July 5, 2021

Healthy Farms, Healthy Wildlife–A New Era for Partnership?

Sara ScherrEcoAgriculture Partners

Who cares about conservation? More and more these days, the answer is farmers.

It seems like a no-brainer for people who make their livelihoods off the land to contemplate the other species that also rely on it. And many do. But biodiversity hasn’t always been the first thing those involved in agriculture have considered. They need to earn a living for themselves and their family, pay off debt and reinvest in their farm and community.

Sure, everybody knows we need wild pollinators to harvest many of the fruits and vegetables we need and love. But pests that could destroy an entire crop or predators that could kill valuable livestock? Even the harmless bugs and salamanders may need farmers to take special care to protect them. It’s no wonder that wildlife has taken a back seat.

And any casual onlooker could see that apparent divide go all the way up the level of policymaking for farming and species conservation. In the U.S., you’re either dealing with the Department of Agriculture or Interior. At the United Nations, it’s the Food and Agriculture Organization or the Environment Programme.

But, science has been showing us that farming can be more productive and resilient in the long term when ecosystems, and all the species that support them, are healthy. People working in agriculture have also awoken to the value of healthy wild populations. It’s not just the birds roosting in adjacent wetlands that derive benefit; the farmland soil and crops do, too. More and more people are now learning how to farm with nature.

Ag and environment find common ground

I first became aware of this potential for mutual benefit between biology and agriculture more than 20 years ago. But back then, those who focused on agriculture lived in one world while those concerned with biodiversity were in another. They didn’t understand each other and often thought of the other side as a threat. It was hard to imagine the concept someday becoming mainstream.

But we’ve seen a dramatic reversal. On July 6, I’ll be one of several panelists taking part in the Global Dialogue on the Role of Food and Agriculture in the Global Biodiversity Framework. That’s a long title that means the international community is at last crafting ambitious plans to bind agriculture and species conservation together to sustainably use farms, forests, and fisheries. The result would benefit people, food and nature.

We can no longer ignore the severity of our current situation. We’re losing species at an unprecedented rate. Meanwhile, three-quarters of the planet’s land area is already degraded, with depleted soils damaging crop yields and forest regeneration. Nearly all of our lands will follow in the coming years if we don’t act.

The problem is that single, narrowly-designed projects on farms or forests are not going to fix what we’ve already broken. They’re a Band-Aid where the patient needs a heart transplant.

For decades I’ve been learning about and promoting the most powerful tool in our arsenal to bring agriculture and biodiversity into alignment instead of opposition. That tool is integrated landscape management (ILM), a way of working with the interconnectedness of large areas to maximize outcomes for people, businesses, plants, animals and ecosystems. It’s a pathway to do the critical work of linking farmlands, protected wildlife habitat and watersheds.

To pull back from the precipice of widespread species extinction, we need to embed ILM at the center of agriculture and forest and fisheries management. This would bring a new and healthier whole-systems approach to how we interact with our environment. ILM uses agriculture and ecology to co-design a more just system that reduces the trade-offs we’re so used to hearing about, and even finds win-win solutions.

The moment for systems thinking is now

Important proposals will come from the July 6-7 dialogue that could find their way into the Global Biodiversity Framework, a critical plan of action to head off widespread species collapse.

I am helping to make sure these proposals include three things.

First, I hope that the UN post-2020 Biodiversity Framework includes the agricultural agenda squarely in its language–that working with the ag sector will be a central part of what biodiversity advocates champion. Second, and from the other angle, I hope that the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit places biodiversity at its center, too. Finally, I hope that FAO and the Convention on Biological Diversity will be in a position to support national governments to bring their ag and environment goals into alignment.

My dream is a massive transformation of our approach to agriculture and conservation. This evolution isn’t something that would be nice to have. It must happen for the ag sector, for the environment and to counter climate change. We need a coherent strategy so that everybody is moving in the same direction towards that goal.

This is the first time in my life that I’ve had the feeling that this could actually happen–that we could integrate the conservation and agriculture agendas.

We can’t waste this moment–too much is riding on it for us and future generations.

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