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Conservation boosts crop yields, researchers say

By Melanie J. Martin - 23 Aug 2011 22:43:0 GMT
Conservation boosts crop yields, researchers say

Can farmers double their production while protecting ecosystems? Absolutely, say researchers from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

Water poses a primary concern, for people and ecosystems alike. A joint report by the two groups, "An Ecosystem Services Approach to Water and Food Security," says agriculture consumes up to 90 percent of the water in some areas. In regions like northern China's plains and the western U.S., water use has nearly reached its limits. Throughout the world, 1.6 billion people experience water scarcity on a daily basis, the researchers assert. The drought in the Horn of Africa provides a painful warning of what could happen in other areas without intervention.

Sustainable agriculture uses water wisely, leaving more for human consumption, and protects water from pollution. Common practices include planting trees and shrubs on farms to retain more water while stopping run-off and erosion. In sub-Saharan Africa, strong water and soil management agricultural programs have improved crop yields two or threefold, say the researchers.

The IWMI issued a second report emphasizing the need for wetlands and agriculture to coexist. The report, "Wetlands, Agriculture and Poverty Reduction," warns that blanket bans of farming in wetlands areas lead people to destroy other ecosystems. The researchers argue for holistic management of agriculture and ecosystems, including wetlands.

These sustainable systems, called agroecosystems, balance the needs of ecosystems and agriculture instead of preserving one system at the expense of the other.

Environmental and agricultural groups are increasingly collaborating to foster agroecosystems. Further, environmental groups like UNEP are increasingly focusing on agriculture, realizing that human and environmental rights are intertwined, points out David Molden, Deputy Director for Research at IWMI.

Financial incentives may help farmers adopt sustainable practices, the researchers assert. They also emphasize the need for coordinating water use at the international, national, and local level.

Advocates for sustainable agriculture assert that diversification of crops also plays an important role in helping crops to thrive year after year. Diversification makes farmers more financially secure by insuring them against a bad season with any particular crop, too. Farmers diversify by rotating crops or integrating livestock animals and crops. Renewable energy plays a key role in keeping agriculture sustainable as well.

With a projected 1.7 billion more people to feed by 2020, agroecosystems play a vital role in creating a sustainable future. "We are heading for disaster if we don't change our practices from business as usual," says Molden.

The authors announced the research on August 22 at World Water Week in Stockholm.

Top Image Credit: Farmer in Africa working in a field © Chris Kruger