Bridging The Chasm Between Conservation And Farming
A Conservation Group And An Agricultural Research Group Publicly Agree That People, Agriculture And Wildlife Must Share The Planet
June 6, 2001
by Dennis T. Avery
I have just received one of the most important documents I've seen in years. It comes from the World Conservation Union and Future Harvest, the network of agricultural research and conservation centers for the Third World.
Their joint report is called "Common Ground, Common Future: How Ecoagriculture Can Help Feed the World and Save Wild Biodiversity."
For the first time, an important wildlife conservation group and one of the world's most vital agricultural research institutions publicly agree that people, high-yield agriculture and wildlife will have to share the planet's scarce land area.
They agree that low-yield farming causes most of the wildlife habitat losses occurring today, and warn that based on present trends, low-yield farmers could destroy a quarter of the world's wild plant and animal species by 2050.
The world's cropland total has not increased in recent years, but Southeast Asian cropland requirements rose by 27 million acres since 1980. Thirteen percent of the Amazon rain forest has been cleared. More than a billion people live within the world's 25 biodiversity "hotspots" and 16 of these regions are centers of severe human malnutrition.
"Common Ground, Common Future" recommends conserving wildlife through "ecoagriculture."
This would mean higher-yielding, more-sustainable farming systems to preserve more land for nature; enhancing wildlife habitat on farms; establishing protected areas and improving habitat quality near farms; mimicking natural habitats by using more perennial plants on farms; reducing farm pollution.
In central Honduras, the report notes, farmers had been clearing pine-forested hillsides for low-yield farming. Improved coffee varieties, new high-value vegetable crops and new crop rotations gave the farmers enough income to buy fertilizer and double their staple corn yields. Marginal fields were allowed to revert to forest on the high-yield farms. Meanwhile, communities without the seeds and systems expanded their cropland by up to 20 percent.
In the Philippine province of Palawan, population growth of 4.6 percent a year was driving upland deforestation. The Philippine National Irrigation Administration built new small-scale communal irrigation systems in the lowlands increasing food production and job opportunities without sacrificing the forests to farming, firewood and bush-meat hunting.
Brazil's Atlantic Forest is a severely threatened habitat for lion tamarin monkeys, found nowhere else, along with rare orchids and hundreds of endemic bird species.
Five-hundred years of slash-and-burn farming by increasing numbers of people left only 7 percent of the original forest. Small-scale dairying became the dominant farming pattern, but the poorly bred cattle weren't producing much milk on low-quality pasture.
An organization called Pro-Natura helped local farmers upgrade their cattle genetics, use mineral supplements to improve the cows' nutrition and harvest forage as silage (rather than hay) to add still more feed value.
Milk yields per cow tripled, and farmers' incomes doubled. Since the improved pastures could support more milk production per acre, farmers, as their part of the conservation deal, agreed to reforest part of their land. Almost 150 acres on 16 farms have already been converted back to forest, and more than 50,000 tree seedlings planted.
The World Conservation Union, founded in Switzerland in 1948, includes 112 government agencies, 735 non-governmental organizations and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 181 countries.
Their goal is to conserve nature and ensure that natural resources are used equitably and sustainably. Future Harvest grew out of the agriculture research stations in Mexico and the Philippines that launched the famed Green Revolution of the 1960s.
The research prevented at least a billion Third World famine deaths and helping to triple crop yields on much of the world's farmland. This also had a major conservation benefit: It probably saved 10 million square miles of additional forest from being cut down to produce today's food supply.
The cooperative relationship launched by these two organizations could bridge the chasm between farmers and agricultural researchers responding to rising food demands of a more affluent world, and environmentalists, who deep down want fewer people, to take the pressure off wildlife habitat.
Farm researchers, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug, argued for two decades that higher yields save more room for nature. Environmentalists were terrified that more food would simply mean a larger human population.
This collaboration between the World Conservation Union and Future Harvest undoubtedly owes a great deal to the fact that the Third World's fertility rate is declining radically.
Since 1960, births per woman in the poor countries have plummeted from 6.5 to 2.7. Poor farmers have large families, but affluent urbanites have small ones.
The Green Revolution's higher yields permitted more people to take higher-paying urban jobs, which will mean still lower birth rates in the future. With the population ogre slain, people are beginning to think more realistically about saving wildlife with high-yield farming.
Congratulations to both the World Conservation Union and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.
This article appeared in Bridge News on May 25, 2001.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.