By Cristián Samper and Ann Tutwiler
As we recognize World Food Day this week, it is a good time to consider two crucial challenges to humankind: safeguarding global food security in the face of climate change and population growth, and conserving biodiversity –the variety of life forms, and their ecosystems, that sustain life on our planet.
Feeding the world is widely seen as the more serious problem, but many scientists believe the greater peril lies in wholesale loss of biodiversity. The eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson has argued that it could take millions of years to make up for the loss of genetic and species diversity caused by heedless habitat destruction.
So far food security and the conservation of biodiversity have largely been considered separately. In fact, they are intimately connected and hold out the possibility of producing powerful synergies that could boost food production and enhance biodiversity conservation. That is why farmers should care about conservation and conservationists should care about agriculture.
Well-functioning ecosystems supply the vital services that allow both crops and humans to flourish. They provide fertile soil, clean air and water, and the pollination essential to make plants productive. At the same time, agricultural biodiversity helps reduce plant pests and diseases and facilitates adaptation to climate change.
Despite a shift from agriculture to manufacturing in the past century, almost one-half of the U.S. land base remains dedicated to agriculture. Globally, farmers use 50 percent of the world’s serviceable land and 70 percent of the world’s fresh water, which makes them the largest managers of natural resources on earth.
Yet while agriculture remains a critical industry in the United States, responsible for close to 10 percent of U.S. employment, we have been neglecting the health of our soils as if they were someone else’s problem. A narrow focus on the productivity of a few staple grains like rice, wheat, and corn, has left us dependent on a narrow range of crops and varieties.
In the meantime, conservation efforts have largely followed a “reserve” approach intended to protect 17 percent of land and inland water, even though many species naturally venture beyond park boundaries and political borders. Until we ensure that land and water use support both food security and biodiversity conservation, neither goal will be achieved.
Following up on last year’s Rio+20 summit, leaders from the agricultural and environmental sectors launched a new initiative, Bridging Agriculture and Conservation, to demonstrate how agriculture can make better use of ecological systems to create resilient agricultural systems while enhancing biodiversity conservation.
This means rethinking the model of single-commodity farms to create agricultural landscapes in which production and conservation objectives are integrated. In this scenario, a rich variety of crops is cultivated; chemical runoff, pests, and disease movement are rigorously managed; and a hospitable environment is established for beneficial microbes, insects and wildlife.
We have created a high-level global Science Leadership Team to identify the science and the technologies that work best, employing science to support natural processes. One example is conservation – or “no-till” – agriculture to achieve higher yields through improved soil health. This method is practiced on roughly 17% of U.S. arable land currently.
We believe that achieving the dual goals of food security and biodiversity conservation will require more science, not less. It will require more knowledge and more technology. Science-based farming could produce increased incomes for millions of farmers and higher, more sustainable yields (sustainable crop intensification techniques have almost doubled yields in field tests).
Improved conservation would help restore endangered environmental services, including insect pollination, valued at more than 200 billion (US) in 2005. At the same time, diversification of cropping systems will strengthen the resilience of our food system, improve human nutrition, and open up profitable new markets for crops with growing demand like quinoa.
While many biodiversity-friendly strategies cost less to implement than conventional approaches, where costs are higher, agricultural production subsidies could be re-purposed to support the transition.
We are therefore calling for the interdependence of agriculture and conservation to be recognized in the both the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the Convention on Biodiversity. Efforts in both areas are doomed to failure unless their practitioners work together.
With the support of policy makers, opinion leaders, scientists, business leaders and the public, we can make “the farming we want” a reality in order to grow sufficient, nutritious food for future generations, to bring new prosperity to the countryside, and to make this planet a more diverse – and safer – home for all the species that dwell here.
Cristián Samper is President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Board member of Bioversity International. Ann Tutwiler is Director General of Bioversity International.