The (un)easy partnership of food and biodiversity

Upland farmers. Photo credit: IRRI

Upland farmers. Photo credit: IRRI

Agriculture systems can wreak havoc on natural ecosystems. As people cultivate land for food production, the surrounding environment is acutely impacted, often in a negative way. Specifically, biodiversity suffers as forests are cleared to make way for crops or livestock.

However, food production and biodiversity conservation don’t necessarily have to be at odds. The links between the two are not always obvious but, in some contexts, they work hand in hand to both improve productivity and ensure that the diversity of ecosystems can be preserved.

During the Center for International Forestry Research’s (CIFOR) Forest Asia Summit, the tensions and interactions between food production systems and biodiversity conservation were discussed, specifically in the context of rural uplands in Asia. Three examples – from China, India, and the Mekong Basin in Southeast Asia – were presented and explored.

Xie Chen of the State Forestry Administration of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) talked about a government program that works on the conversion of croplands to forests, specifically to edible non-timber and economically desirable trees. Originally, the program focused on reforesting cropland. However, this had a negative impact on the food security and livelihoods of farmers. As such, the program was reformed to encourage intercropping so that grain production could continue alongside fruit, tea seed oil and other tree-based crops.

Monitoring of the program showed that, at least at the county level, edible outputs have increased overall. The yield of all crops per unit area of extant ‘farm’ land has increased, while intercropping made crops more resistant to natural disasters. In addition, despite an increase in irrigation, these integrated systems helped to maintain water resource quality and quantity for lowland users.

Overall, if farmers are better able to manage their forest lands by encouraging plant diversity, the end result is positive environmental impacts as well as increased productivity of crop lands. This is especially important in a populous country like the PRC where food security of rural farmers is important to national stability. The decreased poverty rates among the monitored households involved in the program are encouraging for a country that is trying to secure subsistence for its rural poor.

While Chen acknowledged that more research is needed to explore the environmental benefits of re/afforestation, as well as forest conservation as it relates to grain production and food security, she was hopeful. Chen believes that this program is an example of how developing countries can balance agriculture and forest preservation if they fully recognize the importance of environmental conservation and rural livelihood development.

Kanchi Kohli, an independent environment researcher from New Delhi, India, agreed that linking farms with forests is important. This has not always been easy in India, Kohli said, where government policies tend to separate these two spheres based on what they are perceived to produce, even though the landscapes are often merged.

Kohli used Uttara Kannada of Karnataka province as an example. This part of India is dominated by farming Brahmins who tend to cultivate small spice gardens and rice paddies. She described the landscape as a “mosaic” of these gardens and paddies, mixed in with old growth forests, sacred groves and betta forests – forests that are publicly used for leaf litter collection and other recreational purposes. This mosaic results in multilayered horticulture in which forests are closely linked to – and actually part of – the food production system.

Uttara Kannada Village. Photo credit: Pushkar V

Things are unfortunately changing in Uttara Kannada. Out-migration is on the rise as making a living from agriculture becomes less viable and youth move to urban centers for work. In addition, government policy on land rights is threatening the betta forests; as ownership of the land becomes an issue and the betta forests are split up or sold, they are no longer communally available for food production purposes.

Kohli says that government program interventions are largely to blame for these changes. Even an emphasis on maintaining forest cover by setting up exclusive conservation areas means that local populations cannot use the betta forests for traditional cultivation. Instead, she suggested that reestablishing farm-forest connections and allowing for diversity and choice would be a more effective way to improve livelihoods while still maintaining forests and bio-diversity.

The final example was presented by Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) who outlined the replacement of shifting cultivation with monoculture plantations in Southeast Asia.

Schmidt-Vogt said that shifting cultivation (or slash and burn cultivation as it is derogatively known) gets a bad rap. While the process does involve cutting down and burning areas of forest, traditionally these plots were left fallow for about a decade, during which time the forest was able to regenerate. This system actually maintains a forest landscape in dynamic equilibrium, creating secondary forests that resemble mature/closed forests in their diversity of plant life. Significantly, this plant life includes edible crops and forest products that supported local food stability and livelihoods.

By contrast, the current trend of replacing these lands with rubber trees and other plantations results in monoculture that doesn’t contribute to local food production. In addition to decreased biodiversity, this kind of monoculture also poses a risk for livelihoods; for example, rubber plantations (or other commercial tree plantations) are more exposed to threats like bacteria or pests. Schmidt-Vogt says that these highly specialized landscapes are less sustainable because, if something goes wrong, farmers have nothing to fall back on. Reinstituting diversity with more crop varieties would make landscapes more sustainable.

From these examples, we can see that food production and biodiversity conservation are linked. We can also conclude that monocropping is putting both livelihoods and forests at risk. More research on viable options that support the link between forests and farms should be conducted to try and preserve both food stability and biodiversity. There is definitely scope for innovation, says Schmidt-Vogt, especially if we explore traditional agroforestry methods and try to improve upon them. If we can discover and promote land-use systems that add to the livelihoods of people while increasing forest cover and bio-diversity, then Asian uplands will be moving in the right direction.

Mia Signs is a communications fellow with the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE).

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