Rio+20 Business Focus: Sustainable agriculture – an issue for society and business

Politicians make the policy. But it’s often left to business to implement it. For this reason RioPlus Business is featuring submissions from the private sector across the globe in the lead up to Rio+20.

In this article, a team from Lund University in Sweden attempts to answer the tricky question, how can we create sustainable agriculture, capable of feeding the soon to be 10 billion people on earth and at the same time preserve the ecosystems of the species that coexist with us on this planet? 

By Marianne Hall, Georg Andersson, Henrik Smith and Markku Rummukainen

We use the landscapes surrounding us to produce food and fibre, but our efforts to increase this production in the short run often comes at a cost to the plants, animals and biological processes that provide us with sustainable ecosystem services such as nutrient retention, carbon storage, fresh water, waste decomposition and recreational experiences.

The economic value of pollinating insects is estimated to be as high as €153 billion.

How we manage the balance between our demands and what the Earth can provide constitutes an important set of questions for scientists, practitioners and policy makers. One of these questions relates to the sustainable agricultural sector and is of particular concern to farmers in a changing world.

One tool for helping to make the agricultural sector sustainable is to use labels on food products to guide consumers who wish to make more environment-friendly choices in their everyday life.

Niklas Torle is the owner of the Vegadal Farm in southern Sweden. He delivers vegetables labelled with the Swedish Seal of Quality. This guarantees that the food has been produced on farms that follow strict criteria for safe food, animal welfare, responsibility for the environment and a vivid landscape.

“The control is rigorous,” Torle explains, “and obviously we are required to use certain approved chemicals only, and to keep hazard assessments on all compounds. Furthermore, we must be able to account for every delivered stack of products, in terms of when it was harvested and on which exact patch it was grown. And we also have climate considerations. For instance, we use only green electricity from renewable energy sources.”

The regulations add extra work for the farmer, and also additional expenses, thus driving up the production costs. To pursue not only ecologically sustainable agriculture but also economically sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and ecosystem services need to be managed as assets to the society. There is no easy answer on how to achieve this.

A team from Lund University fund that organic strawberry farms enjoyed triple the pollination success of conventional ones.

Addressing this issue, Lund University performs cross-faculty research integrating socio-economic and ecological perspectives on sustainable agriculture, and strives to bridge the gap between science and society by working closely with stake-holders from government bodies, NGOs, farmers and land owners.

An iconic symbol for the unsustainability in conventional farming methods is the disappearance of pollinators, especially bees and bumble-bees.

The population declines are caused by several factors, including sensitivity to direct and indirect effects of chemicals used in conventional farming. Organic farming, on the other hand, has been shown to have a positive effect on pollinators. In a study performed on strawberries as model plants in southern Sweden, scientists at Lund University found that the pollination success was three times higher on organic farms compared to conventional ones.

This can be scaled up by noting that pollination by insects contributes to about one third of Europe’s crop yield, and these insect pollinated crops contain as much as 90 % of the vitamins and nutrients essential for the human well-being. The importance of keeping the population of pollinators stable and viable can hardly be overestimated.

Torle concludes: “We need the tools, and we need the international agreements that make it possible for us to focus on and invest in growing our crops in a sustainable way. We need the governments to agree on rules and regulations for chemicals and methods so that we can compete on equal terms with other producers on the international food market. This is the most important issue that we need from the governments to agree on, if we are to build up sustainable agriculture for the modern society.”

Marianne Hall, Georg Andersson, Henrik Smith and Markku Rummukainen represent the Centre for Environmental and Climate Research, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

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