Addressing hunger and environmental protection: agriculture and biodiversity linked

LONDON – The frustrating reality in trying to preserve the world’s biodiversity is this: Almost half of the world’s 17,000 major nature reserves, which are intended to protect wildlife from extinction, are being heavily used for agriculture. But at the same time, extreme malnutrition and hunger are pervasive among people living in at least 16 of the world’s 25 key biodiversity “hot spots,” where wildlife is most at risk.

How do we find a way to solve both problems?

A report by The World Conservation Union and the Washington, D.C.-based Future Harvest claims many plants and animals will go extinct unless ecosystems are managed to feed people and protect wild species simultaneously, according to the report.

What can be done?

The report outlines a solution to the crisis based on a new understanding of wildlife biology and ecology, on-the-ground experimentation, and major scientific advances in genetics, remote sensing, and other fields.

The approach, called “ecoagriculture,” seeks to help farmers living in or near biodiversity hot spots to grow more food while conserving habitats critical to wildlife.

“The ecoagriculture approach recognizes the fact that endangered species and desperately poor humans occupy the same ground,” said co-author Sara J. Scherr, adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. “Ecoagriculture could transform agriculture and environmental protection to save wild biodiversity while also addressing the realities of human hunger and population growth.”

Reserves not sufficient.

Protected areas intended to preserve biodiversity encompass 10 percent of the Earth’s land surface. But, according to the report, 45 percent of the world’s major protected reserves are themselves heavily used for agriculture.

If only the existing protected areas were to continue as wildlife habitat, between 30 and 50 percent of the species in those areas would be lost.

What is ecoagriculture?

The report documents six key ecoagriculture strategies that can help farmers in industrialized and developing countries protect wild species and conserve habitat on and near their land while actually increasing agricultural production and farmer incomes. The strategies include:

* establishing networks of wildlife habitat in non-farmed areas and connecting these with larger protected areas;

* integrating perennial plants into farming systems to mimic natural habitats such as forests and savannas;

* deploying farming methods that reduce pollution;

* increasing agricultural productivity on lands already being farmed to reduce further conversion of land to agriculture;

* modifying resource management in crop fields and other productive areas to enhance their value as wildlife habitat; and

* establishing protected areas near farming plots, ranch land, and fisheries.

Change isn’t easy.

“Many of the new approaches in ecoagriculture will require a change in mind set for many farmers,” said Scherr. “For centuries, farmers have generally done their best to clear land of natural vegetation and keep wildlife off their farms. This was the sign of a good farmer. Now we’re asking farmers to let some of the wild back in.”

“We are not suggesting that elephants should be allowed to trample farmers’ fields,” said Scherr. “We are saying that there are strategic solutions for conserving wild biodiversity and producing food on the same land.”

biodiversity for their livelihoods.”

“For too long, agriculturalists and environmentalists have worked at cross purposes,” said Barbara Rose, executive director of Future Harvest. “We must start working together if we are going to feed the world and protect wildlife.

“Much more research is needed for poor farmers to benefit from, rather than pay the cost of, conserving biodiversity, while also growing the food they need for their families and livelihoods.”

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