Preserving Wildlife Habitat Through High-Tech Farming
The Tenor Of The Environmental Debate Is Bound To Change By The World Conservation Union's Endorsement Of High-Yield Farming
June 8, 2001
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--The World Conservation Union and Future Harvest (representing Third World agricultural researchers) have just issued a path-breaking wildlife conservation report declaring that high-yield "ecoagriculture" must be a major part of the world's efforts to save wildlife.
The World Conservation Union, a major international conservation group headquartered in Switzerland, is breaking step with such organizations as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.
That's probably because the World Conservation Union includes some 10,000 conservation experts and scientists in its membership, along with Third World government agencies and non-government organizations working in places where, before their eyes, wild species and wildlife habitat are being lost to low-yield farming.
Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have a history of endorsing only low-yield organic farming, especially in the Third World, without much regard for how human inhabitants will be fed. Such organizations essentially represent urban elites in North America and Europe--regions that produce agricultural surpluses.
The joint report from the World Conservation Union and Future Harvest recommends ecoagriculture, with higher yields to save more room for wildlife. They also want better conservation use of non-cultivated farmland such as stream banks, irrigation canals, lanes and roadsides, uncultivated strips within fields, windbreaks, hedgerows, marginal acres, woodlots, industrial plantations and special sites conserved for cultural or religious reasons.
The groups believe farmers will be more willing to encourage wildlife habitat in such spaces if new technologies and farming systems raise the yields on their best soils--so they gain in total production and crop value.
In the wet, windy mountains of northeast Costa Rica, dairy calves died of wind chill and parakeets stole the coffee berries from the farmers' trees. In 1989, the Conservation League of Monteverde worked with farmers in 19 communities to create 150 hectares of windbreaks.
They planted a mix of local and exotic trees, including the colpachi. Parakeets prefer the colpachi fruit to the coffee berries, while the windbreaks also serve as important biological corridors connecting the remaining forest patches in the area.
One study found the seeds from 174 different plant species in the windbreaks. Birds dispersed 95 times as many seeds (mainly wild trees) in the windbreaks as in the surrounding pastures.
In the European Union, farmers can get payments for environmental services such as creating bird habitat on their farms. One strategy is to plant special seed mixtures that create wild bird feeding and nesting sites in small strips and plots distributed strategically around the farms. These don't detract much from the farm's productivity and significantly increase the distribution of habitat.
The joint report also mentions the conservation impact of the EU's sr cropland setaside. In Britain, for example, the EU pays farmers not to plant crops on 600,000 acres, making set-aside the third-largest land use in the lowlands after grass and cereals.
Cropland set-aside may make good conservation sense in the intensely developed landscape of southeast England. However, each acre of high-yield farmland put into set-aside may eventually force the plow-down of two acres of forest somewhere else to make up for the lost production.
Farm trade must also play an increasing role in feeding the 21st century, especially for land-short Asia. The United States has set aside a great deal of cropland--more than 30 million acres of "conservation reserve" lands--mostly on the Great Plains, where there is already a great deal of wildlife habitat, few wild species and few residents to enjoy them.
More effective may be the recent U.S. emphasis on using its conservation payments to encourage grassy strips along stream banks. Such grassy strips prevent soil particles and nutrients from degrading the streams. In addition, the grassy strips provide year-round cover and food for birds and small animals.
The tenor of the environmental debate is bound to change by the thoughtful endorsement of high-yield farming by an environmental group as prestigious as the World Conservation Union.
Until now, eco-groups have been marching lockstep in support of the myth that organic farming can feed the world while protecting wildlife from harsh agricultural chemicals. But organic farmers' yields are little more than half as high as those of conventional modern farmers.
My peer-reviewed estimate is that modern farming has saved more than 16 million square miles of wildlands from plow-down. The world's current forest area is...16 million square miles.
Whether the world supports or hamstrings high-yield farming in the 21st century is the biggest wildlife conservation issue facing the world.
Until now, the environmental organizations have pitted people against wildlife, in a contest the wildlife can't win. The World Conservation Union has challenged the conservation credentials of every other wildlife organization.
This article appeared in Bridge News on June 4, 2001.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.