FAO in North America

Moving conservation forward: a role for agriculture?

Submitted by Rachel Friedman on December 19, 2011

In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the World Wildlife Fund U.S. recently held its sixth annual Kathryn Fuller Science for Nature Symposium. Themed Conservation Forward: Ideas that Work and how Science can Effect Change, the two-day event covered many topics from alternative mechanisms to promote conservation to ways to communicate environmental challenges. The first two speakers, Lester Brown from the Earth Policy Institute and Jon Foley of the University of Minnesota, focused much of their talks on food security and global change.

Lester Brown began the symposium revisiting the drought in Russia in the summer of 2010, during which the country lost 40% of its grain harvest from wild fires. He posited that if instead, the major grain exporting “U.S. had lost 40% of its grain harvest of 400 million tons,” there would have been resounding impacts on the price, trade and consumption of food. Citing the collapse of past civilizations such as the Mayans, Brown noted that ”for a long time I’ve rejected that food could be the weak link in our society…but now I think it is.” Following this assertion, he outlined three indicators of future food security:

  • Economic: price of grain
  • Social: number of hungry people
  • Political: number of failed states

Jon Foley built upon this foundation by laying out three big challenges for agriculture:

  • Meeting current demands for food
  • Meeting future demands for food, with more people and shifting diets
  • Becoming truly sustainable, with agriculture encompassing 40% of the Earth’s land surface under cultivation, 80-90% of water consumption, and at least 35% of greenhouse gas emissions.

One of his papers in the journal Nature lays out five recommendations for moving towards addressing these challenges. However, he ultimately concluded by arguing for a new type of agriculture – “terraculture” – in which agriculture and food security are approached holistically.

Watch videos of all the presentations on the symposium website.






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