Maturing discussions about the links between agriculture, biodiversity and climate change can drive progress, says Howard Minigh.

Howard Minigh

The nature of the food security debate is evolving, looking more broadly at the range of solutions required across different rural landscapes rather than only on farms. Instead of a ‘pick and choose’ approach, policymakers, scientists, farmers and the private sector are looking at how food security, environmental stewardship and economic development are interconnected.

Within these new debates on food security, agricultural productivity must be recognized not only for its role in increasing yields but as part of the solution to meeting biodiversity and climate change goals.

Just in the last month, the Economist ran a debate on biotechnology, Channel 4 broadcast a programme on What the Green Movement Got Wrong, and previously Seed Magazine held its Food Fight debate: just a few examples of the many special editions in mainstream media that are debating agriculture. 

I believe we are in the midst of shaping a new perspective on sustainable agriculture, one that has been morphing to mirror the complexities of the challenges we face in the coming generation and beyond.

Over the centuries, farmers have learned how to balance the preservation of the natural environment and the need to feed the world. Yet today, growing populations, climate change and dwindling natural resources impact farmers’ ability to grow crops. In turn,  food security challenges put pressure on the environment and climate.

We need agricultural solutions that link biodiversity conservation with efforts to combat climate change, whilst sustainably producing sufficient quantities of nutritious, affordable and varied foods.

Hence, at Agriculture and Rural Development Day in Cancun last week, experts from various fields in the agriculture sector were brought together to identify practical solutions to reduce agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen food security. 

Safeguarding biodiversity

At the Biodiversity World Tour 2010 held in October that was organised by CropLife International, the EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik warned that we have to act urgently to reverse the rate of biodiversity loss, saying “we lost the luxury of choice a long time ago”.

High-yield agriculture has an important role to play in protecting biodiversity. Food production needs to increase on the land already under cultivation. Rather than converting natural habitats such as forests and wetlands into farmland, improving yields on existing land can help preserve vital ecosystems.

Two months ago at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Nagoya Protocol was adopted (PDF) through which world leaders committed to increase the area of protected land in the world form 12.5 per cent to 17 per cent. Increasing agricultural productivity can contribute to meeting these biodiversity targets. Additionally, incorporating integrated pest management (IPM) practices into mainstream farming can improve both pollination and crop protection.

Climate-smart agriculture

Moving on from biodiversity discussions to climate negotiations, the UN’s call to protect conservation areas should be reiterated both as a force for carbon sequestration and also for future strategies involving agricultural development. Whilst one solution for increasing global food production comes from an increase in farmed land, the deforestation necessary for clearing land emits large amounts of greenhouse gases. Plant biotechnology (GM crops) can help farmers to increase current acreage of arable lands, preventing the need for deforestation and eliminating the resultant emissions.

A study published in 2010 concluded that investment in high-yield agriculture since the 1960s has saved the planet from an extra dose of global warming, sparing the equivalent of 590 Gigatons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere. Furthermore, by enabling farmers to produce more on existing farmland, the ‘green revolution’ spared 1.5 billion hectares from being turned over to agriculture. 

Biotech crops have already improved the yield and increased the disease and pest resistance for 14 million farmers globally, 90 per cent of whom are small farmers in developing countries. In 2008, the total yield gains of the four principal biotech crops (soybean, maize, cotton and canola) was 29.6 million metric tons. Another 10.5 million hectares would have been needed to produce that same amount of food, had biotech crops not been deployed. In addition, the use of herbicides and herbicide-tolerant crops enables the practice of conservation tillage (no ploughing), which leads to a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

With continued investment in agricultural research, new technologies will provide a means of increasing agricultural productivity further, or enabling plants to grow in conditions that they wouldn’t grow in before. Progress in developing varieties that perform well under drought, heat, flood and salinity will be essential for making food security a reality for all, despite future climate scenarios.

A new discussion

As David Howlett states in his post ‘Combining tactics for triple wins in agriculture’, to achieve food security goals we must enter into a more mature debate that considers all possible solutions.

Although the challenges of the future seem daunting, much of the knowledge and technology that is needed to feed the world sustainably, enhance biodiversity and adapt to and mitigate climate change already exists.

At this stage, it is essential to commit to and develop the policy and infrastructures needed to support the acceptance of agricultural technologies. Science-based regulations must be the cornerstone to a credible and transparent policy framework, and are essential to establishing public confidence and acceptance of any technology.

If left unaddressed, climate change will seriously impact farmers’ ability to grow sufficient crops, potentially leading to a world where food security is a luxury enjoyed by a minority. Improved agricultural productivity is key to helping farmers meet growing global food demand and benefit from improved livelihoods, while minimizing their carbon emissions and safeguarding natural resources. 

About Howard Minigh

Howard Minigh is the President and CEO of CropLife International, the global federation representing the plant science industry.

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