A Global Agricultural Research Partnership

Small farmers are yield champions

smallholder farmer IWMI
Smallholder farmer in Masvingo District, Zimbabwe

James Clarke (International Water Management Institute – IWMI) reports from the session on “Reconciling food security, biodiversity and multiple ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes” at the “Planet under Pressure” conference:

We can feed the world without expanding industrial agriculture according to Ivette Perfecto of the University of Michigan. Addressing a packed session at the Planet Under Pressure conference, Professor Perfecto outlined the land sharing and land sparing approach to sustainable agriculture (explored here by CIFOR’s Terry Sunderland) which seeks to promote wildlife friendly farming.

There is a widely held view that we have to bring more land into production in order to provide enough food for the world’s population. But Perfecto argued that by expanding agro-ecosystems farming rather than pursuing a more industrial approach, we could not only spare natural habitat, but deliver global food security as well.

“Ideology underpins this debate” she said. “The best options depend on our initial assumptions.”

“The first important fact to establish is that global food security is not linked to global food production. In fact food production is actually sufficient just now. Enough calories are grown for everyone on the planet to have an adequate diet, but 1 billion are still hungry and this number is increasing.”

This is not simply a question of income and resources. Food usage is inefficient and wastage is high. Agricultural policies and trade also have a huge impact, as the recent debate over biofuels has shown. Commodity speculation is now a major influence on food security. 60% of food commodity markets are currently controlled by speculators compared with just 12% 10 years ago. The result of all this activity has been an increase in “land grabs” and inequity.

But policymakers can at least agree that we need to feed the hungry and malnourished. Can this be done sustainably? Already agriculture is viewed as the main culprit responsible for global biodiversity loss. Increasing yields, however, doesn’t necessarily have to lead habitat destruction.

“The key point is that we don’t need to depend on industrial agriculture,” said Perfecto. “Yields in organic systems can be increased by 50% from current levels. Looking at agriculture in the west it would be easy to assume that large scale farming is efficient and delivers the highest yields per hectare. In fact small and medium scale can be more productive on per area basis.”

One of the arguments often deployed by proponents of industrialised agricultural intensification is that it results in land sparing. In other words, if farms can grow more food on the same amount of land, there will be no need to encroach on natural areas. The facts suggest otherwise. Intensifying agriculture in many regions has been clearly shown to directly lead to more deforestation. Even if land is spared, ecological systems are not static and biodiversity loss can still be a risk. Local extinctions can occur in isolated pockets of land habitats

“We should support diverse systems,” said Perfecto. “That way we can preserve biodiversity and increase yields at the same time.”
Picture courtesy David Brazier (IWMI)

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