Thinking Ecoagriculture: Editorials on Integrating Agriculture, Biodiversity, and Livelihoods
Many of the world’s leading thinkers and activists are talking publicly and forcefully about the importance of including rural livelihoods and farm production in the current hot debates on conservation and climate change, and they are also highlighting the urgent need to consider biodiversity and ecosystem health in the calls to action on food security and poverty reduction. Though they might not be called ‘ecoagriculture,’ these new messages are encouraging the world to take a more integrated approach in our development and conservation strategies. Here we highlight a number of key editorials on various issues that expound the ‘ecoagriculture’ philosophy.
Connecting Nature’s Dots
Thomas L. Friedman
In The New York Times (August 22, 2010)
Full text: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/opinion/23friedman.html?_r=2
Jao Flats, Botswana
Who knew that deep in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where there are no paved roads, phones or TVs, you could find the morning paper waiting for you every day outside your tent, with the latest news, weather and sports? Who knew?
True, this is no ordinary journal. The newspaper here on the Jao Flats of the northwest Okavango flood plain is published on the roads — literally. The wetlands are bisected by hippo trails and narrow roads made from pure white Kalahari Desert sand. And every morning, when you set out to investigate the wilderness, it is not uncommon for a guide to lean out of his jeep, study the animal and insect tracks, and pronounce that he’s “reading the morning news.”
We were lucky to be accompanied by Map Ives — the 54-year-old director of sustainability for Wilderness Safaris, which supports ecotourism in Botswana — and it was fascinating to watch him read Mother Nature’s hieroglyphics.
This day’s “news,” Ives explained, studying a stretch of road, was that some lions had run very quickly through here, which he could tell by the abnormal depth of, and distance between, their paw prints. They were in stride. The “weather” was windy coming out of the east, he added, pointing to which side of the paw prints had been lightly dusted away. Flood waters remained high this morning, because the nearby hyena tracks were followed by little indentations — splashes of water that had come off their paws. Today’s “sports”? Well, over here — the hyenas were dragging a “kill,” probably a small antelope or steinbok, which is very obvious from the smooth foot-wide path in the sand that ran some 50 yards into the bushes. Every mile you can read a different paper.
It is mentally exhausting hanging with Ives, who was raised on the edge of the Okavango Delta. He points out the connections, and all the free services nature provides, every two seconds: Plants clean the air; the papyrus and reeds filter the water. Palm trees are growing on a mound originally built by termites. Yes, thank God for termites. All of the raised islands of green in the delta were started by them. The termites keep their mounds warm. This attracts animals whose dung brings seeds and fertilizer that sprout trees, making bigger islands. Ives will be talking to you about zebras and suddenly a bird will zip by — “greater blue-eyed starling,” he’ll blurt out in midsentence, and then go back to zebras.
“If you spend enough time in nature and allow yourself to slow down sufficiently to let your senses work, then through exposure and practice, you will start to sense the meanings in the sand, the grasses, the bushes, the trees, the movement of the breezes, the thickness of the air, the sounds of the creatures and the habits of the animals with which you are sharing that space,” said Ives. Humans were actually wired to do this a long time ago.
Unfortunately, he added, “the speed at which humans have improved technology since the Industrial Revolution has attracted so many people to towns and cities and provided them with ‘processed’ natural resources” that our innate ability to make all these connections “may be disappearing as fast as biodiversity.”
Which leads to the point of this column. We’re trying to deal with a whole array of integrated problems — climate change, energy, biodiversity loss, poverty alleviation and the need to grow enough food to feed the planet — separately. The poverty fighters resent the climate-change folks; climate folks hold summits without reference to biodiversity; the food advocates resist the biodiversity protectors.
They all need to go on safari together.
“We need to stop thinking about these issues in isolation — each with its own champion, constituency and agenda — and deal with them in an integrated way, the way they actually occur on the ground,” argued Glenn Prickett, senior vice president with Conservation International. “We tend to think about climate change as just an energy issue, but it’s also about land use: one-third of greenhouse gas emissions come from tropical deforestation and agriculture. So we need to preserve forests and other ecosystems to solve climate change, not only to save species.”
But we also need to double food production to feed a growing population. “So we’ll need to do that without clearing more forests and draining more wetlands, which means farmers will need new technologies and practices to grow more food on the same land they use today — with less water,” he added. “Healthy forests, wetlands and grasslands not only preserve biodiversity and store carbon, they also help buffer the impacts of climate change. So our success in tackling climate change, poverty, food security and biodiversity loss will depend on finding integrated solutions from the land.”
In short — and as any reader of the Okavango daily papers will tell you — we need to make sure that our policy solutions are as integrated as nature itself. Today, they are not.
Beyond Band-Aids for hunger
Danielle Nierenberg and Brian Halweil
In St. Louis Today (December 29, 2009)
Full text: http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/editorialcommentary/story/9AFD45C7E4F05A968625769A00814D9B?OpenDocument
It's been 25 years since a well-meaning music producer threw together a bunch of megastars to record the humanitarian torch song "Do They Know it's Christmas." Bob Geldof's Band-Aid raised millions of dollars and immeasurable awareness with the compelling chorus of "feed the world," but global interest in those hungry people has plummeted in the last two decades, if the barometer is international investment in agriculture. Agriculture's share of global development aid has dropped from 7 percent to 4 percent since the song debuted, even though most of the world's poor and hungry people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.
The famine-stricken Ethiopia that inspired the song in the 1980s remains hobbled by food shortages. Some 23 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk for starvation, according to the World Food Program, which delivers food aid around the world. The global recession and a recent spike in food prices aren't helping, either. The United Nations reported recently that the number of hungry people worldwide has crested 1 billion.
The sheer number of hungry people isn't the only reason we must raise our standards for success. Because agriculture makes up such a large percentage of the planet's surface, and intimately touches our rivers, air and other natural resources, the world can't tolerate some of the unintended — and counterproductive — consequences of how we farm and produce food. And farmers everywhere, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, need crop varieties and whole new approaches to farming that help them deal with drought, extreme heat and increasingly erratic weather.
Our collective understanding of how to "cure" hunger has matured enough to recognize that solutions lie not only in shipping food aid, but also in a new approach to agriculture that nourishes people and the planet.
There is no shortage of innovative ideas on the African continent.
We have four recommendations for farmers, agribusiness, politicians and other agricultural decision-makers:
The vast majority of global investment in agriculture is aimed at seeds. But we've neglected the environment in which the seeds grow: the soil, trees, livestock, the farm and the food processors, roads and other pieces of the food system that gets the crop to market and onto tables.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the region of the world where the greatest percentage of people are hungry, just 4 percent of the farmland is irrigated (in Asia, 70 percent of farmland is irrigated). In parts of Kenya, Tanzania and Mali, the hundreds of thousands of farmers using inexpensive, locally made water pumps have seen incomes double and triple because they can grow a greater range of crops over a greater share of the year and are protected from losing entire crops to drought.
- Cut the slack in the system.
Instead of focusing on increasing production, make better use of what we already produce. It turns out that a shocking 30 percent to 50 percent of the harvest in poorer nations spoils or is contaminated by pests or mold before it reaches the dinner table.
Simple fixes can go a long way. In Nairobi, Margaret Njeri Ndimu has started selling goat milk in plastic bags sealed with candle wax. She learned this simple process through a training program provided by the Mazingira Institute; the bags make it easier to manage and sell her milk, allowing her customers to purchase small quantities of the perishable milk in portable containers. Similar practices can be used by other urban milk producers in cities all over the world.
Just as important as the techniques that farmers use is to what extent the farmers and farm communities control the techniques. Locavores in the United States and Europe argue the benefits of a decentralized food system. Solutions for hunger are rooted in harnessing local crop diversity, building up locally owned infrastructure and developing regional markets.
In Kampala, Uganda, Project Disc is working with Slow Food chapters to catalogue and revive neglected indigenous foods and foodways that can help inject diversity into diets and farmers' fields. At the World Vegetable Center in Tanzania, researchers are working with farmers to breed vegetable varieties that don't need fertilizers and pesticides, use less water, are locally appropriate and raise farmer income. Babel Isack, a Tanzanian tomato farmer, advises staff at the center about tomato varieties that best suit his needs, including those that depend less on chemical sprays and have a longer shelf life.
- Position farms on the front line of climate change.
Agriculture is the human endeavor that will be most affected by climate change. But agriculture, livestock grazing and forestry — responsible for nearly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions — is the only near-term option for large-scale greenhouse sequestration. A combination of farming with perennial crops and grasses, cutting nitrogen fertilizer use and managing manure better, reducing erosion and enriching soils with organic matter could offset one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Dr. Frank Place of the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya, several million farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are using leguminous trees and shrubs that are grown along with or before or after crops. This technique can improve soil, double or triple the yields of the subsequent crop and eliminate the need for artificial fertilizers.
All of these measures hold untapped potential for boosting global food production, strengthening rural communities, rebuilding ecosystems and reducing poverty and hunger. And in contrast to "Band-Aid" shipments of food, the lasting solutions will involve farmers and food communities working together to feed themselves.
Danielle Nierenberg and Brian Halweil are senior researchers at the Worldwatch Institute. Danielle has been traveling in sub-Saharan Africa for the last two months researching innovations in African agriculture.
Can Ecological Agriculture Feed Nine Billion People?
In Monthly Review (November 23, 2009)
Full text: http://www.monthlyreview.org/091123pretty.php
Something is wrong with our agricultural and food systems. Despite great progress in increasing productivity in the last century, hundreds of millions of people remain hungry and malnourished. Further hundreds of millions eat too much, or consume the wrong sorts of food, and it is making them ill. The health of the environment suffers too, as degradation of soil and water seems to accompany many of the agricultural systems we have developed in recent years. Can nothing be done, or is it time for the expansion of an agriculture founded more on ecological principles and in harmony with people, their societies, and cultures?