There is more to farming than yields, and more to forests than trees

In balancing conservation concerns and agricultural aims, there are other factors to consider, including what farmers want and what happens to crops growing near forests
Photo credit: Icaro Cooke/CIFOR

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Mexico - On the sidelines of the 2017 Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation Annual Meeting in Merida, Mexico, and following a Center for International Forestry Research-sponsored symposium on agrarian change in tropical landscapes, Frédéric Baudron of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) spoke to Forests News about the contribution of forests to diets.

In your presentation at the symposium, you discussed the Green Revolution and the land sparing versus land sharing framework. Can you elaborate?

The Green Revolution brought with it a focus on agricultural intensification and high-yield crops. The related land sparing approach suggests that by maximizing yields one can let other areas remain untouched. Land sharing, on the other hand, supports integrated land uses and preserving patches of natural habitat.

These approaches have provided the main framework for policy makers in discussions on the impact of agriculture on nature – but there are limitations. The view from agricultural scientists working on the ground is different.

What are the limitations? And what shape would your framework take?

I see three main limitations, the first being a lack of pragmatism and flexibility when dealing with farming in the land sparing versus sharing framework, and opposing the use of agrochemicals and instead support for reliance on ecosystem services, when in most circumstances both are needed.

And there is too much emphasis on the tradeoffs between agriculture and biodiversity, ignoring synergies between them that can be seen in rural lives, and at the level of landscape mosaics between patches of forests and patches of farmland. Third is the focus on yields, when we know inefficiencies can occur post-harvest at any point in the distribution chain.

We also need to consider farmers’ objectives, which may not be focused solely on maximizing yields.

I would argue for a framework that involves sustainable intensification, using agro-chemicals as efficiently as possible while maximizing the use of ecosystem services, moving away from the Green Revolution and its negative environmental and social implications.

What we need to do is not focus solely on productivity and yields, but consider important factors like diet and health

Frederic Baudron

What would sustainable intensification look like?

First, the use of external inputs does not have to imply pollution or negative environmental consequences. We now have the technologies to minimize negative effects.

Second, all production systems depend on ecosystem services, for example for soil fertility maintenance, pest control, pollination, etc., and these can be enhanced by retaining patches of forests and other non-crop habitats in productive landscapes.

Forests and agricultural activities often work in complement, with rural dwellers harvesting forest foods and gathering other forest products for themselves or to trade. And studies have found that forests help to sustain nearby agriculture and improve dietary diversity. In addition, the work we are currently doing has found that wheat growing near forests contains higher amounts of micronutrients.

So what we need to do is not focus solely on productivity and yields, but consider important factors like diet and health, and, as I mentioned earlier, all the inefficiencies along the production chain that contribute to food waste.

With regards to avoiding the obsession with yields, what do farmers want – if, as you say, what they want may not be maximum yields?

Some of my research has found that farmers may be more focused on labor productivity rather than land productivity. Different farmers also have different farm styles. If some are driven by profit maximization, many are instead seeking a certain quality of rural life. Others are genuinely concerned about the good stewardship of their land and the conservation of the biodiversity it hosts.

In certain communities, keeping ties to the land is what’s more important, and that can be the spiritual relationship to nature and traditional rules on what can and can’t be done with the land. So there are a lot of other things affecting farming practices that exert a sort of social control. So we need to be much more flexible.

And with forests, there’s a lot of work that has been done proving the direct contribution of forests to diets, from agriculture and from other sources. So forests can stimulate what you produce on your farm, for example, the yield of wheat being greater near forests because of microclimate effects, and the quality of wheat growing near forests is higher because of higher soil fertility.

Another example is with maize and the pests that prey on it. Studies have found that if there is a forest patch next to your maize, ants and spiders living there will help to contain the pests and support improved maize crops. Birds living in forests will alleviate the presence of crop pests as well.

So basically, diversifying farms and landscapes is really a positive. And with the Green Revolution’s switch to simplification we’ve lost a lot of diversity.

I imagine this diversity relates to biodiversity as well. Can you say something about farming, forests and biodiversity?

The land sparing framework is biased toward biodiversity outcomes and has received little contribution from scientists interested in the food production part of the equation. We have to look at diversified production in order to have healthier, diversified diets.

There is too much emphasis on the tradeoffs between agriculture and biodiversity, ignoring synergies between them that can be seen in rural lives, and at the level of landscape mosaics

Frederic Baudron

We need to push for alternative trajectories in agrarian change and not the conventional paradigm of agricultural intensification. The issue is probably not to produce more, but to produce differently. A big part of the problem is also beyond production. Indeed, there are enough calories being produced in the world, but that’s not sustainable as there are still 800 million people going hungry. It’s not an issue of production but of access, availability, safe food, diverse food and no waste.

And this is the argument for a landscape approach, for multiple uses for land, for well-designed systems, with community perspectives and strong institutions.

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