Page last updated at 14:44 GMT, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Restoring natural capital in degraded landscapes

Mark Chandler
Mark Chandler

The interests of farmers are often perceived to be in conflict with those of both the ecosystems and the markets in which they operate, says Mark Chandler. In this week's Green Room, he argues that ongoing, directed efforts can create profitable, sustainable situations for everyone.

Drying coffee beans in Indonesia (AFP)
Rather than seeing the use and development of agricultural lands as the conversion of natural systems into human-dominated ones, there are increasing opportunities for win-win solutions

Fuelling the growing demand for food, fuel and fibre, 13 million hectares are converted annually for agricultural use, mostly from forests.

Together, crops and pasture make up more than any other land use - over 40% - and are projected to grow by another 15% over the next 50-100 years.

The conversion into agricultural lands is perhaps one of the greatest single impacts on the Earth. These impacts include the greenhouse gas emissions that make up a third of global emissions since 1950, the 70% of freshwater used for irrigation, and growing loss of biodiversity, among others.

The use of the planet's resources is no longer sustainable. A recent study by WWF, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network revealed that humans now use in excess of 25% of the productive capacity of the biosphere and that two planet Earths will be needed to support our projected demand.

The scope and scale of agriculture and the projected growth in demand for food, biofuels and other commodities puts it on a crash course with identified pathways for environmental sustainability.

With a growing awareness of the value of the goods and services that nature provides, governments and institutions are looking for ways to both decrease per capita demand and increase the efficiency of current land use practices.

But how can agricultural landscapes produce more with less impact?

Coffee wake-up

While the interests of farmers are often seen to be at odds with others in the supply chain, a dialogue is taking place about ways to build on shared interests across the global supply chain. Creating dialogue across sectors that typically do not interact in this way has led to some interesting advances.

Critical to success is our ability to define how to pay for the costs of maintaining the goods and services, and who pays. Incentives are evolving, including certification standards such as Fair Trade and the newly developing payments for ecosystem services like those for water, or the trading of carbon.

Developing our understanding of the relationships and trade-offs among forests, soil, biodiversity, water, and food production among other key ecosystem components is driving a new paradigm for applied scientific research.

Bee pollinating

So are there interventions that can create win-win situations for both land owners and the regional community at large? Two examples from the world of sustainable coffee production follow.

Coffee is one of the top five traded global commodities. A hundred million people depend on it for their livelihoods and the evolving models provide insight into the opportunities and challenges for sustainable agriculture.

Pollinating insects help with the production of over 65% of the world's crops. Recent declines in native and managed bee colonies have created concern about food production.

An ongoing project by Earthwatch illustrates the connection of these pollinators to the landscape and how different stakeholders come together to identify potential solutions.

A recent research project by Valerie Peters from the University of Georgia in the US, using teams of Earthwatch volunteers, found that wild and domesticated bees enhanced both the yield and quality of coffee berries near Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Wild bees and other pollinators were in turn attracted by plants, other than coffee, which the farmers had grown around their fields. Recognising the value of these other management practices in boosting yields helps farmers understand the benefits of biodiversity in the landscape.

Citizen science

Dr John Banks of the University of Washington Tacoma in the US and Earthwatch are expanding on this work in the Tarrazu coffee region of Costa Rica.

Working with farmers, volunteers from organisations such as Starbucks Coffee Company and the accounting and advisory firm Ernst & Young LLP, are identifying the value of nearby forests in boosting bee populations and coffee production.

These volunteers and other citizen scientists are helping to collect and analyse field data as it relates to bee activity and coffee plant growth.

Barren salt plain (AFP)

These diverse teams of volunteers are also exploring the financial mechanisms that help recognise and reward the goods and services that farmers and forests provide to local and global communities.

Ernst & Young LLP volunteers in particular will assist the Costa Rican cooperative managers in their effort to improve their business practices and develop better pricing structures for sustainable coffee production.

While the increase in intensive agriculture and the use of fertilisers and pesticides has produced dramatic increases in yield, this has come at the cost of degraded habitats, particularly the soil.

New sustainable techniques are needed to mitigate the negative consequences of intensive agriculture. Rebuilding healthy, diverse soils requires great effort to yield not only nutritional, healthy food, but also to mitigate erosion, capture carbon, and act as a sponge to prevent flooding, among other benefits.

Providing farmers with ways to enhance their soils for these diverse benefits takes a multi-sectoral approach. By engaging local organisations and Starbucks employees, Earthwatch is finding that useful tools can be developed that benefit farmers.

In Costa Rica, like much of the world, there is a need to protect against practices that acidify the soils, and rebuild their organic matter and thus natural capital. The linking of research with both ends of the supply chain is enhancing the uptake of better soil conservation measures.

Rather than seeing the use and development of agricultural lands as the conversion of natural systems into human-dominated ones, there are increasing opportunities for win-win solutions. Rural farming communities are among the poorest on Earth, yet they are often open to change - and have much to lose otherwise.

Adoption by consumers, governments and businesses of financial mechanisms such as certification and payment for ecosystem services is needed to ensure that the cost burden by producers of enhancing the environment is adequately compensated.

Solutions to address this challenge are being drafted through unlikely collaborations - consumers, farmers, corporations and governments. Learning and trust across this global community is essential.

Mark Chandler is international director of research for the Earthwatch Institute; he spoke at the Earthwatch lecture "Farming and Sustainable Environments" on 17 March, available as a podcast

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Dr Chandler? Can these examples of "win-win" situations be scaled up to a whole world full of conflicting agricultural and environmental interests? Is there any hope in maintaining "natural capital" in the face of a rising population with exponentially higher needs?

In geology there are rules that help make sense of observations. For instance a rule of how past processes continue in future and a rule of superposition as to how sediments are laid down. I would submit that the same can be applied to the present question as to where and how mankind is likely to affect the planet or at least the biology on it which holds conditions suitable for life.. If lessons learned by research into how coffee can be grown better are to be ramped up or scaled up to affect the future of our planet it's in raising awareness that a better system is needed to drive industry.. All the small scale farmers of shade grown coffee beans in the world and those trying to do their bit to keep soils good don't stand a chance when huge deals are cut half way round the world affecting fossil fuel interests if resulting emissions raise temperatures above what is suitable for raising coffee beans. The impact of things in one part of the world can no longer be taken in isolation or out of context as to how it affects the planet as a whole. Without the support of good governance and the active participation of forward thinking people economies of scale often fail to bring good policies forward.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

No mention of the degradation of minerals. With modern farming the product/crop is always removed from the field. With the crop goes whatever trace elements are in the soil. To keep crops going we put back fertilizer, but this is not aimed at replacing all that has been taken by the crop but only sufficient (and at the lowest cost) to make the crop grow again. This years crop of wheat is fundamentally different to the crop from the same field 50 years ago. Add to this the genetic engineering / breeding to ensure the crop looks right and is 'fat' in this sense lots of carbohydrate. Its also increasingly the same as the crop from a field 100 miles away. In the case of wheat. We eat it in bread, our food animals eat it, we eat them. We are moving towards a monotonous unhealthy diet denuded of trace elements. But, the standardized crop suites the food seller. Their job is not to provide a healthy product but something people buy and makes money for them. Take out the trace elements and our thyroid doesn't work, other parts also start to fail, we head towards being malnourished with growing obesity and failing health while surrounded by food. In the case of salt, we have processed what was a super food with 80 and more vital minerals into just sodium chloride. Okay, its white, tastes like salt, is cheap, pours but is no longer food. So, not only must we look to maintaining the volume of food, but that it remains food in the real sense.
Simon Mallett, Lenham Kent

Intensive farming is a direct response to an intensive increasing population that demands food for all. A need that cannot be denied as a minimum human right. However intensive farming which is basically a commercially driven system where a few people make a lot of money and the rest either work for little or get pushed out of farming and into the cities where as history repeatedly shows they become the bottom of the pile. It is good to consider and action systems that maintain a more natural and long term sustainable arrangement to the production of food but this needs to be supported globally by voluntary and financially supported family planning to ensure in the long term a sustainable population. One without the other is never going to work adequatley in the long term.
Geno, Heathfield, East Sussex, UK

As the world's population increases and climate change forces land use patterns to change, pressures upon farmers to produce more food on limited agricultural land grows by the day. Productive and sustainable agriculture depends on healthy ecosystems - fertile soil, plentiful water and flourishing natural pollinators and pest controllers. Under the above mentioned article we should understand the intellectual challenges of ecological restoration, but also with how to implement it in the field. In my ecologists sensing we might need a new set of perspectives and tools to do this. How can environmental degradation be stopped? How can it be reversed? And how can the damage already done be repaired? I argue that a two-pronged approach is needed: reducing demand for ecosystem goods and services and better management of them, coupled with an increase in supply through environmental restoration. Restoring Natural Capital brings together economists and ecologists, theoreticians, practitioners, policy makers, and scientists from the developed and developing worlds to consider the costs and benefits of repairing ecosystem goods and services in natural and socioecological systems. It examines the business and practice of restoring natural capital, and seeks to establish common ground between economists and ecologists with respect to the restoration of degraded ecosystems and landscapes and the still broader task of restoring natural capital. Also we should considers conceptual and theoretical issues from both an economic and ecological perspective, examines specific strategies to foster the restoration of natural capital and offers a synthesis and a vision of the way forward.
Engr Salam, Kushtia,Bangladesh

It seems to me that food processing storage transport etc. can attract a host of tax concession rebates and subsidies all the way along the chain. However it is difficult to allow tax concessions on things like compost heaps although they can be allowed on various chemical fertilisers herbicides etc. organic food is generally more expensive but it could be that if the tax incentives were removed from the conventional system or similar concessions were allowed to organic producers then the costs may not be much different. I think we need to closely examine the current system of tax concessions rebates and subsidies right through the processing storage and transport industries involved in food supply and look at what is available to the organic sector.
raymond, magill s.a. australia

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