United Nations Thematic Group
Sub-Group Meeting on Wildlife, Biodiversity and Organic Agriculture
Ankara, Turkey, 15-16 April 2003
THE CHALLENGE OF SUSTAINING FOOD PRODUCTION
WHILE ENHANCING BIODIVERSITY
2. THE BELOW-GROUND FOOD CHAIN: SOIL BIODIVERSITY
3. THE FARMING SYSTEM FOOD CHAIN: GENETIC RESOURCES FOR FOOD AND AGRICULTURE
4. THE ECOSYSTEM FOOD CHAIN: WILDLIFE BIODIVERSITY
APPENDIX - ORGANIC AGRICULTURE IN PROTECTED AREAS AND BUFFER ZONES - CASE STUDIES
Environmental degradation. After half a century of high intensive input agriculture, the yield gap between best practices and farmers' fields remains large, agricultural lands continue to shrink and global environmental threats are a reality, e.g. erosion of biodiversity, desertification, climate change and other transboundary pollution. Agriculture intensification contributes to over 20 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions1. Agricultural activities affect 70 percent of all threatened bird species and 49 percent of all plant species2. Uniform cultures have dramatically reduced the number of plants and animals used in agriculture; currently, 1 350 breeds face extinction, with two breeds being lost each week3. Biodiversity erosion is exacerbated by the loss of forest cover, coastal wetlands and other wild relatives, important for the development of biodiversity and essential for food provision, particularly in times of crisis.
Hunger. Despite FAO's and other institutions' efforts for global food security, the benefits of increased agricultural production often bypass the poorest sections of the world population. Over 450 million farmers have never had access to Green Revolution technologies such as mechanization, irrigation, improved seeds and breeds, and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides4. The World Food Summit stressed that hunger is a problem of access to means of food production or means to purchase food.
Dependence. Although agriculture remains the world's single largest employer, rural economies suffer from sharp decline in real food prices and loss of entrepreneurial capacity. The terms of international exchange favour importations at the expense of local production. Developing countries, which traditionally have had a net surplus in agricultural trade, increasingly depend on food imports. The conventional food production model ties farmers into conditions of dependence on large corporations to buy agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides) and to sell their produce5.
Nature conservation. Protecting biodiversity at genes, species and ecosystem levels through germplasm banks and protected areas is not sufficient. The maintenance costs of gene banks are high, up to half of the material collected is in need of regeneration, and "freezing" genetic resources denies their evolution. Biodiversity is best maintained through sustainable utilization and selection by food providers. Animals move across boundaries and ecosystems are not immune to air and water pollution. The 12 percent of global land areas "fenced" for nature protection are located within or around a 40 percent land surface used by agriculture and forestry. Food systems should be viewed as an integral part of the ecosystem. "There is a need to manage agricultural land as part of a larger landscape that explicitly considers ecological functioning"6.
Rural livelihoods. Rural communities need land to derive livelihoods. National parks and protected areas have always had local culture as components of the landscape. Ecotourism management by local residents generates supplementary income for both management of protected areas and rural livelihoods. Agritourism creates new opportunities for farm employment, specialty foods and safe agro-ecosystems. There is a need to reconnect farmers to the land by linking their productive activities with nature conservation. A symbiotic relationship between agriculture and natural landscape exists in the presence of ecologically managed systems.
Food self-reliance. Poor farmers and market-marginalized communities need a food production model that relies on local natural resources and ecological management. Where food surpluses are generated, markets should guarantee "fair" prices. Managing local resources without having to rely on external inputs involves substituting purchased (private) goods by (public) knowledge of natural processes that optimize competition for nutrients and space between species within the agro-ecosystem. By stressing diversification and adaptive management, agricultural systems can improve soil and water quality and the ecological services that support agriculture, while significantly decreasing vulnerability to weather vagaries or other factors. Where markets for ecologically-produced food exist, farmers' return on labour are higher through consumers' willingness to pay higher prices.
Organic agriculture offers a means to address food self-reliance, rural development and nature conservation. The common thread in this ambitious goal is the sustainable use of biodiversity; in terms of both agriculture contribution to biodiversity and biodiversity contribution to agriculture.
To be successful, organic agriculture needs functional groups of species and essential ecosystem processes as its main "input" to compensate for the restriction on (or lack of) synthetic input use. In fact, a close relationship exists between organic agriculture and the maintenance of biodiversity. This is expressed in the rules and regulations that govern certified organic agriculture and by the practical experiences of organic farmers around the world. Selected international codes and agreements expressing the organic agriculture-biodiversity linkages and need for further consideration are the following:
In organic agriculture, biodiversity is both instrument and aim. Natural ecological balance, below and above ground, is key to its success. A healthy soil is the base for food production and a diversity of plants and animals on land prevents pest and disease outbreaks. Although organic agriculture is committed to the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity, many systems today remain limited to input substitution. To be unlocked, the real potential of organic agriculture on biodiversity requires a stronger shift to a systems approach, based on improved understanding of ecosystem functions.
The presentation below describes the promising, but still scattered, results observed in organic agriculture systems. The food chain is described for soil systems, farming systems and the larger ecosystem. This involves descriptions of the impact of organic management on soil biodiversity, genetic resources for food and agriculture and wildlife biodiversity. The latter is substantiated by a series of 19 case studies, presented in Appendix.
Soils contain enormous numbers of diverse living organisms assembled in complex and varied communities. Soil biodiversity reflects the variability among living organisms in the soil - ranging from the myriad of invisible microbes, bacteria and fungi to the more familiar macro-fauna such as earthworms and termites. Plant roots can also be considered as soil organisms in view of their symbiotic relationships and interactions with other soil components. These diverse organisms interact with one another and with the various plants and animals in the ecosystem, forming a complex web of biological activity. Environmental factors, such as temperature, moisture and acidity, as well as anthropogenic actions, in particular, agricultural and forestry management practices, affect to different extents soil biological communities and their functions.
Soil organisms contribute a wide range of essential services to the sustainable functioning of all ecosystems. They act as the primary driving agents of: nutrient cycling, regulating the dynamics of soil organic matter, soil carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions; modifying soil physical structure and water regimes; enhancing the amount and efficiency of nutrient acquisition by the vegetation; and enhancing plant health. These services are not only critical to the functioning of natural ecosystems but constitute an important resource for sustainable agricultural systems.
Capturing the benefits of soil biological activity for agricultural production requires adhering to the following ecological principles:
Improvement in agricultural sustainability requires, alongside effective water and crop management, the optimal use and management of soil fertility and soil physical properties. Both rely on soil biological processes and soil biodiversity. This calls for the widespread adoption of management practices that enhance soil biological activity and thereby build up long-term soil productivity and health.
Adaptation and further development of soil biodiversity management into sustainable land management practices requires solutions that pay adequate consideration to the synergies between the soil ecosystem and its productive capacity and agro-ecosystem health. One practical example of holistic agricultural management systems that promote and enhance agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity is organic agriculture.
Building of soil fertility is the cornerstone of organic agriculture. Organic practices create suitable conditions for soil biotic and abiotic resources through: manipulation of crop rotations and strip-cropping; green manuring and organic fertilization (animal manure, compost, crop residues); minimum tillage; and avoidance of pesticides and herbicides use. Scientific research in Europe has demonstrated that organically-managed soils significantly increase biological activity and total density and diversity of soil micro-organisms. Such biodiversity enhances nutrients recycling and soil structure. The impact of organic management on soil biological activity and related benefits is summarized below12:
There are several hundred millions of small farmers in the world who do not have the economic means to buy high yielding seeds or the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides necessary for conventional cultivation. Many of these have opted for the maintenance or re-introduction of organic systems based on traditional forms of agriculture. These promote the use of varieties and breeds that are better adapted to local stress conditions and do not require unavailable inputs such as, for example, veterinary drugs.
There are also farmers who have opted for organic agriculture, in part because they wish to produce healthy and environmentally-friendly food, and also because they are attracted by the strong demand for organic products and the related premium prices. Market driven farmers should, as a minimum, rotate crops as the first step towards improving agricultural biodiversity. This is one of the methods required by organic certification bodies as well as by financial programmes. These farmers have also opted for sowing locally-adapted species and varieties that are more resistant to disease and local environmental conditions because synthetic fertilizers and pesticides cannot be relied upon.
The adoption of organic agriculture methods requires farmers to follow a series of agronomic practices (e.g. crop rotations, crop associations, green manure and maintenance of vegetation between rows) that make organically managed systems biologically much more complex than conventionally managed systems. Organic farms make use of larger numbers of plant and animal species than conventional systems. As a result, the large pool of genetic resources for food is maintained and other useful organisms, such as predators, pollinators and soil micro-organisms are increased - for the very benefit of the agricultural system.
The contribution of organic agriculture to the survival of centres of diversity and to under-utilized species, varieties and breeds is described below. The specific requirements of organic farmers for a productive genetic material, in conditions of low-input and harsh environments, are generating innovative approaches to research and development; the emergence of participatory systems of selection and distribution of appropriate genetic material is presented.
The continued cultivation of crop species within their centres of diversity plays a fundamental role in the maintenance of genetic diversity. Preserving the integrity of centres of diversity through ecologically-sound agriculture is an indispensable inheritance for agriculture and as such, for food security for future generations. It is the genetic variability that allows populations to adapt to changing environmental conditions.
In centres of diversity, the introduction of organic practices is aiding the conservation, through cultivation, of populations with high genetic variability. The maintenance of agricultural production in centres of diversity requires market outlets for peasants and indigenous communities. The new income opportunities offered by organic markets reverse the present trend of abandoning land which has previously been economically uncompetitive.
Examples where organic agriculture created viable means for in situ conservation and use of areas with diverse genetic heritage include: producing and processing cocoa in Mexico to sell Maya chocolate to tourists, and the maintenance of naturally-pigmented cotton in Peru, resistant to pests, diseases and drought. These organic market opportunities provide for the economic viability of thousands of farmers and processors and maintain genetic variability for future generations.
In the past, agriculture has played an important role in the maintenance of genetic diversity. The substitution of a large quantity of species for only a few and the adoption of high yielding and uniform varieties from a genetic point of view, has caused a significant reduction in the genetic inheritance of cultivated species. Many agricultural species, varieties and breeds which have played an important role in the human diet and traditional cultures have practically disappeared over the last century.
Organic farmers breed varieties for quality, nutrition, resistance and yield, in reduced input growing conditions. Research has shown that these characteristics are more likely to be found in older native cultivars. In particular, open pollinated varieties and indigenous breeds offer diverse and regionally adapted characteristics that are better suited to organic agriculture.
In the last decade, the adoption of organic agriculture has indirectly established a rescue process of species, varieties and breeds threatened by under-use or extinction. The restoration and enhancement of under-utilized species and varieties has been motivated by specific demands of both consumers and farmers.
For the rescue of varieties threatened by extinction, the development of a market is fundamental and it is here that organic agriculture plays an important role as the price premium gives an additional value to the product. This is especially the case now that there is a consumer' interest in traditional, speciality and organic products.
Many consumers search for quality aspects, for either health reasons (e.g. gluten-free crops, other medicinal properties or high fibre content) or culinary traditions (e.g. gastronomy, taste and local diets).
Examples where organic agriculture has allowed the maintenance and improvement of species and varieties that otherwise would suffer strong genetic erosion or extinction include: the discovery of the nutritional value of the gluten-free quinoa in Peru and saraceno grain in Italy; re-introduction of local rice varieties in traditional diets and culture in Indonesia; and economic viability of the Garfagnana spelt in Italy. These cases provided for the survival of poor communities in marginal areas and valorized endangered genetic resources.
The majority of crop varieties available on the commercial market are not suitable for organic cultivation methods as they have been selected for production dependent on irrigation and large quantities of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Many of these are hybrids and are not open-pollinated. In the last few years, the problem has worsened following the arrival on the market of genetically modified varieties.
The selection objectives of organic agriculture differ from those for conventional agriculture. It is of crucial importance to utilize the genotype potential for an improved adaptation of varieties to the low-input conditions prevailing in organic agriculture.
The necessity for organic farmers to find methods for obtaining quality products with good yields and limited production costs is greater than for other farmers. Besides the fact that organic farmers cannot apply synthetic inputs, their use of organic fertilizers, natural pesticides and other permitted substances is uneconomical in the long-term. Permitted external inputs as such are relied upon mainly during the conversion period to organic agriculture or under exceptional circumstances. The comparative advantage of certain varieties to withstand local natural stress, especially in marginal areas, leads organic farmers to adopt biodiversity management as their main productive strategy.
Empirical organic breeding systems have been based on the selection of individuals better adapted to the local environment and that are more resistant to pests and diseases. Many of these systems have demonstrated interesting results in restoring and improving local varieties.
Examples of restoration of varieties and breeds include: the rescue, in Germany, of an old variety of wheat with a vegetative cycle that allows the absorbency of nitrogen available in sandy soils; in Cuba, the success of local pumpkin varieties is used as the basis for the refinement of methodologies for the selection of varieties for low-input situations.
Animal breeding for high performance and selecting for early maturity have led to increased susceptibility to diseases, joint inflammation and mastitis as well as circulatory, metabolic and fertility problems of livestock. Loss of breeds is exacerbated by the narrowing genetic base of modern breeds and hybrid lines. The trend towards inbreeding increases the degree of genetic uniformity in the animals and hence, susceptibility to infection, parasites or epidemics.
A significant proportion of local breeds remains in the care of pastoral people and traditional livestock owners in developing countries (e.g. pigs in China, cows in India and poultry in Asia and Latin America). Local breeds are suitable for free ranging and robust, thus viable in marginal areas. While the yield may be less in the short-term, animals are more resilient and able to survive in the long-run.
Examples where organic agriculture restored, through utilization, genetic resources resilient to local natural stress include: productive rearing, in Italy, of authochthonous races of the Maremmana cattle, on the verge of extinction, due to its suitability to grow in marshy environments, and the re-establishment of native poultry in South Africa, due to their resistance to Newcastle disease.
Historically, farmers have managed many varieties and breeds according to agronomic and culinary properties. Considering the need for a wide gene pool to improve and multiply genetic resources for food and agriculture, breeding requires access to seeds and breeds from the formal and informal sectors. Open pollinated varieties, which represent an important gene pool for resource-poor farmers living in marginalized and stress-prone areas, are rapidly vanishing. They are replaced by very few hybrid varieties which require inputs not available to poor farmers and which entail dependence on large seed companies.
Limitations and threats associated with crops have stimulated many organic farmers, especially in the horticulture sector, to produce their own seeds. In order to do this, they have often had to rescue local varieties and develop their own system of selection and distribution. In many cases, the systems include the exchange of seeds between farmers as a fundamental instrument (e.g. organic seed fairs).
Organic systems encourage the preservation and expansion of older, locally bred and indigenous varieties and breeds. Farmers who save their own seeds can gradually increase crop resistance to pests and diseases by breeding for "horizontal resistance". Horizontal resistance is the ability of a crop to resist many or all strains of a particular pest (which differs from breeding for "vertical resistance" to have a gene to resist one specific strain of a disease). By exposing a population of plants to a certain disease or pest (or to several pests at one time), then selecting a group of the most resistant plants and interbreeding them for several generations, a given population becomes more resistant than the original population. Horizontally resistant cultivars are well adapted to the environment in which they were bred, but may be less suitable for other growing conditions.
Benefits derived from new varieties bred by farmers require a legal system of common ownership that allows equitable access and benefit sharing. The biodynamic network of farmers and breeders in Germany provides an example of how such a system could be organized: trials, selection and evaluation of genotypes adapted to low-input conditions is made by farmers and common ownership of new varieties is shared by the community.
Organic agriculture is providing an important contribution to the in situ conservation, restoration and maintenance of agricultural biodiversity. The spontaneous establishment of participatory systems of research and development is shaping a simple and practical system of equitable sharing of benefits derived from genetic resources for food and agriculture. The growth pattern shown by the conversion to organic agriculture throughout the world suggests that this contribution is likely to increase still further.
According to the IUCN Red List of 2000, approximately 70 percent of all endangered species of birds and 49 percent of all plant species are spoiled by agricultural activities and approximately 25 percent of the world's wild animals and plants is running the risk of extinction by the middle of this century.
Agricultural productivity depends upon the maintenance of ecological balances and the natural properties of plants and animals. The fundamental role of maintaining (or restoring) biodiversity is demonstrated through ecological services such as pollination of crops, predation for biological control of pests, micro-organisms' maintenance of soil fertility and other services vital to the food web.
On the other hand, agriculture has the same important role in wildlife conservation, provided that it avoids the use of substances (e.g. pesticides) that could have a harmful effect on natural species and that it maintains food and shelter through a diversified landscape and permanent vegetation (e.g. trees, hedges and fields margins). Finally, a type of land use that provides suitable biological corridors is essential for wildlife conservation.
Nature conservation has traditionally consisted of geographically targeted efforts. While this approach has resulted in a number of successes for rare species or key locations, worrying declines of protected species have occurred. A healthy environment is a prime objective for the conservation of vital terrestrial ecosystems and the wildlife in it. Natural faunal and floral species have strong connections with agriculture, whatever their habitats are, especially as agricultural fields occupy much of the earth's land surface.
Protected areas simply cannot be viewed in isolation from the communities within and near them. Almost everywhere, rural dwellers claim historical rights on protected areas which governments have, at a point in time, declared "protected" for national interest. People inhabiting within or in the neighbourhood of protected areas depend directly on their resources for a living. In India, for example, at least three million people live in protected areas and many other millions live in their proximity. In Latin America, about 86 percent of national parks are inhabited by indigenous people and migrants14. This very dependency on protected areas and its diversity of life forms imposes ecological farming policies. If nature is to be protected successfully, protected area dwellers should be given agricultural choices which are not environmentally destructive and economically rewarding.
Considering that the relationship between wild biodiversity and agriculture is reciprocal, the protection of wildlife, biodiversity and natural areas must include a correct management of agricultural systems.
There is no doubt that farmers are the most important managers of natural resources. Several studies indicate that organic agriculture safeguards non-agricultural biodiversity and offers a viable alternative in protected area categories where human activities are allowed. Most importantly, the huge land surface surrounding protected areas requires an agro-ecosystem management that preserves the safety and integrity of the landscape. If farm land bordering and connecting protected areas employ organic methods, there is no reason to fear the loss of wildlife or contamination of air, water and soil. These buffer zones are critical to the success of conservation in the protected areas.
Organic agriculture enhances people's ability to live in harmony with nature and to derive economic benefit from their land. Considering that most protected areas traditionally belonged to local villagers, organic agriculture allows local people to maintain some control over their land, protect land and biodiversity through their farming practices, reap its benefits for themselves and, at the same time, conserve and improve the natural environment.
The direct impact that organic agriculture has on ecosystems can be seen on different scales: on-farm, farm margins, and overall ecosystem. While on-farm biodiversity has been discussed in the sections above, the following sections will consider the interactions of organic agriculture with the wider landscape, namely protected areas and buffer zones.
Certain protected area categories allow sustainable land-use activities such as organic agriculture, management of non-timber forest products, fishing, subsistence hunting and ecotourism. Organic farming within protected areas is a growing practice that can "help to define and control sustainable land uses in those protected areas containing significant human populations16".
There are some 350 Biosphere Reserves in 85 countries to protect ecosystems. The area surrounding a biosphere reserve, named buffer zone17, plays a critical role because activities carried out here strongly influence the core of the protected area itself. Often buffer zones are areas dedicated to agricultural practices. Conversion to organic systems can reduce the detrimental effects of conventional farming, and can provide sustainable systems, suitable for the management restrictions governing buffer zones, and consequently to natural ecosystem conservation.
The protection of the natural heritage must consider the impact, be it positive or negative, that human activities have on it. The characteristics of agriculture make it one of the main activities to be practised in protected areas and buffer zones. Organic agriculture offers a suitable alternative in ecosystems where geographic and morphological conditions are favourable to human activities, such as wetlands and lowland forests. Also, the ecological services offered by organic agriculture in biological corridors are of extreme importance.
Although outside the scope of this paper, the opportunity to develop (on-farm) agritourism or (around farm) ecotourism for city dwellers, who appreciate a healthy and diversified rural landscape, creates new income opportunities for organic farmers.
Wetlands are defined in the Ramsar Convention as "areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and the associated plant and animal life. They occur where the water table is at or near the surface of the land, or where the land is covered by shallow water"18. Wetlands are present in every country, from the tundra to the tropics. Their ecological importance derives from their capacity to host high concentrations of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrate species. In fact, wetlands are boundary areas that combine the components of marine, fluvial and terrestrial ecosystems.
In addition, many functions of wetlands derive from the interactions of different properties of soils, water, plants and animals. Some of these functions include, for example, water purification, water storage, flood mitigation, recharge and discharge of underground aquifers (by the movement of water), and stabilization of local climatic conditions.
Natural wetlands are among the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Their high productivity and the morphologic characteristics make wetlands excellent areas for many human activities, especially agriculture. Often the damage caused by land reclamation for agriculture or unsustainable practices leads to the disappearance of wetland areas and corresponding biodiversity. Suitable management is therefore a critical priority to save these fragile ecosystems.
Organic agriculture can help wetland conservation, by providing suitable habitats for wildlife species, reducing water pollution and, at the same time, offering a valid economic alternative to the exploitation of natural resources.
Examples where the avoidance of synthetic inputs and cropping strategies employed by organic farmers in wetlands offered breeding and feeding habitats for endangered wildlife include: return of cranes and storks in the cereal production in Muravia Park, Russia and of egret and heron in rice production in the El Ebro Delta, Spain. Organic beef production in the Pantanal Region, Brazil, created natural grasslands vital to wild mammal herbivores in an area considered the world's biggest ecological sanctuary (including many endangered species such as the Pantanal marsh deer) and which previously suffered from deforestation of savannah and implementation of artificial pastures for beef.
Human activities such as modern agriculture and grazing can be a serious threat to forest ecosystems and hence, for a large percentage of the world's flora and fauna. In fact, the practice of clearing the tree cover often interrupts the continuity of canopy, an essential characteristic for genetic and specific biodiversity flow. In many cases, the same agricultural fields are also a barrier to wildlife movement, and pollution from agrochemical abuse may have negative impacts on forests.
Organic management in forest areas has the potential to reduce the loss of biodiversity caused by these agricultural activities. The organic systems utilized in forest areas are shade and sun cultivations. In the first case, the plants are grown under a canopy that consists of original forest trees or selected plants. In the latter, there is no forest cover on the agricultural field.
Although yields of full sun production are often higher than for shade cultivations, the latter provide timber, fuelwood and other fruits, and have a lower soil erosion rate. Shade plantations have been shown to be highly beneficial to biodiversity conservation in tropical forest ecosystems, including millions of migratory birds and other animals and plants.
For example, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre's research has demonstrated that bird species are almost twice as large in shade coffee as in sun coffee19. Shade coffee cultivation therefore offers important conservation opportunities as the structural profile of shade coffee farms is similar to natural forest, providing habitat suitable for resident birds and migrants. As a result many scientists and conservationists believe that shade coffee plantations are ideal zones for migratory birds.
The Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign has obtained statistical data on shade coffee as compared to sun coffee and has shown how shade cultivations are preferred by bird species (approximately 150 compared with 20-50 species), mid-size mammals (24 species compared with almost none) and several species of ants, beetles, amphibians, epiphytes and others. Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre's studies indicates that at least 180 species of birds live in Mexican shade coffee and cocoa fields (much more than on other agricultural lands), and that 90 percent fewer bird species live in Colombian sun coffee plantations than in shade coffee20.
Researchers highlighted the capacity of the canopy cover to support secondary structures (e.g. epiphytes, parasites, mosses and lichens), which in turn support arthropods, amphibians and other living beings. Another relevant fact is that shade coffee hosts a large density and diversity of predators and parasitoids involved in the control of insect pests. Shade coffee offers an optimal habitat also for other tropical forest species, such as beetles, ants, wasps and spiders, and supports a high diversity of many vertebrate groups (small mammals as opossums, squirrels, mice and bats)21. Finally, areas of high ecological value located around coffee farms are protected.
Examples of the co-existence of shade organic cultivations and richness of biodiversity in forest ecosystems include: shade coffee in the buffer zones of El Trionfo Biosphere Reserve, Mexico; shade cacao in the tropical forest of Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, Mexico; and yerba mate in the threatened Atlantic rainforest of the Guayaki Biological Reserve, Paraguay.
Examples of conversion to organic agriculture to reduce pressure on endangered forests include: land exchange between Del Oro orange production and Guanacaste Conservation Area in Costa Rica to restore rare native forests; organic bananas to protect the threatened Guaraquecaba Atlantic forest and its extraordinary biodiversity in Brazil; and the re-introduction of native species through agroforestry in Ampay Forest Sanctuary in Peru. In all these cases, local communities' income was raised while providing benefits to the environment.
Corridor zones link protected areas with one another and either remains under wild cover, or are managed to ensure that human land use is compatible with the maintenance of a high degree of biological connectivity. These areas have a fundamental ecosystem function forming part of a large-scale ecological web.
To be effective, biological corridors must offer suitable habitats to wildlife, thus the maintenance of a healthy environment is necessary. Areas joining parks or reserves are equally important for biodiversity conservation as they ensure ecosystem connectivity. These "linkage" areas often host agricultural systems but if they are managed in an unsustainable manner, the vitality of these corridors decreases or is totally hindered.
Careful organic management in agricultural land between (and sometimes inside) the protected areas has permitted the creation of important biological corridors and allowed the protection and increase of biological diversity. Through on-farm structured vegetation and canopy tree diversity, organic agriculture has demonstrated its capacity to provide livelihoods to farmers while providing easier movement of animals between managed forests and protected areas.
One of the largest, most unique conservation efforts presently underway in the world is the Meso-American Biological Corridor that runs across seven countries, covering an area of 770 000 km2, from Panama to Mexico. Examples of organic cultivations include: shade coffee in the buffer zone between El Imposible and Los Volcanes National Parks in El Salvador where hundreds of endemic and threatened birds, mammals, reptiles and trees strive; and shade cacao and bananas in the Talamanca-Caribbean Biological Corridor and its buffer zones, Costa Rica, where most of the fauna is endemic. Organic systems offer habitats similar to intact forests, providing suitable refuge for migratory and resident birds and foraging for many forest mammals, including species at risk.
Organic land management and bird conservation programmes exist in several northern countries. Examples include: organic crop and livestock production in Brandenburg, Germany where the higher presence of skylarks has been observed; and organic farming inside a wildlife corridor that connects Adirondak National Park and Lake Champlain in the State of New York, USA.
Farmers and forest dwellers are the main users and managers of the earth's natural resources. Land management, including its domesticated and wild biodiversity, relies on agricultural activities that build self-regenerating food systems. The sustainable management of farms and the appropriate agricultural and environmental policies have a great responsibility with regards to the linkages between agriculture and nature conservation.
Meeting food needs while protecting the natural heritage is a challenge shared by all countries of the planet. Organic agriculture can meet this challenge head-on by:
Organic agriculture has demonstrated its ability to not only produce commodities but also to "produce" biodiversity at all levels. However, it is logical to assume that in wild areas, organic agriculture is a disturbance to natural habitats by the very fact of human intervention. In any case, it offers an important step towards a solution to many of the threats that conventional agriculture has on biodiversity. Organic agriculture should be considered simply as the most appropriate starting point from which additional conservation needs, where they exist, can be built. Its widespread expansion would be a cost-efficient policy option for biodiversity.
Research and development is necessary to better understand the complex ecological processes as well as the management capacity of farmers. If organic agriculture is given the consideration it merits, it has the potential to transform agriculture as the main tool for nature conservation. Reconciling biodiversity conservation and food production depends upon a societal commitment to supporting organic agriculture.
1 OECD, 2001.
2 IUCN, 2000.
3 FAO, 2000.
4 FAO, 2002.
5 FAO, 2002b.
6 Scherr, 2003.
7 IFOAM, IUCN, WWF, 1999.
8 FAO/WHO, 1999.
9 Convention on Biological Diversity, 1996.
10 Convention on Biological Diversity, 2000.
11 Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, 2002.
12 FiBL, 2000.
13 For further details of examples mentioned under this section, see N. El-Hage Scialabba , C. Grandi and C. Henatsch, 2003.
14 McNeely J.A., 1999.
15 The case studies mentioned under this section are in Appendix.
16 Stolton S. and Dudley N. in WWF website.
17 Buffer zone is defined as "an area on the edge of a protected area that has land use controls and allows only activities compatible with protection of the core area, such as research, environmental education, recreation, and tourism" (FishBase Glossary).
18 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands website.
19 Smithsonian, 1994.
20 Greenberg R., 1994; Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, 1994 in Rice R. and Ward J., 1996.
21 Perfecto et al., 1996; Perfecto I. and Snelling R., 1996, Estrada A. et al., 1994, in Rice R. and Ward J., 1996.