Dragonflies buzz over a rice field in northern Thailand, dive bombing insects and gobbling them up. This aerial display, which would put to shame the maneuverability of the most advanced jet fighter, is an age-old example of nature’s “pest” management system.
This is just one of many examples of what the world’s leading conservationists, meeting this week in Jeju, South Korea, call “nature-based solutions” to some of the world’s most pressing problems. One of the trends emerging at this meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – what is billed as the world’s preeminent gathering of conservationists, held every four years – is recognition of the potential to conserve, and restore, biodiversity on farms.
“You see those dragonflies, all those spiders and ladybugs?” asks ‘Dr. Doi’, a researcher with the Thai Department of Agriculture. From a distance, the rice field is a green blur of plants, but up close it becomes a world teeming with tiny creatures. “With that kind of biodiversity, you don’t need pesticides.”
Yet in neighboring rice paddies in this village about ten kilometers north of the city of Chiang Mai, an aphid attack had prompted farmers to spray pesticides in order to save their crop. Yellowing patches of dying rice plants, their vital sap sucked dry by the tiny aphids, were spreading daily through the fields. “If we don’t spray now,” said one farmer, “we’ll lose the entire crop.” Unfortunately, pesticides are indiscriminate, killing beneficial insects along with pests. And they're not cheap to buy.
Pests like aphids, it turns out, are good food for hungry dragonflies and other insects. And these insects, in turn, are important components of biological pest control used in nature-based systems of farming known as agro-ecology. The farm in Thailand being observed by Dr. Doi used no pesticides but suffered no losses from the aphid outbreak in the village. These kinds of alternatives to conventional chemical farming are exciting not just organic farmers, but also conservationists.
Long regarded by biologists and other conservationists as a principal villain in environmental destruction, agriculture is increasingly being recognized as a potential fix to some of the earth’s most intractable problems, like climate change and habitat destruction. Representatives of conservation and agriculture, who once warily eyed each other, are talking about “synergies” and ways of feeding humans and protecting nature at the same time.
One such venue was a session organized by the Christensen Fund called “from competition to collaboration between agriculture and conservation: moving toward convergence between agro-ecology and conservation biology.” The session brought together representatives from organizations working on issues like biodiversity conservation, agriculture and indigenous people – groups who have not always seen eye to eye.
The organizers wrote that increased awareness about the impacts of agriculture was spurring in the sector a “new phase of reflection and innovation around an agro-ecosystem approach as farmers, scientists and policy makers explore how to work with nature to reduce fossil energy subsidies, tighten nutrient cycles, better manage water use, contain the use of biocides, and take advantage of more complex and diverse systems to deliver more resilient and sustainable flows of food and fiber.”
Until quite recently, conservationists concentrated mainly on protected areas like national parks, where agriculture and other human activities were restricted or banned. For their part, specialists in agriculture focused on ramping up crop production to feed an increasingly crowded planet. Both objectives, however, kept bumping into each other: poor farmers – and some not-so-poor farmers – objected to land being locked away for wildlife and denied to farmers. Despite the efforts of park managers, many protected areas were protected only on paper and fell far short of fulfilling their missions. On the farming side, evidence continues to pile up that industrial, chemical-intensive farming is unsustainable and degrading the foundation of future food production. Not only do eroded and chemically contaminated soils cause problems for nature; they’re likely to cause problems for future farmers, and food consumers, too.
England’s Prince Charles, speaking in a pre-recorded video message to the session, warned about the dangers of the disconnect between nature protection and farming, which has led to “oases of biodiversity amidst deserts of industrial intensive farming.” An organic farmer and perhaps the most famous advocate for dramatic changes in agriculture, Prince Charles urged the attendants – from conservation organizations like Conservation International and food specialists from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization – to find common ground before it’s too late.
Panelists at the session evoked a litany of problems that impact both biodiversity and food production, which they said are inextricably linked. Industrial agriculture contributes to climate change through use of fossil fuels and release of carbon from soil, which then impacts both nature and food systems. The loss of habitat of pollinating insects and birds does not only affect the animals, but also the crops that depend on them for pollination. The nitrogen-overloaded soils that erode from the world’s food baskets in places like the US Midwest or China’s Yellow River basin do not just rob future farmers of soil to grow food but also create what Prince Charles called “dead zones” at the mouths of the world’s great rivers.
On the ground, in countries around the world, small farmers –and many not-so-small organic farmers – are practicing what is called agro-ecology in many different ways. In Asia, rice farmers raise ducks in the paddies to control pests and weeds, adding duck eggs and meat to their farm products. Coffee and cocoa farmers in South America grow their crops amidst shade trees that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and in some cases attract pollinators with their flowers. In the Sahel Region of Africa, farmers combat the spread of the desert by encouraging the re-growth of trees and shrubs, which have helped boost yields of grain in areas that were considered lost to the desert, also providing convenient sources of fodder and firewood in the bargain.
The trick, the attendees of the Christensen session agreed, is to mainstream the idea that conservation of biodiversity need not only exist in places like national parks – which total less than 13 percent of the earth’s land area – but on the farms that cover much of the rest of the world.
To read more about the convergence of biodiversity conservation and food production, see a media guide produced by the Earth Journalism Network here.