Events

Beyond Sustainable Agriculture: Increasing Food Production and Sustaining Ecological Diversity

September 25, 2001 // 12:00am

Featuring Jeffrey A. McNeely, Chief Scientist, IUCN-The World Conservation Union;

Sara J. Scherr,Fellow, Forest Trends Professor, University of Maryland College Park;

Richard E. Rice, Chief Economist, Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International;

and Adela Backiel, Director, Sustainable Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture

September 25, 2001—Eight hundred million people who live within and around the world's richest biodiversity areas (known as biodiversity "hotspots") suffer from massive poverty and food insecurity. Jeffrey McNeely and Sara Scherr discussed their preliminary research findings (available in the IUCN and Future Harvest report "Common Ground, Common Future") on strategies for increasing agricultural yield in these fragile regions while protecting wild biodiversity. The meeting was the first in a series of ECSP meetings focusing on issues pertinent to the Johannesburg 2002 Summit on Sustainable Development. Richard Rice and Adela Backiel served as discussants.

Lessons from the Field(s)
McNeely and Scherr located approximately 35 situations within the biodiversity hotspots in which agricultural productivity and biodiversity have remained steady or even increased. They then identified six common elements from these case studies that, under the umbrella term ecoagriculture, could serve as universal strategies for farming that is both productive and sustainable:

* Increase or sustain yields on existing farms to reduce the destruction of habitat caused by expanding agricultural lands;
* Establish corridors of natural vegetation linking protected biodiverse areas;
* Establish more protected areas around farms that benefit farmers and local people (such as windbreaks or no-take reserves that increase fish yields elsewhere);
* Modify the mix of spacing between crops and non-crops to mimic natural habitat;
* Reduce agricultural pollution that is harmful to wildlife through organic farming and other means (such as vegetative filters along waterways);
* Improve the ways farmers manage soil and water (for example, by switching back to leaving fields fallow) to create environments that are more supportive of wildlife.

In order to implement these strategies, McNeely and Scherr recommended that: 1) conservation scientists and farmers should work together to develop more viable ecoagriculture methods; 2) these concepts and methods should be disseminated through farmer organizations/communities; and 3) ecoagriculture should be encouraged through public policy (such as a reevaluation of pricing, subsidies, and regulations that discourage its methods). McNeely added that biodiversity protection has too often been left to the environment ministries of the world's governments and not integrated into agricultural finance or military planning.

Ecoagriculture versus Parks?
Scherr stressed that isolated intact ecosystems were an incomplete strategy for biodiversity. "Many protected areas are islands in a sea of agriculture," said Scherr, noting that agricultural activities have consumed at least 30 percent of the land in 45 percent of the world's protected biodiverse areas. "The viability of protected areas is very much affected by the matrix of use around them," she added. While pure conservation efforts continue to have their place, Scherr argued that ecoagriculture is a much more sophisticated strategy than mutually-exclusive approaches towards conservation and agriculture.

But while discussant Richard Rice called ecoagriculture "a useful concept," he noted what he considered limitations to its widespread adoption. While Rice said that a role clearly exists for targeted ecoagriculture interventions, he said (a) such interventions would only remain viable under favorable market conditions, and that (b) undisturbed ecosystems are still better than the patchwork of habitats McNeely and Scherr were proposing. He also decried the widespread dismissal of parks as a primary conservation tool, citing a Conservation International (CI) study that showed the effectiveness of parks in preventing loss of biodiversity at a low financial cost. Eight-three percent of the parks around the world studied by CI have as much natural vegetative cover as they had over twenty years ago. Forty percent had more. "Parks are not perfect," said Rice, "but they are effective despite their underfunding"—which he estimated at $1 per hectare per year.

Rice also noted that there are many situations for which neither parks nor ecoagriculture is a viable solution. For these, he advocated establishing conservation concessions, in which area resource owners are compensated for a region's conservation. "With conservation concessions," Rice said, "conservation becomes the market product rather than development." He said that this approach is also effective in retiring the cultivated areas of "sunset" (i.e., declining) industries such as cocoa or coffee.

Rice concluded by arguing that ecoagriculture is a solution to agricultural issues, not to conservation. "Ecoagriculture lacks financial incentives, has a reliance on the stimulus of market forces, and is dependent on development for conservation." He felt that, considering limited resources for biodiversity programming, conservation funding should be used for proven conservation strategies instead of agricultural programs. "It's way too early to give up on parks," he said.

Entrées to Policymaking
Discussant Adela Backiel disagreed with Rice, calling ecoagriculture an important addition to the portfolio of conservation and sustainable agriculture options. "The report comes at a critical time," said Backiel. "We need to understand that biotechnology isn't the only solution to the problem of sustainable agriculture, and the report contributes to this reframing."

Backiel said that "Common Ground, Common Future" (a larger version of which will be published as a book) should address not only farmers but other key target audiences such as foresters, landowners, and state and local government officials. She also urged McNeely and Scherr to come together with policymakers to establish concrete policy recommendations. The upcoming World Food Summit in Rome, she said, provides an entrée for these discussions that contrasts with the sectoral categorizing of planning for Johannesburg 2002. Backiel went on to say that Johannesburg will deal with food security, if only as a theme that cuts across issues such as poverty eradication, energy, and freshwater resources.

The Debate Continues
Scherr and McNeely agreed with Rice that the world needs more parks while asserting that biodiversity conservation is not an either/or proposition between parks and ecoagriculture. But they maintained that ecoagriculture is a more flexible solution that addresses human needs as well as conservation. "Parks don't feed people," said Scherr. "Developing countries will need increases of 50 to 60 percent of food, and parks don't contribute to that." The goal, she argued, is "not to achieve the biodiversity of protected intact systems, but to increase biodiversity period."

McNeely said that ecoagriculture "doesn't claim to be a solution to anything-it's a response." He called for broad investment in and dissemination of new research into biodiversity—friendly agriculture—specifically, for public investment in such research that would supplement private-sector biotechnology efforts "that benefit only those farmers able to pay for it." McNeely also said that those concerned with agriculture's continuing impact on biodiversity should focus less on Johannesburg 2002 itself and more on how the Summit's broad decisions will be implemented in specific ways. "The whole point is to get farmers to be more respectful of and to work with biodiversity efforts," McNeely said.

Richard Rice responded by stating flatly that ecoagriculture tries to mix things that are incompatible. While acknowledging that McNeely and Scherr's proposals are motivated by concern over biodiversity loss, Rice argued that they are not attentive enough to the goals and requirements of effective conservation. "We have to sort out our objectives in this time of declining funding," he said. "The Christmas tree approach has proven not very effective over the last 15 years."

Scherr countered by stressing that all situations studied in Common Ground, Common Future are "win/win/win cases—in terms of agricultural income, agricultural productivity, and biodiversity." In many parts of the world, Scherr asserted, almost all of the land has been converted to agricultural use. "Parks will only save a very small percentage of the biodiversity remaining," she said.

Pakistan and Central Asia
The speakers and audience members also discussed the possible effect of the recent terrorist attack on U.S. foreign assistance and the possibility for extending ecoagricultural methods to potential new foreign aid targets such as Pakistan. Scherr called Pakistan "a terrifying case of environmental degradation and unsustainable agricultural practices," and said that biodiversity protection efforts could serve as an entrée to a general environmental services restoration in that country. McNeely added that, while the former Soviet Central Asian republics were not biodiversity hotspots, biodiversity was critical to their population's existence. "Thus does the food security of developing countries impact the United States," he said.

Some examples of ecologically-sound agriculture yield boosters:
1. Cassava introduction in Zambia reduces deforestation.
2. Increasing lowland rice yields reduces hillside farming in the Philippines.
3. Pine forest habitat in Honduras regenerates through improved crop technology. Slash-and-burn methods have been replaced with new techniques for fertilizing, irrigating, rotating, and mixing crops.
4. Cassava crops are saved in Africa through biocontrol of cassava mealybug. 5. The NGO Pro-Natura has provided technical assistance to poor dairy farmers in Brazil's Atlantic Forest to help them improve their productivity and incomes. In return, the farmers have committed to reforest and regenerate part of their lands.

No-take fish reserves: In "no-take" reserves, fishing is banned completely, allowing for the development of a fishery breeding sanctuary, surrounded by a buffer area for ecologically sound fishing.

Conservation Concessions: Owners of endangered-resource habitat are compensated for not exploiting or developing that habitat.

Vegetative filters along waterways:Farmers along shores can create buffer strips by allowing land to grow wild around their farms to filter out surplus fertilizer and livestock waste from the water running off their fields. These buffer strips can also serve as a habitat for wild flora and water birds.

Discourage its methods: Many government policies and market mechanisms reward farming techniques that create too much waste, use harmful chemicals, and use more land than necessary.

Food security: Food security refers to a population having access to a sufficient supply of food to ensure a healthy, productive life. Food insecurity can result from population growth, environmental scarcity, pollution, and conflict.

Experts & Staff

  • Roger-Mark De Souza // Director of Population, Environmental Security and Resilience, Wilson Center
  • Sandeep Bathala // Senior Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program, Maternal Health Initiative
  • Katharine Diamond // Program Assistant, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Benjamin Dills // Program Assistant, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Lauren Herzer // Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • John Thon Majok // Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Schuyler Null // Web Editor and Writer/Editor, Environmental Change and Security Program, Maternal Health Initiative
  • Meaghan Parker // Writer/Editor, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Sean Peoples // Multimedia Producer and Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Geoffrey D. Dabelko // Senior Advisor, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Ruth Greenspan Bell // Public Policy Scholar
  • William Krist // Senior Policy Scholar
  • Louise Lief // Public Policy Scholar
  • John W. Sewell // Senior Scholar

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.