Feeding a Growing Population that Relies on Ecosystem Services (Part II of II)

by | Aug 3, 2011

This is the second in a two-part series. Read part I here.

The future of farming, food supply, and protection of natural resources are utterly interdependent.

While all economic sectors depend to some degree on ecosystem services, agriculture has the most intimate relationship with nature. Agriculture depends on healthy ecosystems for services such as pollination for nearly 75% of the world’s crop species, freshwater, erosion control, and climate and water regulation.  It also employs 40% of global population and about 70% at the base of the pyramid.

At the same time, agriculture is the dominant influence on ecosystem health, with approximately 40 percent of the Earth’s land cover used for crop production and pasture. The drive for more food to feed a growing population has led to the conversion of forests into cropland, nutrient impacts on inland and coastal waters, and the use of nearly 70% of global freshwater.

Between now and 2050, the global population are expected to increase from around 7 billion to 9 billion. Much of this growth will be in developing countries where it is not uncommon for poor rural households to obtain between one-half to two-thirds of their income from the goods and services that nature provides.

The challenge of feeding a growing population while lifting millions out of poverty is daunting.  Yet if sustainable farming practices are adopted, agriculture can continue to provide critical ecosystem services, such as water regulation and carbon controls, while still producing higher yields of food. There are some hopeful signs. Niger, for example, has recently witnessed a farmer-led “re-greening” movement that has reversed desertification and brought increased crop production, income, food security, and self-reliance to impoverished rural food producers. This transformation has been driven by the practice of agroforestry, which integrates trees into food crop landscapes to maintain a green cover year-round, improving soil quality, erosion control and carbon sequestration.

In the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been leading the way in investing in ecosystem services.  Prompted by the 2008 Farm Bill, the agency launched an Office of Environmental Markets with the aim of creating new, incentive-based revenue streams for farmers that adopt more sustainable practices. Nascent markets are now beginning to emerge, including nutrient trading in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. At the farm level, Field to Market, a non-profit U.S. initiative, focuses on sustainable practices that enhance water quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem services.  One evolving work product is the Fieldprint Calculator that farmers can use to assess the relative farming practices on his or her farm.

At a global scale, the World Economic Forum recently published Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture which seeks to integrate ecosystems services into agricultural practices.  Led by several multinational companies, the roadmap encourages increased investment in agriculture for food security, collaboration at a global scale, and private sector implementation of sustainable practices.

Despite these efforts, key questions remain as the agricultural sector faces the triple challenge of population growth, ecosystem degradation and climate change: How can we ensure that, on a global scale, there are sufficient ecosystem services to maximize farm yields on a sustainable basis? What is the baseline for an adequate level of ecosystem services?  And what resources, tools and incentives do farmers and ranchers need to meet it?

Next year, the Rio+20 world summit in Brazil will focus on the Green Economy and how to integrate ecosystem services, particularly for the agricultural sector. Below are opportunities for governments to ensure the future of ecosystem services for agriculture:

Knowledge transfer –With the explosion of mobile technology, particularly in emerging markets where six in ten people have mobile phones, knowledge can be updated and communicated quickly to farmers and other stakeholders. Nokia, for example, has launched “Life Tools” to disseminate information such as market prices, agricultural input prices and weather in emerging countries.   

Farmer focus – Further development of tools and resources is urgently needed at the farm level. These should be tailored for smallholders, especially women, who make up the majority of farmers in many developing countries.  

Strengthened science-policy interface – The creation of the new UN-led Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is a much needed initiative to improve the links between emerging scientific knowledge and policy action, particularly in agriculture.

Public-Private Collaborations – Academics, communities, governments, NGOs and business need to work together at a global and impactful scale to tackle the food production challenge.

Alignment of policies and incentives to sustain ecosystem services – Traditionally ecosystems and their services have been carved up into separate government agencies, and separate laws, policies, and international agreements. These areas need to be better integrated and strategically aligned.

Innovation – Innovative products and technologies are needed to maintain ecosystem services. Seeds are being developed, for example, that are drought tolerant and nitrogen efficient, and efforts are intensifying to keep crops pest and disease free.  Many companies are getting involved, such as IBM, as part of their Smarter Food initiative to map the genome of some orphan crops. Research that is hoped to lead to growing more disease resistant crops.

If farmers, scientists, agricultural companies and policymakers can work together to make this agenda happen at scale, we can preserve the ecosystem services that underpin global agriculture and human wellbeing, while feeding 9 billion people.

To learn more, below is a partial listing of the numerous efforts occurring on an international, national, and regional scale.

Janet Ranganathan is VP of Science and Research for World Resources Institute. Amanda DeSantis is Leader of Sustainability Initiatives for DuPont.


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