We are trading short-term food production for long-term environmental losses
July 25, 2005
University of Alaska Fairbanks release
FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Your breakfast this morning came at a cost not only to your wallet. Your bowl of Cheerios and cup of coffee and all the other meals for the other 6 billion people in our world cost the Earth a bit of its water, a bit of its ecological diversity, contributed to its pollution and may one day cost us our livelihood.
In the July 22, 2005 issue of the journal Science, co-author Terry Chapin, professor of ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Institute of Arctic Biology (IAB), and colleagues point out that modern land-use practices may be trading short-term increases in food production for long-term losses in the environment’s ability to support human societies. Part of the solution, according to Chapin, is the students in UAF’s Regional Resilience and Adaptation Program (RAP).
Local land-use practices such as clearing tropical and boreal forests, practicing large-scale agriculture, expanding urban centers and intensifying farmland production are so pervasive their effects are now observed globally. Fertilizer use, which has increased 700% in the past 40 years, and human-caused atmospheric pollution now negatively affect water quality and coastal and freshwater ecosystems. Biodiversity is lost due to modification, fragmentation and loss of habitats, soil, and water, and exploitation of native species. Land-use practices play a role in changing the global carbon cycle, and possibly, the global climate.
The key to resilient and sustainable land use, according to the paper’s authors, is closer collaboration between scientists and practitioners linking, for example, ecologists and land-use planners, climatologists and architects, and entomologists (insect scientists) and physicians and the development of land-use strategies that recognize both short- and long-term needs.
Measuring the economic costs of environmental degradation
Habitats provide humans with services such as erosion prevention, flood control, water treatment, fisheries protection and pollination — functions that are particularly important to the world’s poorest people, who rely on natural resources for their everyday survival. Traditional studies have tended to overlook the value of such services and undervalue intact ecosystems so five years ago the United Nations commissioned an assessment of the consequences of habitat change for humankind.
In April 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment — an effort that cost $24m and involved roughly 1,400 ecologists and other researchers from 95 countries — produced its first official report on the capacity of ecosystems to perform valuable services. The conclusion: humanity is quickly stretching its natural assets through the degradation of natural systems. The study shows that around 60% of the ecosystem services taken into consideration by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are being degraded or used unsustainably.
Such collaboration and long-range planning is at the heart of UAF’s RAP. “We need manager and policy makers who understand the ecological, economic, political, and social connections and unintended consequences of land-use decisions,” said Chapin, RAP’s director. The program trains students to be scholars, policy-makers and resource managers able to address issues of regional and global sustainability.
“All of the changes in local land-use are driven by human activities to meet local needs or create economic profits, but these changes have global consequences,” Chapin said. “We need to be aware of the local and global consequences of land-use change so that the true costs are considered when land-use planning and development take place. It’s not to say there shouldn’t be any land-use change, but it must be in context.”
RAP graduate student Nancy Fresco’s work on carbon sequestration in boreal forests is an example of this new approach to land-use decisions.
“Crossing between academic fields and taking a global perspective on local issues can be daunting, because linked social and ecological systems are innately complex,” Fresco said. “But global land-use problems are too serious to be ignored. Here in Alaska, we can see some of these problems first-hand, and we have the resources to find workable solutions.”
“Alaska has many of the properties of a third-world economy,” Chapin said. “An extractive economy subject to changes in the world economy, tremendous amounts of natural resources, diversity of cultures and we’ve got the money and the wealth to solve the problem if we know what to do,” he said.
Copies of the Science paper are available from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Office of Public Programs. Reporters may call: 202-326-6440 or e-mail a request to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Terry Chapin, Institute of Arctic Biology Professor of Ecology, 907-474-7922. terry.chapin -AT – uaf.edu. Regional Resilience and Adaptation Program (RAP), http://www.rap.uaf.edu/
Nancy Fresco, Regional Resilience and Adaptation Program, 907-474-7568, ftnlf -AT – uaf.edu.
Marie Gilbert, Institute of Arctic Biology Publications and Information Coordinator, 907-474-7412, marie.gilbert -AT – uaf.edu