Mechanisms to increase agricultural productivity and spare land for conservation

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“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…]

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.

Agricultural science is the backbone of sustainable development, Thomson Reuters Foundation

New Generation of GM Crops Puts Agriculture in a ‘Crisis Situation’, Wired

Amped-up plants, Nature

Moral Hazard? ‘Mega’ public-private partnerships in African agriculture, Oxfam

The African Landscapes Action Plan, Landscapes for People, Food and Nature

Closing the Gap for Post-2015: New Ambition for Acute Malnutrition, Huffington Post

UN: only small farmers and agroecology can feed the world, The Ecologist

The Time Has Come for Agroecology, IPS

Is FAO opening a window for ecological farming?, Greenpeace

How to equip farmers for climate change, CNN

Climate-smart agriculture: balancing trade-offs in food systems and ecosystems, CCAFS

Commodities: Cereal excess, Financial Times [Read more…]

Hungry for land: big farms getting bigger and small farms getting smaller

ID-100131830Smallholder farmers produce the bulk of the world’s food with only minimal resources such as land and water. In fact small-scale food producers farm less than one quarter of the world’s farmland, a proportion that is declining. A new GRAIN report, Hungry for Land, investigates whether the shrinking size of land under small-scale farming poses a potential threat to the global production of food. The conclusion was clear, “we need to urgently put land back in the hands of small farmers and make the struggle for agrarian reform central to the fight for better food systems”.

As a multitude of media articles tells us land is a hot commodity, one that is fought over and one that increasingly small-scale farmers are being evicted from. Be it for large-scale oil palm plantations, the creation of protected areas or the discovery of oil, insecure systems of land tenure and opaque policy decisions are taking land away from the marginal to give to a variety of domestic or foreign stakeholders. Land, as the report states, is being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

Previous estimates of the amount of land farmed by smallholders range between 60-70%, according to various UN agency reports. Using data from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation and national authorities, GRAIN investigated how much land was really in the hands of smallholder farmers. And the answer…24.7%. This was at its lowest in Africa (14.7%), although this is expected to be an underestimate, and highest in China (70.9%). Average farm size was recorded at 2.2ha. The smallest average farm sizes occurring in India (0.6ha), the largest in North America (67.6ha). The full dataset is available here.

The report, while acknowledging the limitations of the data available, draws several conclusions:

  • The vast majority of farms in the world today are small and getting smaller. In India farm size roughly halved between 1971 and 2006.
  • Small farms currently cover less than a quarter of the world’s farmland. In countries such as DR Congo, Mozambique, Namibia, Peru, Paraguay, Russia, Bulgaria, Malaysia and Iran, the picture is more extreme where 70% of farms are small yet occupy less than 10% of the land.
  • We’re fast losing farms and farmers in many places while, big farms are getting bigger. In the EU farms over 100ha in size make up just 3% of the total number of farms but occupy 50% of the farmed land. In Colombia small farmers have lost approximately half of their land since 1980.
  • Small farms continue to be the major food producers in the world. Smallholder farmers are estimated to produce around 80% of food consumed in non-industrial countries.
  • Small farms are overall more productive than big farms. If all farms in Kenya had the current productivity levels of the country’s small farms, overall crop production would double.
  • Most small farmers are women. Because FAOSTAT define farmers as those people who earn an income from farming, women, who may work on family farms but not directly receive money for their work, are not effectively captured and statistics can be misleading. Other studies report that in developing countries, 60-80% of food is produced by women.

[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.

Weight of the world: 2.1 billion people obese or overweight, Reuters

Despite all the highs and lows around the world, our number one challenge is how to feed humanity with nutritious food!, African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development

Food, health and sustainability: we become what we eat, and so does Earth, The Guardian

12 Data visualizations that illustrate poverty’s biggest challenges, ONE

The Science of Inequality. What the numbers tell us, Science

3,000 rice genome sequences made publicly available on World Hunger Day, EurekAlert

UPDATE 2-EU member states back compromise to allow GM crops-diplomats, Reuters

EU biofuel targets need 70m ha of land, says report, Farmers Weekly [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…]

International Women’s Day 2014

womenwatchAround the world some 600 million women are smallholder farmers or landless workers. A new video from CGIAR showcases the experiences of twelve women from Zambia, Bangladesh, Philippines and Cambodia to mark International Women’s Day on 8th March 2014.

Recognition of the importance of focusing on gender in agricultural development has been growing but authors of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s State of Food and Agriculture 2010/11: Women in agriculture, claim that in the writing of the report many gender myths became apparent. Statistics repeatedly used but for which there is little hard evidence. As an example it is commonly stated that women produce 60-80% of food but only own 2% of the land, yet these claims are often generalised, out of date or hard to track to their original source. Through investigating big data such as this it became clear to authors that evidence on women in agriculture was outdated and quite poor. The picture of gender in agriculture that emerged was far more nuanced, as Terri Rainey of FAO discussed at a policy seminar, Beyond Gender Myths, held by the International Food Policy Research Institute in November 2013.

While it is very hard to generalise, women tend to operate smaller farms then men and generate lower yields because they have access to fewer inputs. The FAO calculated that If this yield gap (on average around 20-30%) was closed, national level gains in productivity of around 2.5-4% would result, which would reduce the number of  hungry by 12-17%, the equivalent of 100 to 150 million people. These numbers have been widely criticised both for being too large and also too low. As productivity was only increased on female-headed households’ farms, despite women being much more broadly involved in agriculture, Terri Rainey believes these increases in yields and reductions in hunger are an underestimate of the transformational change that focusing on increasing female farmers’ productivity can bring about.

The SOFA report helped dispel some of the myths and it also generated significant amounts of information, motivating the development of a new publication due to be released this spring. The book, “Gender in Agriculture and Food Security: Closing the Knowledge Gap” is a comprehensive handbook on the state of knowledge in gender and agriculture.

Closing the gaps be they knowledge gaps, yield gaps or gaps in access to productive resources is clearly an urgent challenge and one that could bring about transformational global change, and one that fits with the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day,  “equality for women is progress for all”. [Read more…]

When will we run out of land?

ID-100170505Between 1980 and 2000 over half of new agricultural land in the tropics was created through cutting down intact forest. Land clearing for crop production is a major issue for the maintenance of biodiversity and environmental stability but growing human demand for food is only one of several pressures on land, a resource that is rapidly shrinking.

Recently we at Agriculture for Impact came across a paper investigating global land scarcity, a topic much discussed in One Billion Hungry and on this blog. Published in 2011, the paper by Dr Lambin of Stanford University and Dr Meyfroidt of the University of Louvain, entitled Global land use change, economic globalization and the looming land scarcity, documents the processes that are driving global land use change and estimates when we might run out of land.

Of the total ice free land on the planet (13,300 million hectares), around 4,000Mha is suitable for rain-fed agriculture. The amount of land that is currently uncultivated, that isn’t forested, protected or populated by more than 25 people per km2 is estimated at 445Mha and occurs mainly in the cerrados and grasslands of Latin America and the savannahs of Africa, which are important in themselves for biodiversity conservation and livestock grazing. The paper’s authors calculate low and high estimates of the amount of land needed to supply demand for different competing land uses:

Cropland for human food – an additional 2.7-4.9Mha each year depending on food waste, diets and efficiency.

Biofuels – 1.5-3.9Mha per year based on current biofuel mandates

Pasture – 0-5Mha per year based on the projected intensification of livestock systems

Urbanisation – 1.6-3.3Mha per year

Industrial forestry – 1.9-3.6Mha per year

Protected areas – 0.9-2.7Mha per year

Land degradation – 1-2.9Mha of land will be lost each year

Added together and balanced against current available land, and assuming that some deforestation will occur, means that current land reserves will run out by the late 2020s at the earliest and 2050 at the latest, and this is excluding the impacts of climate change. [Read more…]