Mechanisms to increase agricultural productivity and spare land for conservation


“Green rice field in Chiang Rai, Thailand” by punsayaporn

Habitat loss driven by expanding agricultural land is a major driver of biodiversity loss. Two, seemingly opposing, strategies have been proposed as a way of reconciling increased demand for agricultural production and conservation of biodiversity, and in turn preventing further conversion of natural habitat to farming: land sparing (the intensification of agriculture to set aside land for conservation) and land sharing (the integration of farming and conservation on agricultural land such as eco-agriculture).

Up until now the land sparing/land sharing debate has largely revolved around theoretical arguments. Much of the support for land sparing has come from using data to maximise the number of species conserved under a fixed level of agricultural production in various settings, with the finding that more species are negatively affected by agriculture than benefit from it. But, in general, little of the discussion has focused on the way in which land sparing might be achieved. Now in a recent paper in Science by Phalan et al, the way in which land sparing could become a practical approach to biodiversity conservation and improved agricultural productivity is explained in more detail.

Land sparing as an approach has been criticised for failing to consider situations where agricultural intensification has stimulated expansion of farming rather than protection of land for conservation. Proponents of the approach acknowledge this phenomena and the fact that rising demands and increased productivity can increase the “opportunity cost of conservation”. To tackle this significant obstacle authors introduce four mechanisms that aim to link agricultural productivity and biodiversity or habitat conservation, and thus avoid rebound effects of increased yields driving growth in the agricultural industry rather than sparing land.

  • Land use zoning. By zoning areas for agriculture or conservation, expansion can be limited, which may motivate landholders to improve productivity and efficiency on existing agricultural land. There is the potential for habitat to be converted to farming outside of the zoned area though, otherwise known as displacement or leakage. The success of Costa Rica in halving deforestation of mature forests by preventing agricultural expansion onto forests through zoning, and the subsequent increase in fruit production, is given as an example.
  • Economic instruments, such as payments, land taxes, and subsidies. Such instruments can have conditions built in to protect habitat for biodiversity but they are also notoriously difficult to implement and maintain so that all parties benefit. Considered a successful example, the incentive programme jointly developed by herders and local government in the Spiti Valley of Himalayan India to set aside land for snow leopard prey in exchange for payment and technical assistance has, within the first four years of the project, reduced the amount of livestock killed by snow leopards by two-thirds and reduced the amount of snow leopards killed down to zero. [Read more…]

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…]

Land use change to increase livestock productivity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions

ID-10013909Land use change, while most often associated with the loss of natural habitat, could be a cost-effective method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving threatened species. A new study in Nature entitled, Cheap carbon and biodiversity co-benefits from forest regeneration in a hotspot of endemism, investigated carbon stocks, biodiversity and economic values in the western Andes of Colombia, a threatened ecosystem rich in endemic species where land is predominantly used for cattle farming.

Results of the study found that if farmers were to allow forest to regenerate on their land, foregoing cattle farming, they would match or increase their current incomes through receiving payments for carbon. Under current carbon markets the price per tonne of carbon dioxide trees remove from the atmosphere is $1.99. Farmers’ land would be leased for 30 years and they would be paid for the carbon grown.

Aside from the benefits for climate change mitigation, forest regeneration would also support biodiversity. In their study, researchers found 33 out of the 40 red-list bird species in the area existed in secondary forest, compared to 11 in cattle pastures.

While researchers claim the regeneration of forest on cattle land in this region to be a win-win, for climate change, biodiversity and farmers’ livelihoods, such a study fails to take into account the sustainability of carbon payments through, for example, REDD+, particularly if cattle prices increase on the global market, the growing demand for livestock products and the broader role livestock play in the livelihoods and cultures of communities in the region.

Another study recently published found, through the use of an economic model of global land use, that the intensification of cattle farming in Brazil, through either a tax on cattle from conventional pasture or a subsidy for cattle from semi-intensive pasture, could reduce deforestation and associated greenhouse gas emissions, and double productivity in pasturelands. Cattle ranching in Brazil is thought to be responsible for 75 to 80% of deforestation in the country. [Read more…]

Innovation in the agriculture, forestry and other land uses sector could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half

SmithA new paper by Smith et al published in Global Change Biology asks the question, How much land-based greenhouse gas mitigation can be achieved without compromising food security and environmental goals? Authors attempt to answer this question by modelling the potential of supply- and demand-side mitigation options available in the Agriculture, Forestry and other land uses sector, as well as their impacts on one another and on food security.

On the supply side such practices as alternative uses for biomass, and land sparing, have the potential to reduce emissions by 1.5 to 4.3 Gt CO2 equivalent per year at carbon prices of between $20 and $100. For 2011, the International Energy Agency estimated annual emissions as 31.6 Gt CO2 equivalent. Seeking to reduce the carbon footprint of the AFOLU sector while at the same time increasing food production, is a core aim of sustainable intensification, which advocates using inputs in a more judicious manner to achieve greater outputs.

On the demand-side measures such as reducing food waste and shifting to less resource-intensive diets could reduce emissions between 1.5 and 15.6 Gt CO2 equivalent per year. Such solutions may also aid in the fight against food insecurity and hunger.

The paper advocates for action to be taken on both the supply- and demand-sides, which when their maximum potentials are totalled could mean a halving of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Sonja Vermuelen, Head of Research at CGIAR’s research programme on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), in her blog on the paper, indicates the importance of policy, both for stimulating a shift to sustainable intensification but also the considerable changes in consumer behaviour that will be required. Political leadership, determination and significant innovation will be needed if we are to reach this goal.

What we’ve been reading this week

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

New study: A warming world will further intensify extreme precipitation events, NOAA

Pioneers in Sustainable Food Show We Can Eat Well and Protect Environment, NRDC

You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions? Lee et al

Transforming lives through improved access to agricultural education in Africa, NRI

Enterprise fund, Farm Africa

Land sparing versus land sharing: new evidence, Ideas for Sustainability

Traditional weeding methods still prevail on Ugandan farms, Pathways to Productivity

How can agribusiness work best for development? The Guardian

Important source of greenhouse gas emissions from farmland underestimated, UC Davis

Uganda’s genetically modified golden bananas, BBC

Robustness and strategies of adaptation among farmer varieties of African rice (Oryza glaberrima) and Asian rice (Oryza sativa) across West Africa, PLoS One

Examining benefits and safety of genetically modified crops, Peoples Daily

Gender-sensitive climate finance crucial – experts, AlertNet

New IATP report addresses water governance in the 21st century, IATP

Loss of wild pollinators would hit crops, finds study, SciDev.Net

Fighting for family farmers, Huffington Post

The G-20 and Food Security: What Is the Right Agenda? The Stanley Institute

Obama signs ‘Monsanto Protection Act’ written by Monsanto-sponsored senator, RT