Tag Archives: sustainability

Are there tipping points in pest management?

Tipping points are common in nature. When systems are disturbed beyond a certain point – a tipping point – they may undergo irreversible or hardly reversible changes that provoke shifts towards undesirable system states. It is often difficult to get systems back from this new ‘stable’ yet undesirable situation. Examples are many. A classical one comes from the work of Marten Scheffer in The Netherlands. He studied the dynamics of shallow lakes as they undergo phases of turbidity as influenced by nutrient loads or pollution. You can find out more about his work here.

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How about agricultural systems subject to high pesticide pressure? 

Synthetic pesticide applications are standard practice in conventional farming systems because they are simple to use, cheap, and usually effective in providing short-term reduction in pest densities. Yet, their effectiveness as a long-term sustainable pest management strategy is debated. This debate has been fuelled by the introduction of recent technologies, such as neonicotinoids seed coatings and herbicide tolerant GMO crops, with uncertain outcomes for biodiversity and resistance development.

Historic cases show that the use of pesticides can set off a positive feedback process whereby natural enemy populations are decimated and pesticides become the only pest management option left. The positive feedback between pesticide use and natural enemy mortality suggests the possibility of tipping point dynamics where the system can “tip” from a biocontrol dominated state to a pesticide dominated state. Tipping the system back from the pesticide dominated state to the biological control state could be challenging and require persistent efforts to allow a recovery process of natural enemy populations. Such transition may depend on landscape context and involve complex interactions between human actors and the agro-ecological environment.

The question remains: is there evidence for such tipping points? This will be the central question to be addressed during the debate that will bring Felix Bianchi, Dave Mortensen, Doug Landis and me together at a workshop organised by the PE&RC Graduate School of Wageningen University.

MORE INFORMATION: Poster-Tipping points in pest management

Green, sustainable, smart or ecological?

The increasing recognition that current agriculture is unsustainable, responsible for the loss of biodiversity and habitats, for the rapid exhaustion of non-renewable resources, and for serious impacts on the climate, the environment and people’s health, leads to the continuous emergence of neologisms to express the need for a new global agricultural model. Examples of these include:

  • Sustainable intensification
  • Ecological intensification
  • Agroecological intensification
  • Climate smart agriculture
  • Evergreen agriculture
  • Eco-efficient agriculture
  • Conservation agriculture
  • Biodiverse farming (Kremen et al)

These terms have many things in common, yet the nuances are not minor. Their definitions do share concepts, terms and intensions, but the political discourses and political actors (in science, development and business) associated with their use differ markedly.

Sustainable vs. ecological

In 2014 I published a paper where I reflected upon the uses of the terms sustainable versus ecological intensification. Who uses each term, in which context, and what for? Multinational seed and agrochemical companies, as well as the fertiliser industry or the biotechnology sector adopted sustainable intensification (and sustainability in general) as an umbrella term in their commercial campaigns. The same holds for the international development sector such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the World Economic Forum (Davos, 2012), the Montpellier Panel (2013) or the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN, 2013), and by national policies such as the ‘Feed the Future’ programme of the US Government.

Sustainability is a soft concept, as opposed to a hard one, and thus its definition depends on who defines it, when and in what context. In that paper I noted: (i) that as long as the term sustainability remains vague, ambiguous and poorly defined then any form of agricultural intensification may in principle be portrayed as ‘sustainable’; (ii) that ecological intensification was a better suited term, as it implies an intensive use of the natural functionalities that ecosystems offer, by promoting ecological processes through landscape design. Instead of opposing agriculture and nature, the idea is to integrate both in order to improve agricultural production. Ecological intensification would be then sustainable in its nature, as well as sustained by nature.

What is intensification?

In economics, intensification is a term used to refer to the replacement of one factor (or input) for another one in order to increase efficiency. I use the term ecological intensification to refer to the replacement of inputs by ecological processes in order to increase resource use efficiency. Biodiversity in agricultural landscapes plays a major role at fostering such ecological processes. Ecological intensification describes a transition, a pathway, from current unsustainable agriculture to agroecological landscapes and sustainable food systems. This pathway may describe gradual changes or ruptures, depending on both the starting point and the final aim, as well as on the social-ecological context in which the agroecosystem operates.

How about agroecology?

During the last Latin American Congress on Agroecology organised by SOCLA, bringing together four thousand participants in La Plata, Argentina I was invited to debate with Miguel Altieri on agroecology vs. ecological intensification. The audience was surprised to discover that our respective presentations pointed in the same direction, did not contradict one another, and were complementary in terms of concepts and examples. This is not surprising because, after all, I am… an agroecologist!

afiche congreso

I see agroecology as the scientific discipline necessary to contribute to understand, evaluate and design ecologically intensive landscapes. Agroecology brings in the necessary knowledge and tools to support the above-referred transition, a transition that I call ecological intensification. Yet I understand Miguel’s and SOCLA’s derogatory position regarding the use of terms such as ecological or sustainable intensification. There is risk of creating confusion by using different terms to refer to the same ideas. After all, as Miguel often says, since the emergence of agroecology the term (and the movement!) has been first ignored, then attacked, and now is being co-opted.

Sustainable Intensification strikes back

Recently, the South American regional consortium of agricultural ministries known as PROCISUR adopted Sustainable Intensification (SI) as one of its strategic pillars to contribute to regional development. Guess what? In my new position, I was invited as focal point to represent Argentina at the regional round table on SI. Just when I thought the debate was over, I was confronted again with the discussion on what is sustainable and what not, what is intensification, and whether intensification can ever be considered sustainable, etc. etc. This time, however, and given the fact that the mandate came from our ministries, not just from my own country but also from neighbouring countries where I have little chance to influence ministerial policies, I decided to take a more pragmatic approach.

We already know what intensification means and, in the eye of a minister of agriculture, if it brings about added value and employment generation in rural areas then it is most welcome. But if we are going to talk about sustainable intensification, let us first define what we mean by sustainability. One way to start is to consider the planetary boundaries (see Figure). For any agricultural model to be considered sustainable it must allow us to stay within a safe operating space in our earth system, considering these nine global indicators, and propend towards social equity while safeguarding cultural diversity and values. Unfortunately that’s not the case at the moment. We’ve already crossed some critical boundaries, and agriculture is largely responsible for that.

Planetary boundaries

To transition towards sustainability, our agricultural research for development efforts should contribute to:

1. Reduce the dependence of agriculture on non-renewable resources
2. Reduce its impacts on the environment and nature (soil, water, air, organisms, genomes)
3. Restore the productive capacity of degraded soils
4. Reduce the current expansion of the agricultural frontier onto marginal and/or biodiversity rich areas
5. Maximise resource use efficiency through the optimisation of ecological processes
6. Adapt to and contribute to mitigate climate change
7. Promote the necessary technological and organisational innovations
8. Design compatible value chains and guarantee systems
9. Offer opportunities for farming families to remain in rural areas
10. Align the agricultural agenda with the UN Sustainable Development Goals

If we can agree on this Decalogue as a minimum set of goals to achieve sustainable intensification – or, by the same token, climate smart or ecoefficient agriculture – then we can move away from pompous terms and endless debates about multiple possible paradigms. Then, irrespective of the term chosen, we will be able to generate new narratives and political messages to foster the much-needed change. But once again, I hope I do not upset anyone by saying that it is hard to imagine how such transition could be accomplished, how these ten goals could be achieved, without the insights from and the practice of agroecology.

IV International Congress on Ecosystem Services in the Neotropics

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The International Congress for Ecosystem Services in the Neotropics aims to consolidate as a forum for interaction and discussion about ecosystem services research and management in Latin America and the Caribbean. Through its various modalities of interaction (symposia, forums, conferences), the Congress will cover conceptual, methodological and applied aspects across case studies from all over the region. In this fourth edition, interactions among academia, decision-makers and other stakeholders will be promoted in order to contribute to ecosystem services research and the formulation of public policies for sustainable development. More info here

Running on empty

Will there be enough oil to sustain future food production? Why is current agriculture so dependent on fossil energy? To explore these questions it is perhaps a good idea to examine our ecological footprint from the very beginning of our history on earth.  Our planet originated 4,500 million years ago. Photosynthesis exists for about 3,500 million years but vertebrate land animals and plants only appeared about 400 million years ago. Dinosaurs were there between 230 and 65 million years ago. We humans have been on earth for merely 2 million years, and for most of that time we’ve been marauding around, hunting, gathering fruits and roots, and looking quite different than we do today.

humans

Settling down

Between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago – on the last second of our existence you may say – we decided to set camp, became sedentary and started farming, in a period in which the climate became milder, warmer. Agriculture was a ‘successful’ strategy for our species, starting almost simultaneously in different parts of the world that were not connected by then, and leading to the first population boom. The expansion of our species, half-farming, half-hunting and gathering, led to profound modification of the previous ecosystems around the world. This period coincided approximately with the massive extinction of other species of megafauna (other than human) that took place during the Quaternary.

This moment of our history is seen by some scientists as a key period to study earth living system’s resilience, given that two important processes took place at the same time. Namely, human population growth and climate change – do these sound familiar? A couple of papers published by Barnosky a few years back tried to put some figures behind the dynamics of human and other megafauna populations over the last hundreds of thousands of years. Human expansion, according to Barnosky, is one of the major drivers of extinction of hundreds of megafauna species around the world.

Replacement and addition

If, as Barnosky explains, instead of the total number of individuals we consider the total biomass of humans and of all the extinct megafauna species, then we see a sort of ‘replacement’ of such species by humans. That is, the total biomass that went extinct coincides approximately with that of all humans. The sum of total megafauna biomass – human and non – represents the carrying capacity of Earth, as determined by the incoming solar radiation through plant photosynthesis. In other words, this is the capacity of the Earth to sustain the life of megafauna populations with plant biomass.

Total megafauna biomass declined rapidly during the massive extinctions of the Quaternary and it took about 10,000 years to reach again the level that corresponds to Earth’s carrying capacity. This level was achieved once again around the time of the industrial revolution, as can be seen in the figure below.

megafaunaWhat is most striking in this figure put up by Barnosky (2008) is that the beginning of the industrial revolution, when the world human population starts becoming increasingly urban, marks also the beginning of the expansion in numbers of another category of megafauna: domestic livestock. When we now add up humans, wild animals and livestock, the result is that we are currently keeping about ten times more megafauna biomass than the estimated carrying capacity of the Earth! How is this possible?

Eating fossil fuels

Earth’s carrying capacity, as mentioned above, is determined by the rate of plant photosynthesis. That is, by the ability of plants to turn solar energy into feed energy. Nowadays, to be able to sustain such numbers of animals and humans on Earth we are consuming not only the photosynthetic energy that is capture every year, but also all of that that was captured over hundreds of millions of years. All that energy is stored in fossil fuels: oil, charcoal, gas, tar, etc. These fossil fuels represent a net subsidy to our energy balance on Earth. For example, it is calculated that about 70% of the energy contained in a cereal grain produced using the methods of industrial agriculture comes from fossil fuels (check out this book that appeared already about a decade ago: Eating Fossil Fuels).

About 1500 oil equivalents per year are necessary to feed a person in the developed world. That represents about 6 barrels per person per year. At peak oil production, back in 1979, the maximum oil extraction rate was about 5.5 barrels per person per year, not even half of what is needed in the developed world. All predictions towards the future, both from the public and private sector, point to a reduction in the annual rates of extraction, even when new sources and methods of extraction are considered (e.g. shale gas/fracking). And we know that, as a resource becomes increasingly scarce, its price tends to go up (or so they said in the courses of Economics I ever took).

In conclusion, we are running on empty. And what’s worse, many of the recommendations made to ‘sustain’ agricultural production in the poorest areas of the world, may actually lead to an increased dependence of smallholder farmers on fossil fuels. An example of this is the recommendation to use synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, which requires large amounts of fossil energy to be produced. Do we want to make smallholder farmers dependent on a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce? What would this mean for future (and current!) global food security? We ought to come up with alternatives.