Feeding Humanity While Protecting Nature

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Published on April 28th, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

When I became an ecologist, I never imagined that I would be so excited about working with an executive from an agribusiness company.

Most ecologists are also environmentalists, myself included, and tend to be very cynical about corporations, remembering how many serious environmental issues have followed from decisions made in corporate boardrooms.

But in the last several weeks, I have had a chance to work constructively with corporations (John Deere, Monsanto, Dupont and ADM, among others) and other NGOs (WWF and Conservation International, among others) as part of the Global Harvest Initiative.

The initiative aims to find a way to meet the agricultural needs of tomorrow while protecting the remaining natural places and the ecosystem services they provide. By 2050, world agricultural production will likely double, so it’s a huge challenge.

The Nature Conservancy has decided to officially join the initiative. We have been involved in an informal way, but are now convinced it’s a worthwhile endeavor that deserves support. We have also been involved in some other similar efforts like the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, and we plan to continue that support. And we have hundreds of field projects in which we work pragmatically with farmers and ranchers to help protect the environment.

As an organization, the Conservancy has come to realize that how agriculture changes over the next few decades will determine the fate of much of the remaining habitat.

And one of the goals of the conservation groups involved in the Global Harvest Initiative is to make sure the link between closing the agricultural gap and saving natural habitat is real and explicitly spelled out.

Historically, most yield increases have been somewhat offset by increases in demand, either because of larger populations or increased consumption, resulting in continued agricultural expansion, albeit at a slower rate. Moreover, the process of agricultural intensification often increases impacts to the environment, particularly downstream areas.

Our challenge in the conservation community is to make sure that increases in yields result in avoided destruction of real habitat. There are two main ways we can do that: (1) helping protect the remaining wild habitats, and (2) helping farmers and ranchers reduce their impact on surrounding lands.

Given the conservation importance of how agriculture changes in the next few decades, we are trying to interface in various ways with the major actors in the agriculture sector, which include governments, development banks and some corporations.

Care is needed when building these partnerships, just as we take care and base in science and conservation our partnerships with energy and development companies. But while I never thought I’d be excited about working with an agribusiness company, it makes a great deal of sense.

So, of course The Nature Conservancy is interfacing with some corporations. We wouldn’t have any hope of fulfilling our mission if we weren’t.

(Image: Canola fields in Germany. Image credit: arbeer.de/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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2 Responses to “Feeding Humanity While Protecting Nature”

  1. Jane says:

    This is very disappointing news. The primary cause of hunger is lack of distribution of existing food supplies to the poor for a variety of economic and political reasons. With partners such as Monsanto, ADM, and Dupont, this effort is very likely to force acceptance of transgenic crops as a “solution” to global food insecurity. Unfortunately in the U.S. introduction of transgenic crops has resulted in drastic decreases in seed options for farmers, huge increases in herbicide applications, and creation of herbicide-resistant weeds. No doubt Nature Conservancy feels they have no choice but to join this elite group rather than oppose them. I will make my conservation donations elsewhere.

  2. Amanda says:

    I also have believed very strongly that agribusiness giants like Monsanto were not to be trusted. It does seem to me possible at this time to begin changing the paradigm of evil mega-corporation vs lonely but courageous eco-warrior. We all must work together to preserve both humanity and biological diversity. I think these corporations can and are changing. A partnership is very much needed. We are at mission critical now, failure to begin working together will result in a non viable world.

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