It can be a can be a depressing business for a writer to follow developments on tackling climate change or sustainable, environmentally friendly farming and food scarcity.
Just occasionally, however, there are signs that perhaps the message is getitng through and there are glimmers of hope. In the face of unrelenting bad news such initiatives should have wider publicity than they sometimes receive.
It tends to be taken for granted that global agribusiness and particularly the producers of the chemical-based fertilisers that contributed to the success of the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s have also been major contributors to the environmental and food scarcity problems we now face.
While it may be true that improved scientific knowledge since those days has identified the downsides and longer term consequences of those agricultural techniques many of us have become very suspicious of all global enterprises involved in agriculture.
A skeptical approach to new scientific innovations from large multinational companies may be understandable but in the long run it may be counter-productive in making us too risk averse, stifling the openness to innovation we may need to tackle the huge problems facing the world.
One such problem is the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) estimate that we need to increase food production by 70% to feed the nine billion people expected to be inhabiting the planet by 2050.
How that can be done without tearing up even more forest, parkland and natural habitats for agriculture is a serious problem.
There are some suggested solutions, such as using biotechnology in plant breeding, protection of plants with integrated pest management techniques using new-generation low-chem biopesticides, biofungicides and yield enhancers. Properly used such products can potentially increase crop yields by 24% and reduce yield losses by 40-80%.
The key, however, is whether we will accept them and whether they will be used properly.
The plant science industry is committed to proper, ethical management of its products right from research and development through to disposal of waste. This includes ensuring any risks from the use of crop protection products, such as pesticides, are minimised. It is represented globally by CropLife International.
CropLife International has recently supported CropLife Asia and CropLife India to launch a project in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to train more than 100,000 farming families in proper handling and use of crop protection products. It will be delivered by local partners including an experienced local NGO, called EFFORT.
Hopefully it will result in improved profit margins for the state’s many small farmers, improve sustainable farming and farming yields, and do something to reduce the high suicide rate among farmers there that has made headlines around the world.
The Rainforest Alliance is another organisation that perhaps should receive more publicity.
It works to promote sustainable farming in 25 tropical countries around the world, with a scheme of sustainable agriculture certification that has so far benefited more than two million farm workers and their families.
It sets tough criteria to achieve the certification seal that they can then put on their products. The label is a green circle containing a green frog and one to watch out for when buying products in your local supermarket.
The aims are to show reduced water pollution and soil erosion, reduced threats to the environment and human health, protection of wildlife habitats, less waste farm by-products (by using such things as orange peel, banana leaves and other non-saleable foliage as natural fertiliser). Farmers must also demonstrate reduced water use, better conditions of working for farm workers. Local NGOs audit the farms, large and small, on these criteria before they achieve their certificate.
The certificates are also displayed by companies like Chiquita (bananas), Unilever, Kraft and Nestle Nespresso as independent, third-party endorsement of their commitment to sustainable agriculture.
In addition the journal, Nature, recently published an article suggesting that there is a need for a global network of research centres providing data on the best use of land to governments and farmers to help them take decisions towards more sustainable food production methods while preserving biodiversity.
Finally, although it is not strictly about agriculture, during the writing of this article news was announced that the Indian Government had refused the UK mining company Vedanta permission for a bauxite mine in Orissa because the site was on land sacred to two local tribes.
Jairam Ramesh, India’s Environmental Minister, said the project breached both environmental protection acts and the rights of the tribals who depend on the land and its forests for their livelihoods.
Hopefully there will be more such initiatives and decisions in enough time to repair some of the damage that human activity has done to the planet before it becomes impossible to reverse.