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Balancing economy and ecology: agriculture vs. nature

Reconciliation of the right to develop and environmental protection must move beyond global dialogue and be put into practice.

Natural enemies of stem borer – a major maize pest in southern Ethiopia – are more abundant in landscapes with more trees and forest patches. In this picture, Yodit Kebede, Ph.D. researcher co-supervised by Wageningen University and CIMMYT, checks insects in a yellow-pan trap. Photo: Frédéric Baudron

“The prosperous still have a strong carbon footprint. And, the world’s billions at the bottom of the development ladder are seeking space to grow,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his opening speech at the COP21 climate talks in Paris, where world leaders recently gathered to come to an agreement that will slow and eventually stop global emissions of greenhouse gases that threaten the survivability of our planet.

Modi and other leaders have called for climate solutions that reconcile the right of developing countries to grow and environmental protection. If implemented correctly, a solution exists in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), essentially “blueprints” for what post-2020 climate actions each country intends to take based on past contributions, future development needs, and opportunities to exploit alternative energies to fossil fuels. This allows the developing world to balance the need to grow while moving to clean energy by soliciting support through climate finance and other measures from developed countries.

Reconciliation of the right to develop and environmental protection must move beyond global dialogue, and be put into practice in every community struggling with the effects of environmental degradation and poverty.

Seventy percent of the “billions at the bottom” Modi refers to live in rural areas. A majority of these people suffer from land degradation – the long-term loss of an ecosystem’s services – due to climate change in combination with unsustainable crop and livestock management practices.

“Agriculture undermines the very resources it depends on,” says Frédéric Baudron, CIMMYT Systems Agronomist. “A new paradigm is needed to sustainably achieve global food security.” Baudron is a lead author of the chapter “Response Options Across the Landscape” in the recently released global assessment report “Forests, Trees and Landscapes for Food Security and Nutrition.

Like the INDCs, landscape approaches may offer a compromise to achieve food production, natural resource conservation, and livelihood security goals, according to the report’s chapter. “Landscape configurations exist not only to minimize tradeoffs between conservation and food security and nutrition, but also to create synergies between these two goals,” argue Baudron and his fellow authors.

“Cultivated fields are not green deserts but may be part of the habitat of several species of importance for conservation,” says Baudron. “In many human-dominated ecosystems, some species can be dependent on agricultural practices such as extensive grazing in Europe or shifting cultivation in tropical forests. Conversely, biodiversity may contribute to crop and livestock productivity through the ecosystem services it provides, such as pollination or pest control.”

According to recent research conducted by CIMMYT and its partners in southern Ethiopia, diets of rural families living in diverse landscapes where trees are retained tend to be more diverse than diets of rural families living in simplified landscapes dominated by annual crops. Photo: Frédéric Baudron

“Ongoing research conducted by CIMMYT and its partners in southern Ethiopia’s maize- and wheat-based farming systems suggests that maintaining trees and forest patches in production landscapes is not only good for the environment and biodiversity, but contributes to the maintenance of farming system productivity and resilience,” according to Baudron. “Farms embedded in diverse landscape mosaics also produce much more diverse and nutritious food.”

Landscape approaches are also closely associated with the concept of food sovereignty, which promotes the right of people to define their own food production and consumption at the local, national, and global level. Community level engagement with local food and agricultural systems also creates an ideal setting to engage communities for more sustainable management of food and agricultural systems.

“Ultimately, this is about acknowledging diversity as a fundamental property in the design of more sustainable farming systems,” says Baudron. “The question is: what configurations are optimal in different contexts? Answering this question will require a much higher level of partnership between conservation organizations and agricultural agencies.”