Pay up or lose out: Incentives for food security

By Stephanie Brittain

Soil is a precious global resource that has long been overlooked. When soils are healthy, they provide a number of ‘ecosystem services’, including the food we eat, maintaining hydrological and nutrient cycles and offer a home for much of the planets flora and fauna.

ID-10042579However, soil degradation is a global issue affecting nearly one-third of the earth’s land area, caused by a number of different factors such as overgrazing, unsustainable farming practices, drought and wind erosion. When soils are degraded it disrupts the soils capacity to provide these vital ecosystem services, reducing the productive capacity of agricultural land by eroding topsoil and depleting nutrients resulting in enormous environmental, social and economic costs.

But if the benefits of sustainable land management seen so clear, then why don’t farmers already adopt these practices? In poor regions or those suffering from food insecurity in particular, it is hard to convince farmers to change their practices for more sustainable ones, usually at the expense of a higher yield in the short term. This short-term thinking is exasperated by a lack of political and financial support to combat soil degradation in Africa, leading to long term problems of nutrient deficient soil that is unable to maintain the level of production. Farmers require incentives for investing in soil health as the short term return on sustainable land management is currently unattractive.

The December 2014 Montpellier Panel report ‘No Ordinary Matter:  Preserving, restoring and enhancing Africa’s soils’ found that in sub-Saharan Africa, the economic loss of soil degradation is estimated at $68 billion per year, affecting an estimated 180 million people. In some areas of Africa, agricultural productivity declined by half between 1981 and 2003 as a result of soil erosion and desertification processes.

Payment for Ecosystem Services

With reports such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluding that more than 60% of the world’s ecosystems are being used in ways that cannot be sustained, more needs to be done to promote the sustainable use of our natural resources.

Credit: Kate Holt/Africa Practice (2009)

Credit: Kate Holt/Africa Practice (2009)

One method that has been used to promote and encourage sustainable natural resource management  is ‘Payment for Ecosystem Services’ (PES); an approach to environmental management that uses cash payments or other compensation to, for example, encourage farmers to better look after their soils for ecosystem conservation and restoration.

Payments for ecosystem services are not primarily designed to reduce poverty. But, there are opportunities for designing PES which can enable low-income communities and individuals to earn additional income through land management, restoration and conservation, thus promoting sustainable ecosystem management.

An example of a successful PES scheme can be found in Kenya in the form of the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project (KACP), which aims to test the role carbon finance can play in persuading small-scale farmers to adopt more sustainable practices. Not only has adopting more sustainable agricultural practices led to an increase in yields for some participating farmers of up to 30%, but sustainable and responsible farming practices also locks carbon in the ground –earning the farmer additional income in the form of carbon credits. [Read more…]

The value of soil

ID-10064167“For all things come from earth, and all things end by becoming earth.” Xenophanes, 580 B.C. You could, in reading this quote, be mistaken in thinking that the soil is a regenerating, renewable resource. Soil is formed from slowly decomposing rocks, sediment and organic matter. This process is so slow in fact that it takes 2,000 years to build 10cm of topsoil, such an unhurried rate of growth that soil should be thought of as finite, non-renewable and a resource that needs to be protected.

Healthy soils provide a variety of ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, water regulation, flood protection, habitats for biodiversity and food production. For approximately 1 to 1.5 billion people in the world land degradation is reducing some of these services, negatively impacting their quality of life and livelihoods.

So far we haven’t been doing a very good job of protecting the soil. We overuse and cultivate unsuitable land which leads to land degradation. Soils left bare in conventional farming practices and farming on slopes accelerate soil loss and erosion. Forests and plants protect the soil but every year 13 million hectares of forest are cut down and to date an estimated 75% of the world’s primary forest has been cleared.

In 2011, an estimated 24 billion tonnes of soil were lost, which amounts to some 3.4 tonnes of soil lost per person. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that one quarter of the world’s 13 billion hectares of land is degraded. In the pursuit of greater yields and profits we have compromised soil health, mining soils for nutrients, over-using fertilizers, creating over 4 billion hectares of man-made deserts and depleting over 8 billion hectares of deep organic soils.

Soils for Life, an Australian project, produced a video for 2012 Global Soil Week, which likens the world’s store of soils to money in a bank account, from which we continually withdraw without paying in.

Only more recently have we begun to explore the costs land degradation imposes on the environment and society.Soil degradation costs every person on the planet $70 each year, totalling $490 billion and this doesn’t include the indirect impacts of poor soils such as reduced water supply and declining crop yields, in turn leading to poverty, food insecurity and conflict, impacts that are only expected to worsen. In Africa two-thirds of crop land is expected to be lost by 2025. One thing is clear: it is not economically viable to carry on using and exploiting soils in the way we do today.

Recently the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative produced a video explaining the value of soil. The video explains that degraded soils leave us vulnerable, reducing ecosystem goods and services and resilience. For example degraded soils can’t store as much carbon, contributing to climate change. But soils can also be degraded as a result of changing weather patterns.

Both videos point to sustainable land management as the answer to land degradation and declining soil resources. While acknowledged as being expensive to implement, such practices are more cost effective over the long-term. Through farming methods such as conservation tillage we can rebuild soil stores. Some studies have shown that organic matter can increase by as much as 1,800 pounds per acre per year under long-term no-till production. Sustainable land management practices could, it’s estimated, add additional crop production of 230 billion tonnes each year.

We cannot overlook soil as there is no life without it. There is hope for the future that through sustainable agricultural practices we can reverse current trends of land degradation. But we need a better understanding of the value of soils, the processes that occur in soils and the best way to protect and restore soil reserves. To end with another quote: “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” Leonardo DaVinci, circa 1500s.

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

A meta-analysis of crop yield under climate change and adaptation, Nature

A Green Revolution, This Time for Africa, The New York Times

Philippine experts divided over climate change action, The Guardian

New Innovations to Reduce Harvest Loss in Africa, The Rockefeller Foundation

Is more hunger and malnutrition inevitable? Not necessarily, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Unity is strength in the marketing of smallholder farm produce, EurekAlert

Don’t sacrifice EU environmental standards to get trade deal with US, warns Greenpeace policy director, Vieuws

Farming for Improved Ecosystem Services Seen as Economically Feasible, American Institute of Biological Sciences

US pork prices rise 10% after virus kills millions of piglets, The Guardian

Northern Europe hit by most bee deaths – EU study, BBC

Looking to Wheat’s Wild Ancestors to Combat an Evolving Threat, USDA

Who’s leading on climate action pledges? A calculator reveals all, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Field study shows why food quality will suffer with rising CO2, UC Davis

 

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Highlight: the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association (NASFAM) in Malawi, PAEPARD

FAO launches new standards for plant genebanks, FAO

Africa and India cultivate agricultural research ties, SciDev.Net

Who will pay for ecosystem services?, IIED

It’s not the ‘skipping’ three who should be questioned, it’s the wasteful supermarkets, The Independent

Pesticides halve bees’ pollen gathering ability, research shows, The Guardian

Natural Gas and Albacore: What Tuna Says About the Future of Mozambique, New Security Beat

Press Briefing of H.E. Mrs. Rhoda Peace Tumusiime, Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture, PAEPARD

Fertilizer nutrient imbalance to limit food production in Africa, IIASA

Genetic weapon against insects raises hope and fear in farming, New York Times [Read more…]

Incorporating ecosystem service values in agricultural planning

ID-1006603Ecosystem services, “the benefits that people derive from nature” (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005), are rarely taken into account in the valuation of agricultural commodities, despite the impacts (both positive and negative) agriculture can have on such services, for example the provision of food and nutrition, climate regulation, water quality and soil fertility. Ecosystem services themselves can increase agricultural productivity and resilience. For example in Costa Rican coffee plantations, birds such as the yellow warbler, can reduce infestations of the coffee borer beetle by around half.

Research on ecosystem services has increased exponentially, from Gretchen Daily’s book, Nature’s Services in 1997, to the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment in 2005 and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) in 2010. Andrew Balmford and colleagues in 2002 investigated the economic implications for conserving wild land versus converting it to agriculture by including economic values for ecosystem services, finding a benefit-cost ratio of 100:1 for the preservation of natural habitats. Framing the issues in economic terms helps to identify the trade-offs that must be minimised.

Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) is a global partnership of organisations including UN agencies, governments, NGOs, academia and international organisations, which aims to “promote sustainable development by ensuring that natural resources are mainstreamed in development planning and national economic accounts”. Countries implementing this type of thinking include Botswana, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Indonesia, Madagascar, Philippines and Rwanda, where WAVES is working with government ministries of planning and finance and central banks to integrate ecosystem services, as opposed to GDP alone, into decision making.

Recently, and building on this work, a new model for assessing the values of ecosystem services in specific sites has been developed by a partnership of organisations including the University of Cambridge, BirdLife, UNEP-WCMC, RSPB, Tropical Biology Association and Anglia Ruskin University. The aim was to “develop and deploy a rapid assessment tool to understand how far conserving sites for their biodiversity importance also helps to conserve different ecosystem services relative to a converted state.” The resulting product, Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-Based Assessments (TESSA), was also designed to be used by non-experts, be quick to use, be reliable and be participatory. [Read more…]

Mainstreaming natural capital into decision-making

ID-10033243On the 31st October 2013, Gretchen Daily, Professor of Environmental Science, Stanford Woods, presented her experiences and research on how we can harmonise agriculture and biodiversity conservation through quantifying the value of ecosystem services and developing policy and finance mechanisms that enable the integration of human needs and environmental protection.

Undertaking the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Sustainability Studies, the seminar was the first in a series of talks by Prof. Daily at the University of Cambridge.

Prof Daily began by showing a picture of a tea plantation in Uganda surrounded by cloud forest. Her work encompasses the ways in which we can value the natural habitats surrounding human-modified landscapes so that they can become part of decision-making processes. Achieving global food security while protecting natural systems is crucial both for human well-being and to help us avoid the catastrophic changes in the Earth’s systems that are predicted.

In a small-scale study in Costa Rica, Prof. Daily and colleagues investigated the value of biodiversity-driven benefits for coffee production to illuminate how important biodiversity is for agriculture. Coffee is competing with petroleum for the biggest export from developing countries. The forests surrounding the small-scale coffee plantations the team investigated were found to harbour some 700 bee species, 150 bird species and 70 bat species. The pollination boost these species provided was valued at $60,000 per year, 10% of the annual income from one farm while the pest control services were worth some $10,000 per year. Pest control services were particularly important in controlling a rapidly spreading pest of coffee, the coffee berry borer, which can wipe out up to 75% of yield and to which there are no pesticide or other chemical interventions available yet. To date there has been no awareness of these dimensions of the value of surrounding biodiversity and more needs to be done to quantify them at a scale relevant to human activities. [Read more…]

Agroecosystems: the future of sustainable farming

Managing-Water-and-Agroecosystems-for-Food-SecurityA new book launched last month at World Water Week in Stockholm sets out the challenges the world faces in feeding a growing population in the face of severe resource constraints and climate change. Authors of the book, the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems in partnership with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), emphasise the importance of adopting a new way of farming, viewing farms as interfaces between achieving global food security and environmental protection or in other words as agroecosystems.

With a focus on water, the book details the importance of ecosystem services for the direct provision of food and as the ecological foundation upon which agriculture rests. In a recent UK government report ecosystem services were estimated to benefit the UK economy by as much as £1.6 billion per year with pollinators contributing some 13% of the country’s annual income from farming. Not only are these services under threat from farming systems that degrade the resource base but from such global hazards as climate and demographic change.

The book, Managing Water and Agroecosystems for Food Security, not only details the challenges we face in providing enough food to feed the population and the importance of water for agriculture and a range of other ecosystem services, it also provides practical approaches to managing water for agroecosystems. For example, increasing water productivity across a range of food producing industries as well as market mechanisms such as Payments for Ecosystems Services. As the authors acknowledge, however, an agroecosystems approach will require societal and political change at the local, landscape and global levels.