Over the past 50 years, human activity has altered ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period in history, largely to meet demand for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel. Today, about 60 percent of the "ecosystem services" evaluated in the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are being degraded or used unsustainably, and degradation could worsen during the first half of this century. "It is clear," says an FAO report to COAG, "that there is no choice but to produce more with less. Environmental sustainability in agriculture is no longer an option but an imperative."
The report says agriculture has a central role in environmental governance: "It is in agriculture that many of the problems, and many of the solutions, lie. Agricultural policies must consider new parameters, such as massive reallocation of agricultural land use , the substitution of current food crops with energy crops, and the potential contributions of agriculture to global economic development."
FAO identifies three crucial environmental challenges in the agriculture sector - conservation of biodiversity, mitigation of climate change and the global shift towards bioenergy. It calls for a deeper understanding of how existing food production systems can accommodate new demands for biofuel feedstocks, and cope with changing climate and shrinking biodiversity, while contributing to the alleviation of hunger and sustainable use of natural resources.
Agrobiodiversity used in food production underpins humanity's life-support system. Agricultural intensification and expansion have destroyed biodiversity and habitats, driven wild species to extinction, accelerated the loss of environmental production services and eroded agricultural genetic resources essential for food security in the future.
With the global population expected to increase by 50 percent by 2050, biodiversity must be managed more adaptively to promote sustainable increases in agricultural productivity while conserving a safe level of wild and cultivated diversity. A new challenge will be responding to the increasing pressure on agriculture to provide ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and to produce biofuel feedstocks, using substantial areas of land and often in competition with food production. "It is not yet clear how such challenges will be accommodated by the ecosystems they affect and managed by the people affected," the FAO report says. "There is a clear need for research, and for agricultural planning measures that aim at mitigating negative physical and socio-economic impact."
If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, global temperature will probably rise by between 2° and 3° C over the next 50 years, leading to climate changes that will impact food production, health and the environment around the globe. Agriculture practices - such as deforestation, cattle feedlots and fertilizer use - currently account for about 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. In turn, the increasing frequency of storms, drought and flooding caused by climate change threaten the viability of agro-ecosystems. Changes in farming seasons, and shorter cycles for all organisms,
FAO says agriculture "can be part of the solution by contributing to climate change mitigation, through carbon conservation, sequestration and substitution, and establishing agricultural systems that can buffer extreme events". But more attention needs to be given to climate change adaptation, especially in developing countries. Adaptation science can provide farmers, herders and foresters with climate-related knowledge including agro-meteorological data and tools for monitoring growing and post-harvest conditions, agro-climatic zoning for impact modelling and vulnerability assessment, and biodiversity management to increase resilience to changing environmental conditions and stresses.
Projections indicate that bioenergy produced from biomass could meet up to 25 percent of global energy demand by 2050. As a nearly carbon-neutral source of energy, most bioenergy systems can contribute to climate change mitigation by replacing fossil fuels, and through the carbon sequestration of bioenergy plantations.
There is an urgent need to assess the feasibility of bioenergy systems based on countries' needs and resource endowments, prevailing policies, and plausible scenarios for the economic, environmental and policy variables. "Biofuel policy cannot be successfully managed outside the overall policy and regulatory framework of the agricultural sector," the report says. "This will require coherent, long-term planning for transition and adjustment, which takes into account the complexities of managing change in a market-based world economy."
"Difficult trade-offs". Today, world agriculture is called upon to play a variety of roles, in which the trade-offs are considerable and often difficult.. While guaranteeing food security for the global population and a source of livelihood for billions of people, particularly the poor, it must also provide ecosystem services to the wider environment, serve as a sink for carbon sequestration, and meet future demand for biofuels and bioplastics.
It is "time to act globally", to anticipate likely future changes and begin to shift production practices. To be effective, planning that foresees major adjustments in agriculture must evaluate all consequences at global level, including phytosanitary risks as well as changing uses of genetic resources and agricultural inputs. The report calls for development of a medium-term FAO strategy to address environmental issues from within its agriculture sector mandate, with the dual objective of further increasing productivity while contributing to global environmental stewardship and governance.
That strategic framework would address the main environmental challenges, including biodiversity, bioenergy and climate change, that influence global food security, and propose options for ecologically and economically sound approaches, policy and regulatory adjustments and measures to be agreed upon by the international community.
Read the full FAO report to COAG on Environment and agriculture (PDF, 125K)
See also in Spotlight: Reconciling livestock and environment, Agribusiness boom, and Coping with water scarcity
Get the full list of COAG documents
Published April 2007