How Ecological Intensification Can Feed the World

The economic value of ecosystem services -- specifically nitrogen mineralization and biological control of pests -- could exceed the input costs of pesticides and fertilizers on the global scale, even if adopted on only 10 percent of farmland worldwide.
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To feed a global population of 9.1 billion people, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that food production will need to increase 70 percent by 2050. Moreover, 90 percent of this increase will have to come from intensification of agriculture -- getting more crops out of the same amount of farmland -- rather than expansion of cropland.

This is a huge challenge, because conventional intensification has relied on monoculture and its associated inputs -- pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and fossil fuels -- to achieve a decline in global hunger. As increases in crop yields level off, nearly 1 billion people continue to suffer from hunger around the world. Furthermore, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and obesity add to the triple burden of malnutrition faced by low-income nations. Yield gains provided uneven benefits across the globe, exacerbating food insecurity in regions where diets became less diverse and farmers lost their land to industrial agriculture.

These pressing challenges are the subject of new development goals, since the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are set to expire at the end of 2015. The proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will replace the MDGs and last until 2030. The second proposed SDG set forth by the UN aims to address all three aspects of global hunger -- micronutrient deficiencies, malnutrition and overnutrition -- necessitating creative approaches to sustainable development in agriculture that address the food system as a whole.

To really achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 -- to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture -- food production will need to be more environmentally and economically sustainable. "Ecological approaches such as intercropping and the use of non-synthetic fertilizers can be implemented," says Dr. Brian Petersen, a researcher from Western Michigan University who interviewed 30 experts on ecological intensification. "Many of the experts believe that a complete shift in paradigm will require a tremendous amount of public support, not only from the populations of different countries, but also from governments."

Fortunately, ecological intensification of agriculture -- achievement of similarly high yields without harm to the natural environment -- is already occurring around the world. Researchers and farmers are discovering and implementing creative methods of improving yields while lowering pesticide use, incorporating trees into the farmscape, and capturing carbon. And these solutions have the potential to be scaled out across the globe, according to Petersen's interviews with experts.

According to Dr. Harpinder Sandhu, lead author of a study on the value of ecosystem services published in PeerJ, an online scientific and medical journal, "nature provides many benefits to people, which we call ecosystem services. Current modern agricultural systems ignore these contributions of nature and are reliant on agrochemical inputs." Sandhu's research found that the economic value of ecosystem services -- specifically nitrogen mineralization and biological control of pests -- could exceed the input costs of pesticides and fertilizers on the global scale, even if adopted on only 10 percent of farmland worldwide.

Jules Pretty, a Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, spoke with Food Tank about his original research on integrated pest management (IPM) in Africa and Asia. Pretty's review of 85 projects in 24 countries found that the majority of farmer education projects simultaneously decreased pesticide use and increased yields. Farmer field schools "allow farmers to test their own fields and run experiments to challenge received wisdoms," says Pretty. "They have the additional advantage of forming social capital by bringing together interested stakeholders in local communities."

Insect pollination is another important service provided by nature that benefits farmers. Giovanni Tamburini co-authored a study on insect pollination and nutrient availability published in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment and found that insect pollination was able to compensate for low levels of fertilizer application.

These researchers and many others are laying the groundwork for creating a global shift toward ecological intensification. By working to address all three aspects of the triple burden of malnutrition through ecological intensification, agricultural scientists and small farmers are playing an important role in reducing global hunger. And organizations around the world are taking the lead on protecting both the natural environment and local food systems through science-based advocacy and practice.

Grow Biointensive/Ecology Action, for example, connects farmers with a small-scale agricultural system that nurtures soil fertility, produces high yields and conserves resources worldwide. And Prolinnova, an international platform initiated by non-governmental organizations, promotes local innovations in natural resource management and ecologically-oriented agriculture.

Groundswell International is a bottom-up partnership of civil society organizations focused on agroecological farming practices, farmer-to-farmer extension, and strengthening local organizations to lead their own development processes. And the Agroecological Transitions Working Group (AETWG) of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food works to bolster the practice of agroecology through advocacy for trade and investment policies that strengthen local food systems.

Ecological intensification is just one piece of the puzzle, but it's an important discipline grounded in scientific theory and complemented by indigenous farming knowledge. Reduction of food waste, improvements in distribution and support for women farmers are also vital to achieving the lofty objectives set forth by the UN, and we can all play a role in advocating for these changes across the globe.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 2.

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