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A ‘probiotic’ approach to agriculture is better for people and planet (commentary)

  • Reversing biodiversity loss is a critical component of limiting climate change and vice versa, but less widely acknowledged is how agriculture is needed to deliver both.
  • With agriculture occupying 40% of the world’s land surface, governments with the greatest chance of meeting conservation goals on all fronts will be those that address healthy food production, mitigating climate change and regenerating biodiversity as three sides of the same triangle.
  • Agriculture can contribute to climate action and conservation, but only if managed as unique ecosystems capable of producing both healthy food and environmental goods.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Countries the world over have this year made milestone pledges at three separate international summits to transform food systems, tackle climate change and protect biodiversity. But the reality is that these challenges are inextricably linked and are part of a single, global conversation about securing a healthier, more just and sustainable future.

Reversing biodiversity loss is a critical component of limiting climate change and vice versa, but less widely acknowledged is how agriculture is needed to deliver both.

With agriculture occupying 40% of the world’s land surface, governments with the greatest chance of meeting goals on all fronts will be those that address healthy food production, mitigating climate change and regenerating biodiversity as three sides of the same triangle.

Policymakers must start by recognizing that biodiversity goes beyond protecting pandas, rhinos and orangutans, and place the same value on biodiversity’s workhorses – the microbes underground, fungi and pollinating insects to name a few – which all underpin nature-positive food production.

Too often, agriculture around the world is guilty of an “antibiotic” approach that works against nature, rather than a “probiotic” approach that works with it. Regenerative agriculture based on cultivating biodiversity and healthy ecosystems can unlock its many benefits, from carbon storage in soil to the resilience and ability to adapt to extreme weather events.

Wambui Mwihaki, a farmer from central Kenya, taking stock of her thriving maize crop following adoption of the push-pull agroecology technique. Image by David Njagi.

Increasing diversity within fields, between fields and across landscapes can enhance ecosystem functions within resilient agricultural production systems with the potential, if scaled up, to store up to 7 gigatons of CO2 equivalent and create up to 17 million km2 of habitat for biodiversity in agricultural lands.

To this end, governments must also recognize that farmers, in addition to producing healthy foods, can also produce environmental goods and services, which merit public investment. Farmers should be rewarded for producing these public goods, whether this is minimizing their contribution to climate change, protecting biodiversity, or improving water quality, just as much as they should be penalized for environmental degradation.

An estimated fifth of agricultural lands, many of which are receiving public support and subsidies, currently have insufficient biodiversity to provide healthy and nutritious diets, an unacceptable risk for both food systems and natural ecosystems. At the same time, a more diverse cropping system could also increase natural resistance to pests by more than 44 per cent and reduce crop damage by almost a quarter. This requires significant investment to address.

After dedicated ecosystem conservation and restoration, targeting agricultural subsidies at regenerative practices, such as conservation tillage, agroforestry, or other locally adapted strategies, remains the best means of mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Finally, national governments should better incorporate biodiversity in public health policies and in food-based dietary guidelines. A lack of diversity in diets remains a common cause of diet-related diseases and malnutrition, and means demand is concentrated on just a handful of staple crops that undermines agricultural biodiversity. In addition, around a fifth of global dietary energy supply comes from imports, creating a disconnect between a country’s food consumption and its environmental impact.

Public spending all too often goes towards supporting the production of over-consumed foods that are at the root of burgeoning public health crises – a cost to public health and biodiversity.

See related: For Costa Rica’s Indigenous Bribri, agroforestry is an act of resistance and resilience

A model rubber agroforestry forest garden. Illustration courtesy of Kittitornkool, J. et al (2019).

Targeted funding in support of healthy food production, complemented with public health strategies to promote healthy food consumption, would reduce public spending on health, while improving the well-being of populations – averting an estimated 11 million premature deaths per year.

Transitioning to healthy diets has the capacity to reduce food system greenhouse gas emissions by half, representing 15 per cent of global emissions, while improving lives, livelihoods and the natural world.

Too often, agriculture is seen as being at odds with nature, a sign of how people take from the earth without giving back. But it is becoming increasingly clear that this can and must become a symbiotic relationship.

Agricultural lands and waters can contribute enormously towards climate action and conservation, but only if treated and managed as unique ecosystems capable of not only producing food, but of also producing healthy foods and environmental goods.

Agriculture can no longer be exempt from these responsibilities and capabilities as we work towards a safer and more just future.


Fabrice DeClerck is a Senior Scientist at the Agricultural Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services / CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.

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