Yield and environment don’t necessarily go hand in hand

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Temps de lecture : 4 minutes  

Crops and pastures take up almost 40% of the Earth’s surface (about 5 billion hectares) of which 70% of this is dedicated to animal husbandry. The remainder is made up of forests and more and less exploited woodlands. The world’s natural resources are mainly controlled by farmers and livestock breeders, who represent 43% of the world’s active population : 6% in rich countries and 53% in developing countries. Agriculture is partly responsible for the degradation of ecosystems (and) but it is also clearly suffering from its consequences.

Agricultural practices vary a lot. Industrialised countries practice heavily mechanised and subsidized intensive farming Intensive mechanised farming also exists in emerging countries and in the 19 industrialised Cairns Group countries, but it is not subsidized and to a varying extent utilizes agricultural inputs (pesticides, fertilisers) In developing countries, farming is also slowly becoming mechanised ; but it does not use many agricultural inputs and in some countries, such as India, it may be subsidized, For major producers (wheat, rice, coffee, etc.), this very much depends on the fluctuation of world prices. In mountainous regions and in semi-arid areas, animal husbandry conducted responsibly presents many advantages such as : upgrading of a poor biomass which cannot be used for other activities ; production of high quality goods ; good landscape management and creation of jobs and thus income for the farmers

Agriculture and the economy

In developed countries, agriculture is part of a larger sector: the agroindustry. It includes a whole range of companies which may be ‘upstream’ (banks,, mechanized farming industries, seed companies, agrichemical industries for fertilizers and pesticides) and ‘downstream’ : food industry, supermarkets…. On the other hand, agriculture in developing countries is still very much tied to local food markets except in areas tropical products (cocoa, coffee, cotton, flowers, etc.) are grown for export However, in these countries, the export share of agricultural products which at the beginning of the 1960s, represented 50% of their production has dropped to less than 7 % since 2000. Until 1994, for example, the Philippines were producing all the food it needed for local consumption and could even export some. But, since 1995, the country has had to import food. In any case, agriculture is still a means of subsistence and development for three quarters of the population of poor rural dwellers.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 65% of the active population is employed in agriculture and this generates 32% of the GDP. According to the United Nations, by 2025, two thirds of African arable land will no longer be productive due to the soil degradation. It is estimated that for 200 million people grazing is the only possible means of existence.

During the last 15 years, the net agricultural production has registered a 2.2% yearly increase, with 3.4% in developing countries and 0.2% in developed countries. In 2006, animal production accounted for almost 40% of the total value of this production. The agricultural sector’s share in the world goods trade went dropped from 25% in the 1960s to 7% in 2007 and from 8% to 4% of the world Gross Domestic Product

Agriculture and the environment

Even though the profound changes which dramatically transformed agriculture during the 20th century (the «green revolution») have generated a considerable increase in yields and work productivity, they also have had serious effects on the environment. The agricultural sector is responsible for at least 20 to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, mainly due to cattle breeding and paddy fields. It is one of the main causes of water pollution and soil degradation.

Farmland is expanding at the expense of forests. In the 1990s, 70% of deforestation was caused by conversion into farmland. Every year, 15 million hectares are destroyed, ; mainly in equatorial and tropical forests where large areas are taken up for grazing or palm and soya plantations. The expansion of farmland is also the main reason for a sharp drop in biodiversity through the destruction of habitats, pollution etc.

Selection practices of targeted domestic species to create very productive races have led to genetic erosion: 75% of cultivated vegetable species and varieties disappeared from the fields in the 20th century; 90% of agricultural production is now concentrated on 30 vegetable species and 14 animal species. This is a major threat for our food safety.

Farming and water

The agricultural sector employs more people, takes up more space and uses more water than any other human activity. It uses up for irrigation purposes between 70 and 80% of the world’s water resources (water tables,,stored surface water), mainly for irrigation. However, an important part of agriculture is still very much dependant on rainfall : per year the crops receive the equivalent of some 5000 km3 of rainwater while irrigation contributes for 1800 km3. Over the past thirty years irrigated surfaces have increased by 65% and as of to-day , 20% of these cultivated areas are irrigated. But In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 4% of these exploited land surfaces is irrigated compared to 42% in Asia. A poor knowledge of drainage problems linked to bad irrigation practices has caused the salination of about 10% of irrigated land in the world.

During the same period, world fertilizer consumption has more than doubled in the world, but very unequally: 200 kg per hectare in Europe, China and Japan, 10 to 20 kg in Sub-Saharan Africa and the ex-USSR.

Organic Farming

In 2006, 31 million hectares of crops and certified pastures were being farmed organically in 120 countries representing a 40 billion dollar market, that is 2% of the world food sales. Some of these certified organic products are simply harvested in natural spaces that the FAO estimates at over 60 million hectares. Consumer demand for organic products is increasing, not only in the United States and in Europe, but also in China, India and Brazil. In China, for example, the surfaces being farmed organically went from 340 000 hectares in 2003 to one million in 2005.

There are many benefits associated with organic farming. (Some of those that are) The most often mentionned are:

– reduced energy consumption

– reduced use of agricultural inputs derived from fossil fuels

– Improved water retention of soil

– Soils richer in organic matter

– More carbon trapped in the soil and therefore a reduction in CO2 emissions

– Protection of biodiversity, from bacteria to mammals and plants, earthworms, insects and birds.

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