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Foro Global sobre Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutrición • Foro FSN

Re: Harnessing the benefits of ecosystem services for effective ecological intensification in agriculture

Perhaps I may be stating the obvious, but I think it might be useful to ascertain precisely what is necessary to optimally harness the ecosystems services to ensure ecological and sustainable agriculture at an adequate level.

It is clear that the very possibility of the above mentioned state of affairs depends on the willingness and ability of those who are engaged in agriculture to ensure the following:

1. The ecosystem services involved are not over burdened at any time, and their optimal use is ensured.

2. Agricultural production  shall not be increased neither by using chemical means nor through qualitative or quantitative changes in agro-species in an area, which could either overtax the ecosystem services there or lead to environmental degradation that will reduce their current level.

These then, are the two categories of “don’ts”, which are often ignored. Now, moving over to the “do’s”, the following conditions should obtain:

3. Active steps should be taken to ensure the continuance of the optimal level of ecosystem services involved. This may entail either sustaining the biodiversity or living populations of an area, or the regeneration of its environment.

4. An increase in agricultural production in an area should be accompanied by the environmental actions necessary to ensure the increase in the level of ecosystem services necessary to sustain such an increase.

Our problem then, is how we can induce those who are involved to be willing and able to observe the four conditions described above. In my view, here the question of willingness is more problematic than that of ability.

I used the phrase, “those who are involved” advisedly, for agriculture today represents an exchange with very few exceptions, i.e., it cannot exist as we know it, unless there are consumers who are able and willing to buy agricultural products. We shall not devote any time to discuss the role of middlemen in this exchange, for they may be considered to be a species of surrogate consumers.

Consider now smoking. Fewer and fewer are unaware of the medical implications of the habit and not all smokers are addicted to it. Still, a considerable number of people continue to smoke even though they know its possible harmful effects on health, and are able to quit if they would. What they lack here is a willingness to do so.

But here, we are talking about an issue whose ramifications are more immediate and affects billions. Hence, while one undertake reasonable measures to change people’s traditional value beliefs concerning the environment and agriculture in order to bring about a reasoned change in their behaviour, it is necessary to resort to legal means to hasten the requisite change in human attitude to ecosystem services and agriculture owing to its urgency. This aspect of the problem has been discussed by another contributor.

For what it is worth, let me now look at how may one inculcate in the public the factual belief that sustainability of an adequate and an appropriate agriculture depends on the commensurability between the ecosystem services it requires and the capacity of the environment to provide it. Moreover, it should be borne in mind that artificial provision of some such services for short-term gain may permanently impair the environments ability to provide them, leading to desertification, silting of rivers, loss of fertile top-soil, drastic reduction in rainfall, lowering of the water table, adverse weather, increase in temperature, etc., all of which could render agriculture impossible in previously arable areas.

I think the public belief in this may result from a suitable education campaign across the board. It should not be restricted to school education, which is a long-term means of achieving the same result. As the situation is critical, a more general approach seems to be indicated. A previous contributor has discussed this aspect of the main issue.

Next, we come to the question of one’s ability to make sure that agriculture and its adjuncts observe the four conditions we have talked about earlier. Let me begin with the consumer first, because if he is indifferent and ready to buy whatever is on sale (especially if it is cheaper), there will be no incentive for the producer to flout those conditions.

I suggest the following measures to render the purchaser able to support the observation of those four conditions, and the producer to observe them:

1. Very low tax on the agricultural income of farmers who observe those conditions.

2. Introduction of subsidised loans, seeds, training, and support services such farmers need. Here, we must distinguish between ‘free trade’ that does jeopardise the future of the whole world, and the ‘free trade’ that does not.

3. Great care should be exerted in providing ‘development aid’, particularly that ear-marked for industrialisation as it often leads to a drastic loss of ecosystem services. I have already talked about in a previous discussion, the socio-environmental disasters brought about by rogue development aid.

4. Products that meet our four conditions may legally carry a label indicating their conformity, enabling the customers to make an informed and responsible choice.

5. A deterrent tax comparable to that imposed on tobacco and alcohol may be imposed on the sale of agricultural products, whose production ignores those four conditions, and the money used to subsidise the conforming producers.

6. Stringently enforced controls on the use of agro-chemicals.

7. Establishment of strategically deployed sound food storage facilities and environmentally more benign means of food transport. Eg. Waterways and railways rather than by articulated lorries.

8. Enforcement of laws that prohibit the concealment of all potentially harmful non-dietary chemical compounds in foods. This is because the less one observes those four conditions in agricultural production, the more such chemicals in food, or their concentration.

At this point, I would like to suggest investment in agricultural innovations that would help those who are engaged in agriculture to avoid the “don’ts” above, and encourage them to embrace “the do’s”. I envisage the use of such innovations as requiring three logically linked set of ways and means.

Implementable policies:

I use this phrase in a limited sense, i.e., agriculture policy we need to achieve our present objective should not come in conflict with the current non-agricultural policies under implementation at national, regional or global level.

Secondly, those non-agricultural policies should positively support the agriculture policy we need in every possible way.

The innovation we need here is an actual adaptation of integrated policy development as a government practice. This of course, depends on our actual ability to acquire a holistic perspective on policy issues. Unfortunately, policy formulation today is all too often is area specific, for example, Military, health, agriculture, and each policy is shaped by the experts of one given area. This reductive approach is the greatest stumbling block to our progress.

The other important policy change I envision involves devolution of decision-making power to local people, especially when the decisions are concerned with changes in the biological and the geographical constituents of an area. Many people and organisations have emphasised the necessity of this.

Ways and means:

Other things being equal, an implementable integrated agriculture policy should be commensurable with the available ways and means one may set aside for its realisation.

Even when it is so, one often runs into skeins of impenetrable red-tape woven by previous agreements, treaties, national, regional or even international laws that could easily foil our endeavours to benignly utilise ecosystem services to increase agricultural yield. Please consider the ongoing controversy on Maipo hydro-electricity project in Chile, which seems to be permitted by the current law, but if completed will turn over 100,000 sq.km. of Andean wilderness into a dessert.

I think this type of anomaly embodied in nearly every governing body should be stamped out without delay if we want to save and preserve what little ecosystem services we still possess on earth. It is inane for a government to agree on the importance of our present goal while permitting unrestricted felling of tropical hardwood saying that it is ‘legal’, or ‘we are just responsibly exploiting our own natural resources for the benefit of our people’. And I am afraid some of the clauses in international trade agreements and ‘development agreements’ are equally nefarious with respect to their effect on ecosystem service capacity.

So, what I would like to suggest is an innovative evaluation mechanism that should be empowered to investigate, identify and make public recommendations on what changes in current policies, agreements, and laws, etc., are required in order to make our integrated policy implementable. I shall not comment on the obvious components of ways and means like finances, technology, etc.

The crux:

Finally, I’d like to touch upon some essential fundamental changes in our perception of agriculture, because in reality that perception not only defines what is taught in the institutes of agriculture, but also how all of us think about it, and benefit from it.

It is not very flattering to ‘our progress’ when the fact remains that only the poor subsistence farmers and a few nearly self-sufficient small holders consciously or habitually value agriculture on rational and civilised grounds, viz., it is worthwhile because it’s the best means we have to meet our nutritional needs. Stating the obvious, unless we are fed, there would be none left to establish space colonies, engage in gene juggling, political hair splitting and such signs of progress.

So, it would be puerile to talk about ‘right to life’ unless we actively cherish and nurture agriculture, the best means we have to satisfy our cardinal need, i.e., nutrition.

If it is to be sustainable, the biological service requirements of agriculture should be commensurable with the ecosystem services our environment can provide without distress.

But our current economic thought is based on the primitive notion of acquisition of gain (material or power) by pandering to a real or advertisement generated demand. This simplistic idea of economy as a means of personal gain ad libitum has blinded most of us to the importance of agriculture and its dependence on our habitat, and made us think of it as just another industry, where profit is the spur.

I think if we thought and learned about agriculture as an endeavour not unlike medicine when doctors believed in Hippocratic Oath, and not just a trade that allowed some middlemen to get very rich by manipulating world’s hunger, I believe we can ameliorate the lot of billions without increasing the extent of current arable land provided that we are also willing to stop the population increase.

If agriculture education at all levels emphasises the need to balance the requirements of agriculture with the ecosystem services the habitat can offer, perhaps the future agriculturalists might resort to cooperation with their living habitat as an benign adjunct to their pursuit, rather than the mechano-chemical slash and burn method of the present.

Much work of course remains to be done. I doubt that the potential of ecosystem services in pest control, soil enrichment, yield enhancement via more complete pollination, water retention, etc., has been even partially realised. Let us hope interest in this area would increase, particularly where the environmental distress is increasing.

Complements of the season!

Lal Manavado.