Countries with growing populations can boost food production without punishing the environment if they are willing to experiment with less harmful farming practices, experts at a recent conference on biodiversity suggested.
Agriculture uses more than one-third of land in most countries, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and is one of the chief drivers of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
"We need better research on agricultural production systems and biodiversity, both as an input and output," said Leslie Lipper, an FAO environmental economist.
The experts at the conference organized by Diversitas, an international programme on biodiversity science, said that with the right balance between science and good policy, a sustainable path could be found.
|[We need to] have land-use planning systems in place so that when agriculture does expand, it will do so in the places that we want it to|
Lipper said this would help understand the linkages between biodiversity and agricultural production. Loss of biodiversity reduced the options for ensuring more diverse nutrition, enhancing food production, raising incomes, being able to cope with environmental constraints, and managing ecosystems.
Farmers, the largest group of ecosystem managers, could turn this situation around by changing the way they farmed and tilled the land.
Most farming practices are "extractive", which forced "the farmer to mine the very resource that underpins our ability to feed ourselves", said Achim Steiner, director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), who expressed concern over the heavy use of fertilizer and pesticides.
FAO estimates that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity in agricultural crops have been lost over the last century. Experts at the conference called for minimizing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and changing the mix of crops, varieties and animal breeds.
Greater collaboration between the environmental and agricultural sectors, the sharing of know-how between countries, better access to markets for smallholder farmers, and increasing the incentives for greater genetic variety in crops were also cited as crucial steps in balancing food production with environmental sustainability.
Power of science
Lawrence Kent, interim deputy director of the Gates Foundation's Agricultural Development Program, was optimistic about the power of science to ameliorate poverty and hunger, and noted a number of areas where improvements can be made in the value chain of food production, including the use of biotechnology and genetic engineering (GE).
GE crops have been presented by some as an answer to the problem of future food production, especially in the development of drought- and flood-tolerant crops that can also grow with smaller inputs of fertilizers and pesticides.
However, questions about the environmental and human health risks of GE crops have resulted in bans in the European Union and Australia, and a moratorium by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
"Biotechnology is simply a tool, certainly not an end in itself," said Kent. "What's most important is to look at things on a case-by-case basis, and not to generalize about biotechnology or conventional breeding, or any of the other methods people use to improve crops."
Lipper agreed: "I think too often people get hung up on the GMO debate and it distracts from the potential benefits of biotechnology in general."
Whatever combination of methods is employed, it is likely that the area of land used for agricultural production will increase, affecting natural biodiversity as more forest and grassland are cleared for planting.
"We need to think about where that will happen and have land-use planning systems in place so that when agriculture does expand, it will do so in the places that we want it to. And the quicker we can move toward improvement in technologies, which may include GMOs [genetically modified organisms], the more chance we have of reducing area expansion," Joshua Bishop, Chief Economist at the IUCN, told IRIN.
"There are so many factors at work here - it's not just a technological issue, it is also about trade policy and agricultural extension, and even internal market reforms," he said.
"So there are lots of factors that would allow farmers to invest in and improve productivity, and if that's combined with good land-use planning, you can get the best of both worlds, increasing returns to farmers without necessary expansion of the land base."