Farmers must lead environmental sustainability fight - experts

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 19 June 2012 09:30 GMT
One key change is the growing effort to link agricultural success and the health of ecosystems like forests and water supplies

RIO DE JANEIRO (AlertNet) – From persuading Brazilians to eat less beef and more tilapia fish, to getting Malawi’s farmers to lay down their hoes, agriculture needs to be a major part of a shift towards a more environmentally sustainable future, agricultural experts said on Monday.

Farming uses the largest share of the world’s land and freshwater, and is one of the main producers of climate-changing gases, as well as being a huge employer. So finding ways to make agricultural production more sustainable - and ensuring they are put into widespread practice fast - will be crucial to achieving the aims of the Rio+20 gathering, experts said at an agriculture conference, held as part of the U.N. development summit.

“There’s so much good (research) work going on. The question is speed and scale,” said Rachel Kyte, vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank. “Agricultural research has to be applied. It’s no use when it’s simply in a test plot, in a lab, bound up in rules and red tape and procedures that keep it from being used.”

One of the biggest changes underway in agriculture is efforts to make apparent the connections between agricultural success and the health of natural ecosystems like forests and water supplies, experts said. Without forests to help stabilise rainfall patterns and protect fresh water supplies, “we can’t achieve food security,” Kyte warned.

A key factor in protecting natural systems and agricultural production will be including currently “free” services like rainfall and crop pollination on national balance sheets and in corporations’ accounts through “natural capital accounting”, she said.

So far almost 50 countries and more than 50 companies have agreed to use natural capital accounting alongside their current measures of economic growth such as gross domestic product (GDP), she added.

LESSONS FROM BRAZIL

Brazil has, in many ways, been a leader in improving agricultural production while protecting the environment, some analysts say. The country has, over the past 20 years, seen a 178 percent boost in food production while land for agriculture has expanded only 37 percent, said Roberto Rodrigues, a former Brazilian agriculture minister.

That intensification of farming - just what experts say is needed to feed an expected extra 2 billion people by 2050 - has come about in large part because of investment in agricultural research, and cooperation between research institutes and the country’s strong farming cooperatives, which have quickly taken up new ideas.

Brazil “has shown us lessons on how we can do this elsewhere”, Kyte said.

Just as important for raising production will be finding ways to persuade young people to become farmers when the job - particularly in many developing countries - is increasingly seen as too difficult or too perilous as climate change disrupts weather patterns, experts said.

Young people think “agriculture is a drudgery, and they don’t want to go in (to the field),” said Dyborn Chibonga, head of the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi.

But conservation agriculture – including planting crops in mulch rather than tilling fields with a hand hoe – can make a difference, both to the amount of work and the climate resilience of agriculture, he said.

“In the next five years, we have to declare the hand hoe as a weapon of mass urbanisation” and eliminate it, Chibonga said.

Experts at Monday’s gathering also called for better land tenure for smallholder farmers, and for programmes and government offices on agriculture, water, forest and energy issues to become much more integrated and collaborative, to avoid policies in one area causing problems in another.

“Working in isolation means we will not get the right solutions,” Kyte warned.

CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES

Other issues raised at the meeting were much more controversial.

Brazil’s environment minister, Izasbella Veira Texeira, insisted that the country’s much-criticised new forestry code - which environmentalists fear will spur a surge in Amazon deforestation - is a good idea.

“It’s easy to say we are encouraging deforestation (but) it’s not true. I don’t see any other country making the effort Brazil is making today to protect forest and advance agriculture,” she said.

She also defended the expanding production of biofuels as “a solid path”, saying it is a “false idea that we’re replacing food” with fuel by turning agricultural land to biofuel production.

Kyte, in turn, called for limits on large-scale land grabs in places like Africa, saying they might “get out of control”. She also urged a reduction in the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers, which when overused can seep away from farm fields and cause dead zones in oceans, as well as disruption to other natural systems.

Audience members also called for agricultural leaders to push for reduced consumption of meat rather than intensifying production of it, and for efforts to dramatically reduce food waste. They also warned that one big problem for sustainable agriculture is “big agricultural industries wanting to make profits at the expense of the environment”.

At the meeting, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) - a consortium of 15 major farm research institutes around the world - announced its members would spend $5 billion over the next five years on research aimed at making agriculture more sustainable.

That will include work on reducing greenhouse gases in farming, making crops less vulnerable to extreme weather and pests, and bringing sustainable irrigation to 12 million households in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020.

Farmers are “the largest group of natural resource managers on Earth”, said Ann Tutwiler, deputy director general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “We will not be able to feed the people we need to feed by 2050 unless we can bring together these issues of food and sustainability.”

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