Rethink needed on farming’s impacts

Changes in land use in the Indian Himalayas have benefited snow leopards as well as farmers. Image: Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife Protection Dept via Wikimedia Commons

February 8, 2016, by Tim Radford

Scientists say nature conservation and protecting the planet from global warming can both be achieved if land is used sustainably, not just for immediate profit.

LONDON, 8 February, 2016 − Here is the big challenge: can 21st-century agriculture deliver the right levels of nourishment for nine billion people by the end of the century, and at the same time protect nature, save on energy and soak up ever more carbon from the atmosphere to limit the impact of climate change?

The answer in two recent research studies is yes. But both require human society to think again about what it wants from the land it occupies. And each addresses a different approach.

John Reganold, professor of soil science and agroecology at Washington State University in the US, and a colleague argue in Nature Plants journal that organic farming – that is, farming without pesticides or commercial fertilisers − could deliver the necessary calories, make a profit for the farmers, and protect the environment all at the same time.

And Andrew Balmford, professor of conservation science at the University of Cambridge in the UK, and colleagues propose another solution in Science journal. They think the world should concentrate on higher yields per hectare so as to leave more land free for nature to do its thing − which is absorb carbon, deliver clean water and oxygen, and limit the impact of climate change.

Big business

The two solutions sound mutually exclusive, but they may not be. In essence, both require human society – from national agencies to village smallholders − to think again about how to manage the future.

Organic farms cover only 1% of global agricultural land, but their produce is big business in Europe and America.

Professor Reganold and his co-author acknowledge that no single answer can solve the planet’s problems, but they analysed 40 years of scientific comparisons of both organic and conventional agriculture, and then matched the outcomes against the four goals of sustainability: productivity, economics, environment and community wellbeing.

They argue that in some circumstances – in severe drought conditions, for example – organic farms have the edge because their soils have higher water-holding capacities. And even when yields may be lower, consumers are prepared to pay more, so profits are sustained.

The real costs in agriculture are concerned not with food yield but with food waste.

“Reconciling agriculture and conservation is one of the century’s greatest challenges”

“Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic agriculture should play a role in feeding the world,” Professor Reganold says. “If you look at calorie production per capita, we’re producing more than enough food for seven billion people now, but we waste 30% to 40% of it.

“It’s not just a matter of producing enough, but making agriculture environmentally friendly and making sure that food gets to those who need it.”

Professor Balmford has already made the case for “land-sparing” in the UK. This time, he and his co-authors want to see the rest of the planet address the problems of farming and the environment.

They do not directly advocate organic farming. In fact, they want to see better advice on soil, nutrient and water management, better seeds, multiple crops and integrated pest and disease control − but only in certain areas and not in others.

They suggest that a planet really concerned with greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and food security should stop thinking about immediate profits and look for mechanisms that would enhance sustainable approaches.

So they want to see land-use zoned, and restrictions on crops for export rather than on staple foods. It worked in Costa Rica, where forest protection encouraged farmers to abandon cattle pasture and switch to high-yielding fruit.

The researchers suggest payments, land taxes and subsidies to encourage farmers to conserve wildlife habitats. And they cite success in the Indian Himalayas, where farmers leave land for wild sheep, upon which the snow leopards depend. This also reduced predation by the leopards on farmed livestock.

Certified standards

They want to see good science and agricultural practice encouraged. In part of the Philippines, for example, irrigation advice to lowland rice farmers means they are now getting two crops per year.

In addition, they want to see agencies impose certified standards that could link yield growth to habitat protection. In one such scheme in northern Cambodia, villagers are getting both technical assistance and a price premium − and have increased harvests and reduced deforestation.

“Reconciling agriculture and conservation is one of the century’s greatest challenges,” says the study’s lead author, Ben Phalan, a zoologist with the Cambridge University Strategic Initiative in Global Food Security.

“To help meet that challenge, we need to move on from thinking about higher yields simply as a means to produce more food, and to use them to free up land for conserving biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

And Professor Balmford says: “Sparing tracts of land as natural habitat is much better for the vast majority of species than a halfway house of lower-yielding but ‘wildlife-friendly’ farming.

“We have recently shown that, in the UK, land spared through high-yield farming could even sequester enough greenhouse gases to mitigate the UK’s agricultural emissions.” – Climate News Network

The great climate change swindle

PSI comments on the newly released TiSA text that limits state control over natural resources
As Heads of State prepare to negotiate an international accord in Paris against global warming, their trade negotiators are meeting in Geneva to secretly forge a new free trade agreement that could expand fossil fuels’ exploitation and cause further climate change.

Wikileaks released yet another raft of leaked texts from the secretive Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). Public Services International (PSI) and International Forum on Globalisation today released the first known analysis of the proposed Annex on Energy Related Services to inform the COP 21 climate summit.

The 23 TiSA negotiators, from Australia to Switzerland and including the US and the EU, are discussing binding clauses “denying regulators the right to distinguish solar from nuclear, wind from coal, or geothermal from fracking” by establishing the principle of ‘technological neutrality’. The meeting in Geneva – from November 30 to 4 December – will likely continue discussion on the agenda item called “Environmental Services”, discussed in October.

Read More

Last call to get climate deal right

by Sunita Narain
Centre for Science and Environment

We write this report knowing that the threat of climate change is real and urgent. We know this because we in South Asia are already seeing horrific impacts of changing weather, hitting the most poorest and most vulnerable. We strongly believe the world needs an effective and ambitious climate change deal. In this context we ask if the US climate action plan is ambitious, equitable or sufficient? We ask this because it is said that even if US Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) is not ambitious, it signals a change in the country’s position. And that it will build momentum in the future. The question is if the US is on track to make real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions?

Our assessment presents some inconvenient truths, which have worrying implications for our common future. The US climate plan is nothing more than business-as-usual; emission reductions will be marginal at best. What is even more worrying is that the US plan is largely based on improvement in efficiency. This is not enough. Our data analysis shows clearly that gains made by improvements in efficiency are being lost because of increased consumption – sector after sector.

As we explain in our preface to the report, our concern is US lifestyle and consumption patterns are aspirational and addictive. Quite simply, everybody wants to be an American. If it were possible to attain such a lifestyle and yet combat climate change, our concern would be unfounded. But we all know that is not possible. The world—the US and us—cannot combat climate change without changing the way we drive, build homes or consume goods. As we say it is time we accepted that the C-word is the C-word.

It is also important to realise that climate change demands we collaborate and act collectively. The US has to take the lead, point to the direction of change that must be credible and meaningful. Otherwise, the climate agreement will not fructify. The problem also is that the US lack of ambition means that it appropriates carbon space that is needed for development of poorer countries.

We have also pointed out our worry about the lack of critique, indeed the tendency towards self-censorship and restraint in advocating big solutions, we found in the work of big and powerful US civil society groups. For instance, these groups are asking—rightly—for car restraints in many parts of the developing world. But in the US, they still push fuel economy standards and, at most, hybrid cars as the panacea to climate ills. There is no bus rapid transit (BRT) being built in the US, where over 70-80 per cent people commute to work in cars. This is where practice must also happen, so that the world can follow and emissions reduce.

We know that this report will be received with some disquiet and even disapproval. But we believe that it is important that we work towards change that is real. The threat of climate change is far too serious and the impacts far too devastating for us to tiptoe around tough questions that will determine our future survival.

Download the Report from this link

Download the related Powerpoint presentation from this link