[permaculture] How Agriculture Can Provide Food Security Without Destroying Biodiversity

Lawrence London lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Tue Mar 24 02:13:51 EDT 2015

How Agriculture Can Provide Food Security Without Destroying Biodiversity May
23, 2011

*Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson*

According to conventional wisdom, the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte
(pop. 2.5 million) has achieved something impossible. So, too, has the
island of Cuba. They are feeding their hungry populations largely with
local, low-input farming methods that enhance the environment rather than
degrade it. They have achieved this, moreover, at a time of rising food
prices when others have mostly retreated from their own food security goals.

The conventional wisdom contradicted by these examples is that high
yielding agricultural systems necessarily reduce biodiversity. Sometimes
this assumption is extended to become the ‘Borlaug hypothesis’ after Norman
Borlaug, the architect of the green revolution. The Borlaug hypothesis
states that the preservation of rainforests, an example of biodiversity,
depends on intensive industrial production of sufficient food to allow for
the luxury of unfarmed areas (e.g. Trewavas, 1999).

So, since Belo Horizonte and Cuba appear to have defied this logic, what is
their secret? Are they succeeding in spite of their commitment to
sustainability, or because of it? Or is conventional wisdom simply wrong?
These pressing questions are explored in a new review, *Food security and
biodiversity: can we have both?* by Michael Jahi Chappell and Liliana
Lavalle, and published in the journal *Agriculture and Human Values*.

*A pathbreaking new approach *

Whether agricultural productivity and biodiversity are mutually exclusive
has only recently emerged as a central question in agriculture. It follows
increasing awareness, both that global biodiversity is in rapid decline,
and that much of the decline is a result of industrialised agriculture
This is evident from data as diverse as increases in the number and size of
ocean dead zones to declines in pollinators (Cameron et al 2011).

However, as the number of those who go hungry swells, countries and
development advocates see themselves as faced with seemingly impossible
choices between food security and environmental degradation. Such
pressures, together with the acknowledgment that the productivity of
industrialised agriculture can be short-lived, have stimulated academics
and others to reexamine their thinking (e.g. Tscharntke et al 2011).

Perhaps the best-known attempt to rigorously evaluate the biodiversity
versus food question was the International Assessment of Agricultural
Knowledge, Science Technology and Development (IAASTD)
<http://www.agassessment.org/>. This United Nations-sponsored commission
was set up to resolve the competing ways forward being offered for
agriculture. Reporting in 2007, the IAASTD commission left its mark mainly
by pointing out that it is a mistake to think of agriculture as simply
about productivity. Agriculture provides employment and livelihoods, it
underpins food quality, food safety and nutrition, and it allows food
choices and cultural diversity. It is also necessary for water quality,
broader ecosystem health, and even carbon sequestration. Agriculture,
concluded the IAASTD, should never be reduced merely to a question of
production. It must necessarily be integrated with the many needs of humans
and ecosystems.

According to John Vandermeer of the University of Michigan, the IAASTD
report “did conclude that food security and biodiversity could be
reconciled”. Amidst discussion of many other issues that conclusion,
however, was largely lost. What Chappell and LaValle have contributed, he
says, is to focus specifically on the question of whether biodiversity and
food security can co-exist in the same place. “They have brought together
the data that can resolve the contradictions contained in both sides of the
biodiversity versus food argument”, he says. Helda Morales, Professor of
Agroecology at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Mexico, agrees. “This is a
careful review of the relevant information available on biodiversity and
food security.”

*Sustainable agriculture and productivity*

Yields are the first issue Chappell and LaValle considered. Surveying the
scientific evidence, they find it supports the idea that a ‘hypothetical
world alternative agriculture system’ could adequately provide for present
or even predicted future populations. This is primarily because present and
future populations do not need more food than we currently produce. But it
is also because agroecological methods involve only a minor yield loss
compared with the best that industrial agriculture has to offer. Indeed
small farms, which they believe will have to be the basis of any future
sustainable agriculture, typically yield more than larger ones. Both
conclusions are accepted by Teja Tscharntke, Professor of Agroecology at
Georg-August University in Goettingen, Germany. “Hunger in the developing
countries can only be reduced by helping smallholders,” he says, and even
in Germany, “organic farming would easily feed the population if
nutritional recommendations were followed”.

*Sustainable agriculture and biodiversity*

On the question of whether agroecological methods also enhance
biodiversity, the answers appear even more clear cut. While industrialised
agriculture is often considered the biggest single global contributor to
extinction, biodiversity of every kind is enhanced on farms that avoid
industrial methods compared with farms that do not. A recent meta-analysis
cited by the review put this figure at “30% more species and 50% more
individuals” on agroecological farms. Chappell and LaValle found that
smaller farms using agroecological methods are more biodiverse and less
harmful to the environment generally. This finding was consistent over a
wide range of localities, crops and production systems. Probably that is
because multiple aspects of industrialised agriculture, from large field
sizes to the use of nitrogenous fertilisers and pesticides, are each
associated with biodiversity losses.

*Embedded agriculture*

Agriculture is a system that functions within bigger ecological, political
and economic systems. Success, therefore, must ultimately be judged at that
level. Chappell and LaValle consider that the two examples they
studied—Belo Horizonte and Cuba—offer tentative evidence of success at a
regional level. Of these two, Cuba’s commitment (and also success) appears
to have been the greater. It is claimed, for example that the “capital city
of Havana is now almost entirely supplied by alternative agriculture, in or
on the periphery of, the city itself”. They acknowledge, however, that two
examples do not prove anything except a principle. As Teja Scharntke puts
it “such examples may be models for some but not all countries.”

*Future directions*

Nevertheless, say Chappell and LaValle, this all points to the conclusion
that “the best solution to both food security and biodiversity problems
would be widespread conversion to alternative practices.” Instead of
supporting a competitive relationship “the evidence emphasizes the
interdependence of biodiversity and agriculture.” Helda Morales goes even
further “I would go beyond this statement and say that we cannot have food
security if we do not have biodiversity”.

For John Vandermeer, the uniquely holistic approach of Chappell and LaValle
is the key to a consensus. “When people dispute these conclusions, it is
almost invariably because they are using too narrow a frame of reference.”
And it is a consensus that appears to be gaining wider attention. In
December of 2010 The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food
published a document asserting that agroecology
had demonstrated “proven results” and that “the scaling up of these
experiences is the main challenge today.”

The immediate practical obstacle, however, to choosing a food system that
supports both food security and the environment is public policy. Citing
Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the former Director General of the International
Food Policy Research Institute, Chappell and LaValle state: “It is a myth
that the eradication of food insecurity is truly treated as a high
priority.” The real obstacles to ecological high-yield farming, Vandermeer
believes, are research priorities and economics. “Industrial farming only
appears to be more viable because it is subsidised.” Even though there are
at present some uncertainties, “If we applied the same research efforts to
agroecological approaches that we currently do to support industrialised
farming, even more could be achieved.”


Cameron SA, Lozier JD, Strange JP, Koch JB, Cordes N, Solter LF, Griswold
TL (2011) Patterns of widespread decline in North American bumble bees.
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 108: 662-667.
Chappell MJ and LaValle LA (2011) Food security and biodiversity: can we
have both? Agriculture and Human Values 28: 3-26. Author Copy
Pinstrup-Andersen P (2003) Global Food Security: Facts, Myths and Policy
Needs. IFA-FAO Agriculture Conference.
Trewavas A (1999) Much food, many problems. Nature 402: 231-2
Tscharntke T et al. (2011)
Multifunctional shade-tree management in tropical agroforestry landscapes –
a review. J. Applied Ecology. in press.

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