Environment versus Agriculture

The conflict for eNGOs

The production of food has environmental impacts, there is no way around this. For food crops, like grains, vegetables or fruits, one has to disturb the natural environment in order to get from planting to harvest. One simply can’t walk into a naturally grassy area, stick some seeds in the ground, return in 4 months and harvest the anticipated crop, and expect that everyone can live off such production ideals. Nature is ruthless and weeds will limit the ability of the seeds to germinate and outcompete them for moisture and nutrients, while insects will feast upon those plants that do germinate. Domesticated food plants require routine care and attention to ensure that the plants yield in the way we expect them to.

The results of millennia of plant breeding means that the plants we derive our food sources from have long ago lost their ‘wild’ traits that helped to ensure survival. For example, cereal grains have been bred from grasses. Various varieties of grass easily disperse their seeds in late summer on windy days as their means of reproducing. This is not a beneficial trait when it comes to trying to ensure as many seeds as possible can be harvested, so over time, wheat, oats and barley have had these traits bred out of the domestic varieties we produce today. Today’s cereal, pulse, oilseed, vegetables and fruit crops require routine human intervention to ensure the levels of yield required to ensure food security.

To achieve the yields required to ensure food security as best as is possible requires inputs that range from seeds with beneficial technology traits, fertilizers, chemicals and policies that support farmers rights to have access to innovative technologies. Without these technologies and inputs, farming is considered to be subsistence, whereby the farming family hopes to produce enough food for their own use, but not much more. Producing the amounts of food required to feed a growing population requires impacts on the environment and agriculture has substantially reduced the environmental impact with each passing decade.

The challenge food production faces from the environmental movement is what level of environmental impact is acceptable. Many environmental groups argue that the current impact of agriculture is too high to be sustainable. The question that the environmental movement has failed to answer is if agriculture is to remove, reduce or refrain from using specific technologies or inputs, how will the resulting loss in food security be dealt with? Agriculture requires innovative technologies and inputs to produce the current volume of food, which still leaves an estimated 800 million food insecure. Agriculture could become less reliant on innovative seeds, fertilizers and chemicals, all of which would contribute to lower yields, thereby reducing the global supply of food. The decreased supply of nutritious food would result in a rise in the number of those who would be food insecure.

The production of crops without innovative seeds, fertilizers and chemicals are why subsistence farmers have been subsistence farmers. There is abundant literature showing that innovative agricultural inputs contribute to raising yields. Continuing to feed a growing population in such a way as to not simply increase the number of food insecure in parallel, requires continued innovation investments. These innovative investments have contributed to making agriculture more sustainable, reducing the impact on the environment. When, or will, environmental groups accept the vast amount of evidence that agricultural innovations reduce the environmental impact of food production and support efforts to increase food production and reduce food insecurity? Based on the objectives of environmental organizations at the meetings of the Convention on Biological Diversity, I’m not optimistic that this is something that is going to be happening in the near future.

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