Agriculture has shaped most of the world’s cultures, economies and landscapes. With about 40% of the world’s population – three billion people – classified as ‘small-scale farmers’, agriculture is vital to livelihoods, delivering development opportunities for billions of people and food for virtually everyone on the planet.
Agriculture uses a staggering 40% of the world’s land area as well as 70% of global fresh water withdrawals. It also emits a third of greenhouse gases. It presents a more significant threat to species survival than any other business sector.
Making food production sustainable in the context of human population growth and climate change is therefore one of conservation’s greatest challenges
At worst, unsustainable agricultural practices undermine the very ecosystem services on which producers, rural populations, and ultimately all of us, depend, reducing water quality and quantity, increasing vulnerability to pests, diseases, floods and droughts, and adversely affecting pollination, soil formation and nutrient cycling.
As our demand for food and land increases, long-term survival will be contingent on shifting to sustainable and adaptable agricultural systems and diets that can support people without detriment to the planet. This is particularly crucial for those parts of the world where immense biological richness coincides with rural poverty and development pressures. In such places, the growth of large-scale plantations and unregulated or unsustainable agricultural activities poses a particularly grave threat to biodiversity and ecosystems – and the services they provide.
If well managed and well planned, however, agriculture has real potential to help conserve biodiversity, use natural resources sustainably, improve livelihoods and increase food security.