Agricultural Innovation to Protect the Environment

ID-10032276 (2)Food security, poverty reduction, environmental protection: increasingly the links between these three global challenges are being recognised. And a recent special feature of PNAS, Agricultural Innovation to Protect the Environment, explored this topic.

As the introductory paper by Sayer and Cassman explains, agriculture is increasingly being required to consider its environmental impact along with ways it can increase natural capital. In part this is because an unhealthy environment can limit our ability to produce food but also because the intensification of food production we require to meet future food needs could have irreversible impacts on water resources, the climate and human health.

Innovation and innovativeness are needed if we are to tackle these interacting challenges. In the past the Green Revolution allowed food production to keep pace with population growth and is estimated to have saved 17.9 and 26.7 million hectares of land but it failed to address issues of sustainability and equitability, and the problems we face now are more complex.

New concepts such as eco-efficiency and green growth, and new methods for dealing with uncertainty are being adopted. New technologies such as mobile phones, biotechnology and methane recovery can be both effective and profitable. Advanced technologies in China, for example, could cut N fertilizer-related emissions by 20–63%, amounting to a reduction in China’s total Greenhouse Gas emissions by 2–6%. The challenge is to enhance the process of innovating and ensure existing innovations are accessible to and have impact for those who need them most.

Recognition of the importance of investigating food security, livelihoods, conservation and environmental protection at a landscape scale is increasing.  Despite being difficult to frame, unaided by the somewhat ambiguous definitions of a landscape, socioeconomic and ecological processes occur and interact at a range of scales. In an article by Sayer et al, 10 principles for using a landscape approach to reconcile environmental, developmental, and agricultural goals are outlined.

If we can begin to work to these principles and understand the interactions between agriculture, conservation and other land uses we stand a better chance of identifying trade-offs and, more importantly, win-wins.

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