11 Steps to Sustainable Agriculture in the Anthropocene Age

Chris WilleBy: Chris Wille, Chief of Agriculture, Rainforest Alliance

While sustainable agriculture has made great progress in the way our food is produced — benefiting farmers, the environment and consumers — there is still much to be done. In this rapidly changing and increasingly crowded world, we need new pioneers to build on the existing sustainability platform.

We have now entered the age of the Anthropocene, where humans dominate the earth. Our collective activities are causing great changes even to the climate. Agriculture is both the most common expression of this dominance and the human activity most impacted by the changes.

If agriculture is to survive in the Anthropocene, it must develop new sustainability characteristics. Agriculture must be:

Productive – We need to double food production by 2050, with farmers earning more per unit area. According to the FAO, 70 to 100 percent more land will be needed to feed a growing population.

Efficient – We need to produce more with less. As the world’s biggest freshwater user, consuming 70 percent of the planet’s accessible freshwater, agriculture is not efficient. We have to double the efficiency of all inputs, including energy, water, fertilizers, agrochemicals and infrastructure.

Restorative – Half of the world’s topsoil in the tropics has been lost in the past 150 years. It’s not enough just to stop destroying natural ecosystems for agriculture. Agriculture must be a force for restoration.  Rehabilitating degraded land for agriculture can be more profitable than converting forested lands.

Climate friendly – Agriculture generates more greenhouse gases (GHG) than all forms of transportation. Yet healthy soils are carbon rich. As such, we need to enrich soils, plant trees and stop erosion. By protecting forests, people will be able to make a living from carbon credits.

Equitable – Communal, traditional and customary rights to land must be respected. From implementing a living wage and improving gender equity to addressing food security and establishing sustainable terms of trade, improving equality along the whole value chain is imperative.

Prestigious – Most of the world’s farmers are poor, and most of the world’s poor are farmers. Millions of people farm because they have no choice; that’s not a sustainable situation. Farming should be seen as a noble, respectable occupation. It should generate prosperity and physical/mental health for the farmers and their families and communities. Farming must attract young people. The average age of cocoa and coffee farmers in regions such as Western Africa and Mexico is over 60 years. In order to put pride and passion back into farming and make it attractive to young people, we need to make farming more productive; teach business skills; facilitate access to fair credit, technical assistance and premium markets; and enable access to the latest scientific information, tools and technology.

Resilient – Farms are vulnerable to shocks and disruptions. Weather events, such as floods and droughts, and irregular rainfall cause losses. Farms are also vulnerable to outbreaks of diseases and pests. Farmers have to adapt to changes in markets and consumer preference. They often have to deal with changes in governments and government policy. We must build resilience inside the farm and help moderate external shocks.

Compatible – Farms should be good neighbors and compatible with wildlife, local communities, rural development and parks. Some animals make seasonal movements, whilst others roam in search of food. Free passage and migration corridors should be permitted and implemented to avoid farmer vs. wildlife conflicts.

Diverse – There are 50,000 edible plants, yet half of our food comes from three crops: rice, maize and wheat. Farms should mimic the diversity of nature, with a variety of crops integrated into conserved natural habitats. We need a diversity of farm sizes and management systems — from commercially managed monocultures to agroforestry and gardens.

Communicative – Farmers should improve communication with each other, in order to share news, best practices, tips and techniques. Certification seals and programs help farmers communicate to consumers and inspire respect for their products. Organized farmers and their associations should have a voice — particularly in public policy, standard setting and trade.

Organized – For smallholder leverage, learning, coordination, cooperation and cross-training, we need more self-directed farmers who care for the community and develop a professional pride and bonding amongst each other.

These are some of the traits that will define the farms and farmers that will succeed in this age that is dominated by mankind. Almost 30 years ago, the Rainforest Alliance was a sustainability pioneer; today we are moving sustainability forward to ensure a healthy and productive future. Let us combine our most creative thinking and our collective energy and will to set a new course for agriculture in the Anthropocene.

Chris Wille is Chief of Agriculture at the Rainforest Alliance, and international conservation organisation that works with people whose livelihoods depend on the land, helping them transform the way they grow food, harvest wood and host travellers. From large multinational corporations to small, community-based cooperatives, businesses and consumers worldwide are involved in the Rainforest Alliance’s efforts to bring responsibly produced goods and services to a global marketplace where the demand for sustainability is growing steadily. For more information, visit www.rainforest-alliance.org, the Rainforest Alliance’s UK blog: www.thefrogblog.org.uk or follow the Rainforest Alliance on Twitter @RnfrstAll_UK.

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2 responses

  1. Very good list. I would add one more overriding theme – ecological values must be expressed economically. The ecology is certainly the foundation of much of our economic systems – and while they may hold mysteries, they are not magical. Ecosystems are living factories and like physical capital, this natural capital has limits and must be maintained.

    The economy and the economic system must be viewed as a tool to improve the ecological systems, rather than the rationale to degrade it. OikosCommerce

  2. Thanks for the article! I do have one disagreement. We already grow enough food to feed 9 billion people. The problem is Americans/wealthy consume/waste to much, and much of it sits and wastes in countries where political strife does not allow it to get where it needs to be. We don’t need to double production. We need to help producers worldwide learn how to feed themselves and their communities. Foreign countries don’t want our food. People are proud, they want to be able to feed themselves. I do agree we need to be much more efficient. On my farm we have converted to No-till, added cover crops which, in time, will allow us to remove 70-90% of all pesticides and commercial fertilizers.
    We have converted our beef operation from feeding grain in a feedlot to a forage based system growing and finishing beef and now sheep on our cover crops.

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