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The Whole Picture: Balancing Agriculture and the Environment

February 29, 2012

How do we find the balance in managing natural resources to meet the needs of both people and nature?

With the 9 billion people expected on this planet by 2050, food production will have to keep up—while at the same time we need to make food better available to people, particularly to the poor. In order to make the best decisions on how to develop agriculture and achieve food security, we need to be able to see a much better picture of agriculture’s impact on the environment as well as on people.

Unfortunately, the information necessary to look at agriculture from this joint perspective hasn’t been available. For too long, people working to grow food have had a different language from those who work to preserve the natural resources of the earth. This is funny, since agriculture needs those natural resources and a healthy environment in order to prosper.

An ambitious and innovative new project aims to address this by providing the tools to see the whole picture, for the very first time. The foundation has recently awarded a grant to Conservation International. This group will work with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research of South Africa, the Earth Institute, Columbia University, and a wider group of scientists to create a monitoring system for agriculture, the environment, and human well-being in sub-Saharan Africa. Why is this necessary?

First, agriculture is extractive. It takes natural resources from the earth and turns them into food. We need food—and more of it—but when we intensify agriculture, we have to make decisions about acceptable environmental tradeoffs.

We also want to ensure that farmers can take advantage of opportunities for additional environmental benefits from their agricultural practices. Since we haven’t had the right information to make informed choices to balance these goals, examples of unintended consequences unfortunately abound.

Second, the majority of people living on less than $2 a day are farmers. They, together with all of humanity, don’t only depend on natural resources for growing food, but also need clean water, clean air, and animal feed. Therefore, we also need better information to understand the tradeoffs rural households make facing competing needs for their limited resources so that agricultural policies can better serve them.

With this new information, African policymakers and the farmers they serve will be able to take actions that lead to sustainable agricultural production: agriculture that balances food production, sustains natural resources, and reduces poverty.

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