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Simon Cook: "Look at river basins holistically"


James Clarke (International Water Management Institute – IWMI)  reports from the session on “Options And Opportunities – Intensifying Agriculture Within Planetary Boundaries” at the “Planet under Pressure” conference:

There are plenty of opportunities for intensifying agriculture without destroying the natural environment, according to Kate Brauman of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Recent revolutions in data acquisition and processing have enabled us to clearly identify where intensification can be implemented without significantly impacting water or nitrogen supplies, or encroaching on natural ecosystems. Even though nearly all available agricultural land is currently used for cultivation, the prospects for increasing production on this land are good.

But boosting productivity is only part of the solution. 30-40% of all food grown is wasted. It developing countries it often rots before it can get to market. In richer societies much is thrown away by consumers. Add to that the fact that only two thirds of all crops grown are directly consumable, the rest being used for animal feed or biofuels, and the potential to improve food security without increasing crop production is clear.

Brauman emphasised that all solutions need to be on the table for this transformation to take place. “It is not about organic versus conventional or local versus global,” she said. “We need to be open to all ideas”

Likewise Simon Cook of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Food and Ecosystems deployed data to support his case that the prospects for improving the way we manage river basins for sustainable agriculture are promising.

Development will occur, said Cook, but the question will be whether it is good or bad, going on to define “bad” development as “individualistic, short term and non-adaptive.” Good development, which promotes sustainability and equity, is achievable but only if we look at river basins holistically.

Each region, however, has its own unique set of circumstances, so we need to understand how water, land and ecosystems work together if we want to identify the best development paths to follow. For instance the Ganges basin there is intense population pressure, but many areas with very low agricultural water productivity. This contrasts starkly with parts of China where there have been massive improvements in land productivity. Indonesia on the other hand does not seem to be intensifying its agriculture to any significant degree, it is just expanding the area on which farming takes place.

Cook ended on a call for a more “collaborative politics” arguing that the changes that are required are behavioural and political rather than technical.
Read more on: the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.

Picture courtesy James Clarke (IWMI)

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