Transforming Agriculture From Threat To Solution For Environmental Challenges

Sara Scherr

The global narrative on agriculture expanded after Rio+20 to “sustainable intensification” and is now moving towards a vision, laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals, of sustainable agriculture systems and landscapes that secure food, ecosystem services and climate resilience, says Sara Scherr of EcoAgriculture Partners.

Originally posted on the EcoAgriculture Partners blog.

4 November 2016 | The past year has seen a remarkable evolution of the discourse on agricultural development around the world.

From the sharp focus on increasing production and yields that dominated after the 2008 food price crisis, the narrative expanded after Rio+20 to ‘sustainable intensification’—how these yields could be achieved without undue environmental cost. Now discussions are moving—in a still fragmented way–towards a vision of sustainable agriculture systems and landscapes that provide both secure food supplies and the ecosystem services and climate resilience needed for sustainable development in agriculture and more broadly.

“Sustainable Intensification” is Not Enough

‘Sustainable agriculture’ has long been seen as a function of good on-farm inputs and practices that secure production over the long term. The later ‘sustainable intensification’ paradigm has focused on increasing the resource use efficiency of farming (crop per drop, precision inputs, improved seeds) so as to reduce its environmental ‘footprint’. The ‘land-sparing’ hypothesis suggests that by concentrating our efforts on high-yield farming in selected areas, we can ‘spare’ more areas for nature and the production of ecosystem services that are critical for human-well-being and system stability.

But in large parts of the world populations and/or agricultural product demand are still growing rapidly. Even with successful intensification, there will not likely be much aggregate shrinkage of area under production agriculture, particularly without ambitious institutional innovations in land governance. Remaining low-population ‘frontier’ areas are still being cleared for agriculture at record rates. And in high-yield agricultural systems, current techniques for sustainable intensification are reducing environmental damage only at the margins. There is little coordination of farm and non-farm natural resource management to ensure ecosystem-wide benefits.

Moreover, the goals of sustainable intensification are limited: to reduce the negative environmental impacts of agriculture on ecosystems. While useful, this simply does not go far enough. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, croplands and planted pastures cover 38% of the Earth’s land area; including planted forests, areas under shifting cultivation and grazing lands brings this to between 80 and 90% of Earth’s habitable land area. These uses have an ecological influence well beyond their boundaries. Farm and grazing lands thus dominate our critical watersheds and critical habitat areas for wild plant and animal species. Moreover, agriculture and agriculture-related deforestation and land degradation are responsible for between 19 and 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, agriculture is increasingly vulnerable to environmental threats, exacerbated by climate change. These threats cannot be managed effectively through on-farm action alone. Landscape-scale action, coordinating farm and non-farm and land and resource management, is needed to establish large-scale water-harvesting to address water shortages and droughts; to stop over-extraction from underground aquifers; to manage flooding from intense storms and rising seas; to control invasive species; to protect at-risk crop pollinators; to control crop and livestock pests and diseases; and to maintain water quality for human health and critical fisheries. Agricultural communities increasingly will rely on the supply of supplemental food, fodder and income sources from nearby forests, native grasslands and wetlands to buffer livelihoods in years of crop failure.

Emerging Vision of Agriculture as Solution

Thus our long-term goal must be a more ambitious re-shaping of the relationship between farming and ecosystems:

  • From a leading source of greenhouse gases, to one of the most important carbon sinks;
  • From a leading threat to biodiversity, to a key pillar of our biodiversity conservation strategy;
  • From a leading consumer and polluter of water, to a key contributor to healthy watersheds and reliable clean water supplies;
  • From a leading consumer of fossil fuels, to a producer of renewable energy.

Farms and agricultural landscapes are also being called on to provide more balanced nutrition, more employment, higher incomes, social inclusion, and a rural renaissance of culture, society and economy.

This vision is implicit in the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs seek to achieve sustainable agriculture and food security, but also land degradation neutrality, climate change mitigation and adaptation, Aichi targets for biodiversity conservation, water for all and forest restoration. All of these goals rely on agricultural systems that support them. Agriculture can only be sustainable and meet the SDGs if managed as an integral part of the broader (socio-ecological) landscape, explicitly pursuing positive synergies among landscape products and services, and mitigating trade-offs. A strategy to apply Integrated Landscape Management as a means of implementation for the SDGs, including steps to initiate national action, was articulated by the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative (LPFN) in late 2015.

We are far from achieving this vision. But there have been notable advances in technology and organizational methods, at field and landscape scales. Practical application of these integrated approaches has been implement at large scale in many parts of the world. This experience suggests that with adequate policy support, progress could be achieved much more quickly than is commonly assumed.  A recent report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems points out that agroecological practices often improves yields over industrial agricultural systems.  A 2016 meta-analysis of five agroecological practices found a large proportion had advantages over conventional practices in both yield and a range of ecosystem services. Meanwhile, over 420 multi-sector agricultural landscape initiatives have been documented in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America by teams from international research institutions organized by the LPFN.

EcoAgriculture Partners, meanwhile, has documented billions of dollars’ worth of integrated agricultural landscape investments from multilateral finance institutions such as the World Bank and Global Environment Facility; bilateral donors such as the Governments of the Netherlands, Italy and Germany; and national programs in countries across the global from Australia to China, Ethiopia, El Salvador to Scotland and South Africa; and from impact investment funds (e.g., Althelia Fund, Ecoenterprises Fund).

Farmer organizations have taken the lead in a small but growing number of these initiatives. Farmers and livestock-keepers are the principal stewards of this land, know it intimately, and—if properly supported to play this role of wide public benefit—can devise more cost-effective and adoptable strategies for action.

Practical actions for 2017 work plans

This narrative—framing an ecologically innovative agricultural sector as a key part of the solution to environmental and socioeconomic challenges—has been highlighted in numerous international and regional agricultural policy dialogues over the past year. These include this week’s meeting of Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in Rome and Habitat III conference in Quito; the African Union’s recent commitment to an ecosystem approach to achieving agriculture and climate goals; the Milano Group’s declaration on Reshaping Agriculture and Food Systems in the Face of Climate Change in December 2015; and the recommendations on Land Use of the Climate Action Summit of 2016.

We must continue this momentum into 2017 and beyond. So, as we all prepare our organizational work plans for the coming year, may I suggest some practical actions to prioritize, in order to build our movement towards this vision of agriculture as a provider of both food and ecosystem services:

  • Influential public and private investment organizations can develop design principles and guidance for incorporating agroecological practices and ecosystem management strategies at scale into agricultural investment and development programs;
  • International and national farmer organizations can advance dialogues with their members, and with field-based environmental actors, on effective short- and long-term strategies for action and for farmer co-leadership in the design of policies, programs and practices;
  • Highlight strategies to support climate-smart, integrated agricultural landscapes in the upcoming UNFCCC discussions on agriculture and climate;
  • National committees coordinating country responses to the SDGs, and design of national climate commitments, can evaluate how public policies can better support integrated agriculture-environment planning and investment;
  • Agribusiness and food industry (both SMEs and large corporate actors) can extend their agricultural sustainability initiatives to include investment in integrated landscape initiatives;
  • National Academies of Science and the CGIAR research systems can develop strategies to scale up research on highly productive, ecosystem-enhancing agricultural systems, and on strategies to manage non-farm lands to enhance agricultural yields and resilience; and
  • The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on the SDGs can focus attention on the many nations that have made progress in this transformation, and the benefits from sustainable food systems for the full set of goals to be considered during their July 2017 meeting.

Sara Scherr is the President, CEO and Founder of EcoAgriculture Partners.

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