Boom and Bust: the future of our food producing ecosystems

ID-100219796A recent paper, No Dominion over Nature, authored by UK ecologists, Professors Mark Huxham, Sue Hartley, Jules Pretty and Paul Tett, describes how current approaches to food production are damaging the long term health of ecosystems, hampering their ability to provide ecosystem services and leaving them vulnerable to collapse. Focusing on continual (and unsustainable) increases in agricultural productivity, for example through intensive monocultures, will inevitably lead to a “boom and bust” cycle.

The “dominant narrative” in meeting the ever increasing demand for food (some estimate we need to increase food production by 100% by 2050 to meet this demand) is to intensify agricultural production, an approach, such as the Green Revolution, that has so far allowed food production to keep pace with population growth. Such a pathway, as authors argue, is causing ecosystem deterioration, eroding the ecosystem services we rely upon such as pollination, climate regulation and water purification. Intensification comes at an economic and ecological cost – ever increasing synthetic input amounts are costly, too costly for some, while they have serious impacts on the environment.

An alternative is low input agriculture such as organic farming, which may not produce the yields to meet future demand without expansion of farming area and similarly poses a threat to the environment with agricultural expansion being a major factor in the conversion of natural habitats, deforestation and biodiversity loss. In particular the report talks about the debate between those arguing for intensification and those for low-input farming, most often framed as an argument between economists and environmentalists, or ostriches and romantics as Paul Collier terms them. Ostriches in that proponents may have their head in the sand ignoring looming environmental and climate crises, romantics in that their advocacy of environmentally friendly approaches such as organic may seem appealing but could have negative impacts, for example increasing the cost of food to account for environmental externalities, which could exacerbate hunger.

The authors reject both approaches suggesting instead “a focus on maintaining ecosystem health through the management of terrestrial and aquatic environments as multifunctional mosaics”. In a sense combining intensive agriculture with neighbouring land that provides ecosystem services in a way that maximises ecosystem resilience. In particular the concepts of bioproductivity, “the ability of ecosystems to capture energy in organic form”, an ability which forms the basis of food production, and thresholds or planetary boundaries are discussed as key management guidelines. Ecosystems should be seen as “functional self-regulating systems” and should be managed to ensure a continual and adequate supply of ecosystem services.

Authors also discuss their mixed use mosaic approach in relation to sustainable intensification, asserting that the two are similar but that the former is broader in scope covering not just food production but all bioproductivity and ecosystem services.

Such mixed use mosaic landscapes identify with both the land sparing and land sharing and resilience literature. An interpretation issue with all fields is that of scale. What size of farm and what size of adjoining area is needed to provide sufficient food and ecosystem services? Authors state that scale can vary but is less than the size of a country but more clarification on what a mized use mosaic may look like in practice is needed. The storylines developed under the UK National Ecosystem Assessment are offered as an example of policy strategies (Nature@Work and Local Stewardship) that manage landscapes and ecosystems for multiple uses, stating that this approach could achieve modest productivity increases and enhanced resilience. How much more production and resilience and whether this will be enough to meet food demands and to cope with forthcoming shocks such as climate change is unsure. While an ecosystem health approach sounds good in theory what does it mean in practice?

Four key changes in the way we think about and manage food production are needed, the authors argue:

1) “Governments, businesses and civil society should aim to counteract negative trends such as population growth, the impacts of climate change and unsustainable consumption patterns.” For example public policies to reduce meat consumption and decouple economic growth from dietary shifts.

2) “Ecosystems should not be viewed and treated as machines for the production of food or fibre, rather they are more like organisms with multiple needs and functions.” The report highlights the importance of environmental or social justice not just in the distribution of environmental costs but also of benefits, including food production. Both fair governance as well as social cohesion and empowerment will be critical to ensuring a more equitable distribution of ecosystem goods and services.

3) “Technology and research are crucial in meeting the challenges ahead; making them open-source and combined with social learning (which shares relevant expertise from a wide range of sources) will benefit the greatest number of people.” Appropriate technologies are needed to feed a growing population while remaining within ecological limits. Within agriculture many advances have been made as a result of public research but funding continues to decline, threatening future progress.

4) “Global markets in food and commodities need to recognise and value appropriately the positive services that ecosystems provide in addition to food production, and to incorporate features that reduce price volatility and shocks to ensure food security at all levels of society.” Environmental shocks and stresses can be thought of as economic failures. Some argue that without market signals in times of environmental scarcity we can expect such declines in ecosystem function and resilience to continue.

Overall the report highlights the urgent need to view and manage ecosystems in terms of their health and resilience, both of which are key to the sustained provision of food. To achieve both increased food production and protected, well-functioning ecosystems we need both open source scientific and technological knowledge as well as market approaches to reduce food price volatility and incentivise ecosystem management. While the paper is one of few to provide an alternative to the intensification/extensification debate and propose large-scale policy changes, much more needs to be explained about how to achieve mixed use mosaics as an evolution from current farming landscapes. We look forward to hopefully reading more from these authors.

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