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…]