Our suffering planet looks set on a path of destruction, according to many. But leading thinkers gathered at the World Agroforestry Centre’s annual Science Week see the possibility of a bright, and sustainable, future Earth with secure land rights and agroforestry at its core, says Robert Finlayson
Every year, most of the World Agroforestry Centre’s 300-plus scientists gather in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss their research methods and findings from projects in 38 or so countries around the world. The week-long event ended this year with a panel of distinguished guests discussing what is needed to create a future, sustainable Earth.
The panel was part of a contribution to the Future Earth initiative. The questions, ‘What is this future Earth? What does it demand of all of us? What can we identify as a path to progress?’ were put by the moderator, Dr Ravi Prabhu, the Centre’s deputy director-general research.
The first to respond was Achim Steiner, executive director and under-secretary-general of the United Nations Environment Programme, who argued that we needed more research into sustainable production landscapes. And to make such landscapes a reality, decision makers needed to receive more information that was relevant for implementation. So the real question was what could we do to make sure that people were properly informed and motivated to act?
For Steiner, the current age focuses on the ‘production maximisation curve’ but rather than exploit resources we need to manage systems if we are to feed 7 billion people without destroying ourselves in the process.
‘The path to sustainability’, he argued, ‘begins with tenure. Secure land rights are fundamental. Why is it, that at the beginning of the 21st century people feel like they can’t do the things that are needed for their family, society and planet? Because they don’t have secure tenure to the land they farm or manage productively; they can’t invest; they can’t plan for the future; they can’t take risks with new crops; they can’t plant productive trees. We need to address the blockages to action to change this’.
And the way to do this is through our economic space, he claimed.
‘The dominance of economic thinking is at its global historical peak. Economics defines our lives universally. Therefore, we must support the development of a shifting economic paradigm towards what one might term “green economies”. Every sensible idea for the future is conditioned by an economic paradigm that can imprison or liberate. So the concept of the green economy has to be our guide’.
Segenet Kelemu, vice-president for programs at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and incoming director general of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, quoted Margaret Kroma, who said that ‘agriculture is not a collection of programs but a system’, adding that, for Kelemu, ‘an ecosystem is not a collection of projects but a system’.
She argued that our current education system takes a fragmented approach to the environment, agriculture, commerce and culture.
‘Rather, we need a systems approach for managing ecosystems so we don’t misuse land. We need to look at the entire food chain. For example, reducing food waste and post-harvest losses is critical for reducing pressure on our food-supply system’.
Science and technology already make a great contribution to enhancing our ecosystems’ health and we enhance science by building the capacity to create, design and influence policy, she said. Scientists produce evidence for creating policy.
Further, she claimed that ‘where there are no trees, or only a limited number of trees, usually there is poverty’, which had Steiner exclaim that this should be a new research area.
‘Agrobiodiversity as a whole is critical not only for human livelihoods but also for ecosystem services. The best way to conserve plants and animals is to utilise them. Otherwise they are more vulnerable to extinction’.
Dennis Garrity, whose titles include United Nations drylands ambassador; senior fellow, World Agroforestry Centre; chair, EverGreen Agriculture Partnership; and chair, Landcare International, spoke next, arguing that the future we actually want is already in our minds because we look for yardsticks in situations that already exist, that can be replicated.
‘We try to formulate models based on our experience,’ he said. ‘That is a very powerful aspect of designing the future of our work in agroforestry. Agroforestry systems are very visible, so the model of what is working is a powerful tool to help us picture the future of the world on a much wider scale’.
He gave the example of the Great Green Wall, which he claimed is probably the most ambitious landscape intervention ever conceived: a wall of trees across the entire southern Sahara Desert. The Wall has now grown in people’s imaginations—the most powerful tool of all—to become not just a concept but a vision that is even bigger in scope than first imagined. It is now much more than just the 15-km-wide belt of trees that was originally planned. It is now conceived as a network of villages with regenerated agroforestry systems that will span some 15 countries and involve millions of people in creating a more prosperous evergreen agriculture, as has already happened in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries.
‘Another story that supports a more sustainable future Earth is that of nomadic pastoral systems. We were told that they are a “tragedy of the commons” and they degrade and disappear. Indeed, the term “pastoral systems” for many governments is a derogatory one, and a justification for removal and resettlement in towns and villages. But this negative story has had a backlash: a number of scientific groups have been gathering evidence that shows that in many areas in the horn of Africa and the Sahel, communities are actually managing their pastoral lands successfully. Now people are talking about “community-based grazing systems”, which might be more effective in conveying their success to governments’.
He also pointed out that a recent study showed that agroforestry systems deployed in Europe could contribute 90% to reduction in carbon emissions from agriculture.
Lastly, he noted that the ‘really big’ vision of the future of farming was the ‘perennialization’ of agriculture.
‘This has two main components’, he said. ‘First, perennial crops that are created from annual crops through breeding, such as perennial maize or wheat: they can then be harvested year after year without replanting. And, second, the integration of trees or other woody perennials into these cropping systems, a growing trend called “evergreen agriculture”. Why would you put perennial crops and trees together? One good reason is that if you have perennial crops you will have the build-up of some serious pest and disease problems. But the trees create new niches and habitats for the predators that control the pests that prey on the crops. And thus you can begin to see the end of the story: the perennialization of global agriculture’.
Following on, Molly Jahn, professor, Laboratory of Genetics and Department of Agronomy, Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, University of Wisconsin at Madison, speaking via the internet, had a simple message: that the World Agroforestry Centre is the global leader in designing the future of agriculture.
‘You are creating systems that we can defend; that are long-term safe for humans and the planet’ she said. ‘We still have limited knowledge but you are adding to it with valuable information about how to create these safe spaces for agriculture. The world doesn’t yet have the vocabulary for innovation and renovation of agriculture but the Centre is providing the leadership we need, creating knowledge that is converted to action.
‘We are not in a safe space in many scales and places. The term “security” links food and water and civil security, too. Hence, the focus on land tenure is so important. It is a fundamental.
‘At the moment we are not moving into safe space fast enough in enough spaces. Our challenge is to define what is agricultural safe space, how we can deliver outcomes to all people, and improve personal, public and environmental health. It is so important to understand how it all links together’.