts in the Amazon or the medicinal bark of the African plum in the Congo Basin be effective defenders of the rainforests?

The world is now waking up to the food crisis. After decades of neglect agriculture is once more high on the agenda of rich countries and is receiving increasing shares of aid budgets.

But there are divergent views of what sort of agriculture is needed to feed the world while conserving the natural resource base upon which food production depends. The rich world model of intensified, narrowly-specialized agriculture using high inputs to maximize yields is now being questioned.

Rice, maize and wheat and their industrial derivatives are in almost everything that the rich world eats. The surplus food produced by our highly efficient industrial agriculture feeds a large number of people in developing countries. It is so productive that plenty of land remains for national parks and nature reserves.

However, even in the rich world, there is now reluctance to pursue this course of simple production efficiency. People in Europe have chosen to forsake the pursuit of efficiency and pay hundreds of billions of Euros of subsidies to multi-functional agriculture that preserves rural landscapes and employment and supports high levels of biodiversity.

Farm conservation schemes in the USA put tens of billions of dollars into the hands of farmers who adapt their farming to favour wildlife. The critical question is whether these multi-functional farming systems are a luxury that only the rich world can afford or whether they might be a model for diversifying the livelihoods of poor people in the developing world and maybe make them more resilient to the economic, climatic and pandemic-induced shocks that they will confront in coming decades.

Many conservationists now think that the answer is yes. The small farmer systems of Africa and Asia where dozens of annual and perennial crops are raised on half hectare plots of land should not be sacrificed at the altar of progress.

In simple economic terms, small diverse farms may be less efficient than specialist farmers with genetically engineered seeds and large inputs of fertilizers and pesticides. But these highly diverse small farms provide many other products for consumption and sale beyond just the key staple.

This diversity provides safety nets in cases of failure of one or a few crops. In addition, conservationists are now recognizing that these small farms can support a lot of native biodiversity, protect watersheds and store large amounts of carbon and so contribute to mitigating climate change.

So now is the time for conservation organizations to take a long, hard look at agriculture. Decisions being made today about how to feed the world will determine what happens to our future landscapes and wildlife.

No doubt we are destined to have significant areas of monotonous but productive monocultures, but maybe diverse small farms could also be an important part of the portfolio of farming systems that will feed the future world.

Local production of a high diversity of crops with minimal use of fertilizers and pesticides made from fossil fuels is now a boutique industry for the rich. However, it has a lot of features that could make it a viable and attractive option for large parts of the developing world and it could provide much needed resilience in the face of climate variability and other shocks that will certainly shake the world in the future.