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August 22, 2011

Radically overhauling farming could both boost food production and protect the environment, scientists say. Paying for environmental services is one step that could also help people and the planet at the same time.

Person in a field of cabbage and bananas
Striking a balance between the environment and production is keyImage: IWMI/Comprehensive Assessment

For too long, it has been a question of either-or: either boost agricultural production or protect the environment. Now researchers from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) say this no longer needs to be the case.

They analyzed how of farming and natural systems impact each other and suggested that a radical transformation of this interaction could boost food production and simultaneously protect endangered ecosystems.

Agriculture: degradation's cause and victim

The need to feed a growing global population has increased pressure on ecosystems while at the same time 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of farmland are lost due to ecosystem degradation every year, according to the report titled An Ecosystem Services Approach to Water and Food.

A wetland in South-East Asia
Having enough food in the future will depend on how farms are managedImage: IWMI

"Sustainable intensification of agriculture is a priority for future food security," said Eline Boelee of IWMI, the report's lead scientific editor. "But we need to take a more holistic 'landscape' approach."

A change of mindset when it comes to how the world evaluates ecosystems is needed, agreed David Molden, deputy director general for research at IWMI.

"Agricultural production systems are ecosystems, and the idea is to view them as such rather than as isolated production systems," he wrote in an e-mail to Deutsche Welle.

Water resources are close to running out in many areas, the report said, including in the plains of northern China, India's Punjab and the Western United States. These areas are some of the world's main breadbaskets. Agriculture is already using up 70 percent to 90 percent of available water resources there.

Farming bans only make it worse

But simply excluding agriculture in order to preserve wetlands or protect water resources is not a solution, IMWI researchers said. In the past, farming bans in sub-Saharan Africa have proven to have a much greater impact on the natural systems because the rural population would look for alternatives.

Agriculture and fishing in an ecosystem in Thailand
Joining agriculture and ecosystems would benefit bothImage: IWMI

"People already use wetlands for agriculture across sub-Saharan Africa, and the pressure on their use is high," Molden wrote.

He added that rather than banning agriculture, it was better "to figure out how to manage wetlands to support agriculture and a range of other services like biodiversity and flood protection."

The researchers said agriculture needed to be included as a part of the "green economy." Farming practices that protect water resources, the researchers said in their report, should be valued in much the same way as the international community is beginning to value forest management, which helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

So-called "payments for environmental services" (PES) should be put higher on the agenda, the report said. Such schemes provide farmers with incentives to adopt improved practices and are already in place - but mainly in developed countries.

Price tag for environmental services

In practice, PES means that people who generate services like clean water, or less sediment, are paid by beneficiaries of that service.

A woman watering vegetables in a wetland in Mozambique
Paying for services provides an incentive to protect the environmentImage: IWMI/Matthew Mccartney

"Downstream city dwellers who benefit from farming practices that reduce sediment in water would pay upstream farmers for those practices." Molden said, citing one possible example.

The researchers observed a growing trend in which conservation groups are slowly joining forces with groups concerned with agriculture.

Molden said these alliances "are challenging the notion that we have to choose between food security and ecosystem health by making it clear that you can't have one without the other."

It was high time for these lobby groups to start speaking a common language, he added, since the planet's resources are running out.

Author: Nina Haase

Editor: Sean Sinico