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. [Read more…]

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.

Why nutrition-smart agriculture matters, Devex

The next steps for Africa to meet its potential, The Washington Post

Limited potential of no-till agriculture for climate change mitigation, Powlson et al, Nature Climate Change

Getting caught with our plants down: the risks of a global crop yield slowdown from climate trends in the next two decades, Lobell and Tebaldi, Environmental Research Letters.

Smart Aid for the World’s Poor, The Wall Street Journal

Crops v conservation: how farmers can solve the dilemma, Financial Times

Food, farming and antibiotics: a health challenge for business, The Guardian

Farm manager plays leading role in postharvest loss, EurekAlert [Read more…]

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.

Big Data and development: Upsides, downsides and a lot of questions, Duncan Green, Oxfam

Cash Crops With Dividends: Financiers Transforming Strawberries Into Securities, The New York Times

Video: ‘Journey of a gene’ illustrates science of genetic engineering for consumers, Genetic Literacy Project

Why NGOs can’t be trusted on GMOs, The Guardian

The Guardian, Marc Gunther and some NGOs can’t be trusted on GMOs, Political Concern

International Food Security Assessment, 2014-24, USDA

On Trial: Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa, Chatham House

Could businesses do for aid what Amazon did for retail?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Missing Food, APPG on Agriculture and Food for Development

The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Food in the United States, CAST

‘Peak soil’ threatens future global food security, Reuters [Read more…]

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.

Roadmap for Strengthening Forest and Farm Producer Organizations, FAO

Six innovations revolutionising farming, The Guardian

Could insects feed the hungry world of tomorrow?, BBC

Beating the heat, Nature Biotechnology

Crop yields and global food security, Australian Government (GRDC)

Acres of genetically modified corn nearly doubled in a decade, Harvest Public Media

What’s the best way to measure empowerment?, Duncan Green, Oxfam

Majority of African Farm Workers Struggle to Afford Food, Gallup

Wild about Agricultural Innovation in Botswana, Global Food for Thought

Pesticide blamed for bee deaths now linked to bird declines, Los Angeles Times

Food Security and WTO Domestic Support Disciplines post-Bali, ICTSD

Why does Europe hate genetically modified food?, Rappler

Can Africa create a new green generation of food producers?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Higher Food Prices Can Help to End Hunger, Malnutrition and Food Waste, IPS

[Read more…]

DFID’s Agriculture and Growth evidence paper series

ID-10071316The UK Department for International Development has recently released a series of evidence synthesis papers on agriculture and economic growth, which aim to inform decision makers. While they do not represent DFID’s policy position they summarise the evidence underpinning debates related to several topics – agriculture and growth, agriculture and poverty, agriculture and the private sector, agriculture and women, and food prices and poverty.

Agriculture is an important sector for many developing countries both now and for their future development, contributing both to economic growth and reducing rural poverty. From the evidence assessed it appears that agriculture can have a positive effect on the economic growth of a country but this effect is contingent on many context-specific factors such as the current stage of economic development and resource endowments. Strong political commitment and an understanding of the local economy are key to maximising agriculture’s contribution to economic transformation. During early stages of a country’s development evidence shows that increasing agricultural productivity and incomes from farming drive demand for non-farm sectors and wider economic growth. At later stages the commercialisation of agriculture drives demand for agro-processing industries. Throughout this process and for sustained economic growth, countries are likely to have to shift resources from agriculture to other sectors as agriculture’s share in the national economy declines.

Agriculture can have a significant role to play in reducing poverty. Since agriculture is predominantly a rural activity, where the majority of the poor live, agricultural growth can stimulate greater rural labour opportunities. DFID found that poverty reduction from growth in agriculture is on average 2 to 4 times greater than from equivalent growth in other sectors. Again context matters and policies are needed to target poverty reduction alongside agricultural development. For many people in poverty increasing agricultural productivity may be a challenge particularly where the costs of doing so are prohibitive. In such cases agricultural growth which stimulates the rural non-farm economy may be more important for reducing poverty. Evidence suggests agriculture can be one part of a broader solution to tackle poverty and DFID identify several conditions whereby agricultural development can reduce poverty:

  • The domestic market is less well integrated into global trade.
  • A higher proportion of increased income is likely to be spent locally and on locally-produced goods and services.
  • There is an enabling environment and capacity in the local non-farm economy to increase production in response to increased demand.
  • Where small-holders have capability and capacity to either increase either the scale of production or the value of the produce.

[Read more…]

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.

Agriculture: Engage farmers in research, Nature

The World’s Resources Aren’t Running Out, The Wall Street Journal

Saving Crops and People with Bug Sensors, University of California, Riverside

NASA Goddard to Bring Satellite Data to African Agriculture, NASA

The Technology of Backyard Micro-Farming, Super Scholar

Enhancing resistance to coffee wilt disease in Uganda – the conventional way, B4FA

Food, the agricultural challenge of our time, Daily Monitor

Healthier, more efficient food systems could slash farm emissions, Thomson Reuters Foundation [Read more…]

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.

Who Wants to Farm? Youth Aspirations, Opportunities and Rising Food Prices, IDS

The Shocking Cost Of Food Waste, Forbes

Research-for-development project chalks up significant progress to save maize from Striga weed, IITA

A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World, National Geographic

Food Waste Reduction Alliance Publishes Toolkit for Reducing Food Waste, Food Waste Reduction Alliance

Rejected ideas ‘could have aided developing countries’, SciDev.Net

UN to measure women’s rights progress over past 20 years, The Guardian

Africa’s youth key to strengthening agricultural economy, Teatro Naturale International

Climate change mitigation must benefit the poor, aid experts say, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Biofortified Beans to Fight ‘Hidden Hunger’ in Rwanda, Inter Press Service

The Grapes of Wrath is 75 years old and more relevant than ever, The Guardian

Ten lessons from biotechnology experiences in developing countries, FAO

Climate Efforts Falling Short, U.N. Panel Says, The New York Times