Making Agriculture Preserve Land, Not Destroy It

Combining principles of conservation with the needs of agriculture might be the only way to keep growing enough food to feed an exploding global population.


In the beginning, there was nature. Then came agriculture. Though the existed side-by-side, the two never seemed to meet except along the borders of intensively plowed and fertilized fields.

Now each is being viewed (warily) as salvation for the other. Conservationists, who once vilified agriculture for taking over unspoiled land, have begun enlisting farmers and agriculture policy to help protect natural ecosystems. “Agriculture is both a major cause and victim of ecosystem degradation,” says Eline Boelee, in a new report called “An Ecosystems Approach to Water and Food Security.”

Boelee, an agricultural researcher with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), suggests we can’t grow enough food without managing our farmlands as integrated parts of natural ecosystems. “Sustainable intensification of agriculture is a priority for future food security, but we need to take a more holistic ‘landscape’ approach,” she says.

Examples in sub-Saharan Africa, Peru, and Colombia demonstrate that merely protecting an ecosystem such as wetlands–if that protection displaces agriculture–may undermine both ecosystems and food production. Farmers can move, removing forests and topsoil elsewhere, eventually destroying yields and degrading ecosystems, according to Matthew McCartney in a related report by the International Water Management Institute, also part of CGIAR.

The two reports make the argument for the creation of “agroecosystems” that grow enough food while delivering clean water, clean air, and biodiversity. Given that we may to feed 9.3 billion people on the planet by 2050,  about 3 billion more than today, we may have few other choices as crop productivity growth continues its expected decline from 5.6% annually between 2001 and 2010 to just 1.3% by 2020. “What is needed is a balance: appropriate farming practices that support sustainable food production and protect ecosystems,” writes McCartney.

The urgency is growing. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has outlined the urgent need to rethink current strategies for intensifying agriculture as regions hit their ecological barriers. Food production already accounts for 70 to 90 percent of withdrawals from available water resources in some areas, and many breadbaskets, including the plains of northern China, India’s Punjab, and the Western United States, have nearly “reached or breached” water limits.


As the number of people living under conditions of water scarcity rises from 1.6 billion to 2 billion in the coming years, global food security will require more than business as usual.

[Image: Flickr user Shreader]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.


About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.