Farmers Can Achieve High Yields While Lowering Environmental Footprint

From by Emily Nink
Farmers Can Achieve High Yields While Lowering Environmental Footprint

Industrial farming is mining the Earth’s nonrenewable resources. If soil degradation continues, farming can only continue for approximately 60 more years. Agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals from lakes, rivers, and aquifers. And agriculture is the direct driver for approximately 80 percent of deforestation across the globe.

Fortunately, many farmers and researchers are investigating effective ways to reduce—and even reverse—the environmental footprint of agriculture. Food Tank is partnering with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to highlight the LInking farmland Biodiversity to Ecosystem seRvices for effective ecological intensification (LIBERATION) project. In our monthly series, Harvesting the Research, we feature interviews with leading experts on the ecological intensification of agriculture.

Food production will need to increase 70 percent by 2050, according to FAO. Ecological intensification of agriculture—achievement of high yields without harm to the natural environment—will be critical to meeting these goals.

Jules Pretty, a Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, spoke with Food Tank about his original research on integrated pest management (IPM) in Africa and Asia. Pretty’s review of 85 projects in 24 countries found that the majority of farmer education projects simultaneously decreased pesticide use and increased yields. Farmer field schools “allow farmers to test their own fields and run experiments to challenge received wisdoms,” says Pretty. “They have the additional advantage of forming social capital by bringing together interested stakeholders in local communities.”

According to Dr. Harpinder Sandhu, lead author of a study on the value of ecosystem services published in PeerJ, an online scientific and medical journal, “nature provides many benefits to people, which we call ecosystem services. Current modern agricultural systems ignore these contributions of nature and are reliant on agrochemical inputs.” Sandhu’s research found that the economic value of ecosystem services—specifically nitrogen mineralization and biological control of pests—could exceed the input costs of pesticides and fertilizers on the global scale, even if adopted on only 10 percent of farmland worldwide.

Insect pollination is another important service provided by nature that benefits farmers. Giovanni Tamburini, co-authored a study on insect pollination and nutrient availability published in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment and found that insect pollination was able to compensate for low levels of fertilizer application, indicating a potential economic value of ecosystem services to farmers.

These researchers and many others are laying the groundwork for creating a global shift toward ecological intensification. Organizations around the world are taking the lead on protecting both the natural environment and local food systems through science-based advocacy and practice:

The Agroecological Transitions Working Group (AETWG) of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food works to strengthen the practice and voice of agroecology through advocacy for trade and investment policies that strengthen local food systems. The alliance is a unique coalition of foundations working for sustainability and equity within food and agriculture.

The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison investigates intergenerational sustainability, showing that farmers can cut costs while enhancing the natural environment. The center provides outreach and training to employ the best practices identified by research findings.

CIRAD is a French agricultural research organization working for sustainable development of tropical and Mediterranean regions. Ecological intensification is a priority area of research for international collaboration.

European Agricultural Transition (EAT) is a startup think tank dedicated to gathering information and advocating for ecological solutions to sustainable development challenges in agriculture.

A Family Farming Knowledge Platform (FFKP), recently launched by FAO, provides data for policymakers to support family farmers and organizations that support rural communities. Farmer-led solutions, including agroecology practices and traditional knowledge, are highlighted by the website.

The Global Horticultural Knowledge Bank, a project based at University of California, Davis, is collaborating with extension and development workers in low-income nations to transfer relevant research and technology to farmers.

Groundswell International is a bottom-up partnership of civil society organizations focused on agroecological farming practices, farmer innovation, farmer-to-farmer extension, community health, and strengthening local organizations to lead their own development processes.

Grow Biointensive/Ecology Action connects gardeners and farmers with a small-scale agricultural system that nurtures soil fertility, produces high yields, and conserves resources worldwide.

A Growing Culture provides information from the field on agroecological tools and practical solutions. Through curriculum development, outreach and education, and community forums, the network connects and educates farmers around the world. Its library provides technical essays, farmer interviews, farm profiles, and opinion pieces.

The Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) works to replace pesticides with more environmentally friendly and socially just alternatives. In collaboration with four other regional centers worldwide, the network links consumer health organizations and environmental groups to build an effective coalition that challenges global proliferation of pesticides.

Prolinnova, an international platform initiated by non-governmental organizations, promotes local innovations in natural resource management and ecologically oriented agriculture. Farmers, pastoralists, fishers, and forest managers are recognized for their development of site-appropriate systems and adaptability in the face of new challenges.

The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) works closely with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) to accelerate the development and adoption of organic agriculture on the global scale. Research topics include organic soil management, plant production, holistic animal health, animal ethology and organic animal breeding, as well as production and marketing for organic products.

Le réseau des Centres d'Initiatives pour Valoriser l'Agriculture et le Milieu rural (CIVAM) is a network of centers working to find concrete agroecological solutions for quality food production, taking into account all three pillars of sustainability. By identifying and analyzing solutions, disseminating research, and enabling existing campaigns, the network is accelerating the implementation of agroecology on farms.

Status and Trends of European Pollinators (STEP), another collaborative project of the FAO, documents the extent of pollinator species decline in Europe and explores potential mitigation options.

Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS), a project of Iowa State University, disseminates research on strip intercropping and advocates for this conservation practice as an affordable option for farmers in the American Midwest. STRIPS research shows that when just 10 percent of a field is converted to perennial prairie, farmers reduce soil runoff by 90 percent and nitrogen runoff by up to 85 percent.

The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), funded by CGIAR, is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. By generating scientific research on the diverse functions of trees in agriculture, ICRAF intends to improve food security, farmer incomes, and social cohesion through protection of the environment.

The World Rural Forum (WRF) is a forum for the analysis and observation of rural development. Through partnerships with universities, educational research centers, farmers' associations, and NGOs, and strong links to grassroots organizations, the organization works to develop proposals for actions that address agricultural problems.

Know of any farmers or organizations working on ecological intensification? Share them with me at! Keep an eye out for upcoming monthly articles of the Harvesting the Research series on

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