The CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), would like to engage partners and readers of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog in a debate on how we unite agricultural production, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability. To start the debate, Andrew Noble, Program Director for WLE, explains why we need a farming revolution, and suggests smallholder farmers will play a vital role in delivering agricultural change in the coming years. We invite partners and colleagues working in similar areas to comment or write blogs in response. Please send blogs to a.waldorf(at)cgiar.org.
A new green revolution must intensify farming sustainably
Two billion small-scale farmers hold the key to feeding the world’s growing population while reversing past environmental damage. At present, the families and domestic markets supplied by such rural farmers constitute 70 per cent of global food consumption. Intensifying agriculture in a sustainable way that meets future food demands will require us to improve the resilience of these farmers to climate variation, ensure there are institutions and policies to support them, nurture the ecosystem services that underpin the production of healthy crops and address gender inequalities.
Over the past 50 years, agricultural scientists have made tremendous progress in securing food for the majority of people who inhabit the planet. They have largely achieved this by advancing our knowledge of the optimal conditions in which to grow crops productively and by generating high-yielding seed varieties. In doing so they have increased global staple food production by 355% and raised global food productivity (yield/unit area) by 301%. Thanks to these efforts, we are close to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people suffering from hunger between 1990 and 2015.
Such success, however, has come at a tremendous cost. Our current way of practicing agriculture has been described as the dominant force behind many of the environmental threats we now face, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and the degradation of land and freshwater. Our disregard for nurturing the environment has contributed to moving us beyond the ‘‘planetary boundaries’’ that are critical to ensuring stability within the Earth’s systems, jeopardizing the future of humanity. (See Planetary boundaries Part I: Defining a safe operating space for human existence by Professor Johan Rockström.)
Two dominant processes have led to these impacts. First, the lateral expansion of crop and pasture lands has displaced natural ecosystems. This has resulted in biodiversity and habitat loss, plus increased greenhouse gas emissions associated with land clearing. Meanwhile, the loss of soil carbon has prompted a decline in ecosystems services. Second, the unsustainable intensification of production systems, predicated on fossil fuels, focused on greater output through the inappropriate use of fertilizers, irrigation, biocides and mechanization. This caused additional greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation.
Addressing the dual challenges of how to ensure food security and safeguard a stable planet, will require a new approach to how we plan and implement agricultural development. We will have to shift away from our current focus of enhancing productivity with little regard to environmental impacts, to one where sustainable management and governance of ecosystems, natural resources and Earth system processes at large, underpin practical solutions to intensification. The world’s two billion small-scale farmers will be the pioneers called upon to deliver this vital change.
Charting a new course for agriculture development
The CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) explores the best ways in which to help rural farmers, governments and the private sector achieve this aim. WLE complements and builds upon other CGIAR research programs, and a host of partners’ experiences, to view agricultural development from a wider perspective. WLE does this through three interlinked thematic areas. These are:
- Ensuring we use resources efficiently so as to promote long-term sustainability with limited environmental impact;
- Restoring the productive capacity of degraded rainfed and irrigated agricultural landscapes by strengthening ecosystem services and laying the foundations for sustainable agricultural intensification; and
- Reducing risk and uncertainty associated with rainfed and irrigated landscapes by facilitating the sustainable management of land and water resources.
Implicit in each of these principles are the roles men, women and young people play in using, managing and governing land and water resources, together with associated institutional and political frameworks. If we are to meet future goals for minimizing hunger, poverty, inequity and environmental damage, we must make sustainable agricultural intensification the cornerstone of our agricultural systems. This requires us to radically shift our mindset and view our agricultural production systems as wholly owned subsidiaries of the ecosystems and natural capital on which they depend.
The question we face is how do we make the transformation required to shape this new agricultural landscape? We hope to answer this question over the coming weeks, through your participation and insights, as we focus on ecosystems and their associated services.