Fix farming, or nature croaks — how farmers’ back pockets could benefit from boosting biodiversity
Here’s some food for thought. The growing loss of biodiversity imperils our food security, putting the lives of millions at risk, even as the drive to feed more mouths threatens biodiversity. Can we strike a balance?
This vexed question was the subject of an online seminar hosted by Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation on 26 April. The 12th in a series, dubbed “Tipping Points”, the webinar brought together experts to ponder how food might be grown and animals reared in ways that better conserve and sustain the natural systems that are the bedrock of agriculture.
The challenge to feed a growing population is a global one, as a 2019 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation report, cited at the webinar, noted. But it had real resonance close to home.
Dr Hayley Clements, an interdisciplinary conservation scientist, reminded webinar guests that “Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the most rapidly expanding populations in the world”.
Joining Clements as panellists were Fazlur Pandor, an agricultural industry entrepreneur, and large mammal ecologist Dr Elizabeth le Roux. André Tranquilini, a biodynamic farmer, facilitated the webinar.
Clements is the lead researcher on a project that has produced a Biodiversity Intactness Index for Africa. The index gives us a picture of how much natural biodiversity is left in a particular area, allowing to plan for the future while protecting what we have left.
Natural balance that supports life
Biodiversity refers to the variety of life at a genetic, species, and ecosystem level. Greater diversity helps organisms and systems thrive, creating a natural balance that supports life.
‘‘Across sub-Saharan Africa, we have about 75% of biodiversity intactness remaining,” said Clements, who touched on a few scenarios that might play out as we seek ways to meet the growing demand for food.
One scenario was to intensify farming of existing croplands. This offered benefits and drawbacks, Clements explained. “Although smaller croplands hold higher levels of biodiversity intactness, their yields are much lower. If we increase the intensity of the croplands, we gain higher yields and lose biodiversity in those croplands, but it also means we don’t lose near natural lands that conserve a lot more biodiversity.”
She said our food production systems have been pursuing a “cheaper food paradigm”. This entailed producing more food, more cheaply, by increasing the use of such things as fertilisers, pesticides, water and land. The problem was that this led to a vicious circle: cheaper food fuelled greater demand, spurring yet more intensification and land clearance.
“Are there other ways to improve yields that aren’t so negative towards biodiversity?” Clements asked.
Pandor, an entrepreneur with extensive experience in agriculture, offered a farmer’s perspective on the topic.
He said we need to accept that there would always be a trade-off between biosecurity and food security. “To maximise food production, we often have to consider, if not undertake, practices that can sometimes have a negative impact on biodiversity. Owning that is part of starting to address the challenge.”
Pandor, who is the son of International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor, said this was true of all farming, be it small-scale or commercial.
There was a time when farmers feared pursuing a more ecological approach was risky, but Pandor felt this was changing. Farmers were beginning to see the benefits of agro-ecological methods.
Le Roux said a just and equitable transition in the way land was used depended upon good governance.
“How do we do this in an African context?” asked Le Roux, who leads a project focussing on how large mammals created landscapes that helped preserve species and maintain biodiversity.
She touched on the need to create and support local solutions – both ecological and socio-ecological.
“We… should invest in supporting ecologically sound management principles, because there are ways in which we can have a production landscape that supports biodiversity, but it’s not going to be free.
“We do have a lot of subsidies going towards practices that are harmful towards biodiversity, and we do have the capacity to redirect those subsidies to support practices that would boost biodiversity and ecosystem function.”
Le Roux said these incentives must be directed towards small-scale farmers if African solutions are to be developed. These farmers are responsible for a large proportion of production on the continent. So, supporting them would help them make decisions that bolstered biodiversity.
Clements identified “African-led knowledge and learning from people on the ground” as important to enabling change and in guiding us when we asked questions about intensifying farming and expanding areas of food production.
How might we encourage a nature-positive culture among farmers?
Clements felt we should look at things differently. We should recognise and celebrate farmers as the custodians of biodiversity. And the resilience of farmers needed to be fostered so theirs was not a fight against nature.
“It’s unfair to expect farmers to be the custodians of biodiversity if we don’t support them better,” she said.
How should we be talking to farmers about biodiversity?
Pandor suggested a very direct, tangible approach to get the conversation started.
“Say that, right here on your land, do you understand that biodiversity happens in the ground? When we start to improve things that you can’t see, it starts to improve things that you do see,” he said.
Biodiversity to pay bills
It was not mentioned often, but farming is an economic exercise. Farmers have bills to pay and their children’s futures to provide for. So Pandor suggested speaking to farmers in ways that got them thinking about how preserving biodiversity might increase their yields or help expand their farms.
Le Roux was asked whether we were compromising the functioning of ecosystems by harvesting from them. She replied there were ways to design productive landscapes that supported biodiversity. But she acknowledged that profound restructuring was needed in how we manage and finance these systems, and that broader society would have to step in and subsidise these systems.
She also spoke about the value of reintroducing animals into degraded environments.
“There is a huge rewilding drive within Denmark and the whole of Europe to help get the impact from animals to recreate heterogeneity, and support ecosystem functions and biodiversity,” said Le Roux.
No quick fixes
Pandor agreed that production could certainly benefit from biodiversity.
“Biodiversity is almost hand in glove with good farming practices these days,” he said, but cautioned that nature doesn’t provide quick fixes; benefits would take time to materialise.
Farmers usually go by the notion that “if it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it”, but we need to get them to understand the system was already close to breaking, said Pandor.
Research must be relevant to farmers too. It must provide information that gives them practical solutions to conserving biodiversity. And it must work both ways: considering biodiversity and the needs of the farmers.
Farmers, he said, were often focused on getting as much as they could out of a specific crop, so they could pay school fees, but perhaps not necessarily think about the impacts on the bullfrog.
Balance is everything, said Pandor. DM/RR
With additional reporting by Maxcine Kater and Savannah Burns.
Laylaa Teixeira Sampaio is a MSc candidate interning at Wildtrust. Sampaio, Maxcine Kater and Savannah Burns are taking part in a Roving Reporters environmental writing training project, New Narratives. It is supported by Jive Media Africa and the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa.