Reducing the impact of commercial agriculture

Agriculture uses a staggering 40% of the world’s land area as well as 70% of global freshwater withdrawals. It is also responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. It poses 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.

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, ecosystems, local communities – and the services they all provide. 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.

Moving towards sustainable agriculture

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been at the forefront of efforts to highlight previously overlooked risks within agricultural supply chains. These range from our recent work on wild pollinator dependence to the Natural Value Initiative, which developed a benchmarking tool that enabled investors in the agricultural sector to assess company performance against a series of measures relating to their impact on biodiversity and ecosystems services.

Rice agriculture. Credit: Tim Bergman/FFI
Credit: Tim Bergman/FFI

The palm oil conundrum

FFI is committed to finding practical solutions to the challenges faced by unsustainable political and commercial development agendas. We believe that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has a crucial role to play in ensuring that this industry operates responsibly. This certification scheme aims to ensure that palm oil production is sustainable and benefits local communities, and that it conforms to an agreed global benchmark and rigorous supply chain standards. FFI has been an active member of this forum since 2007. While recognising its shortcomings, and the compromise required in any multi-stakeholder platform, we view it as a vital means of influencing agricultural practice at a landscape level.

Plantation landscapes

In West Kalimantan, our Indonesia team has been involved in orang-utan and peatland conservation projects since the 1990s. FFI has conducted High Conservation Value (HCV) assessments in oil palm concessions within these landscapes in order to safeguard important community forests from conversion to oil palm plantations and other development. We are now working with a number of national companies to help implement their HCV management plans in order to ensure that these values are maintained.

FFI has also taken the opportunity to influence the emerging palm oil sector in West Africa and Myanmar. We led the Small Producing Country National Interpretation of RSPO Principles and Criteria for Liberia and Sierra Leone, and introduced the concept of sustainable palm oil and certification to the new government and businesses in Myanmar. In 2016 we successfully called for a moratorium on oil palm development in the country’s last remaining lowland rainforest until the impacts could be better understood and more robust policies and land use planning put in place.

Highlighting risks and opportunities

FFI has been championing a landscape approach within agricultural supply chains for over ten years. During this time we developed and refined the Biodiversity Risk & Opportunity Assessment (BROA) tool, which offers practical guidance for identifying and managing agricultural production risks associated with dependencies on biodiversity and ecosystem services from a landscape perspective.

BROA was developed through the BAT Biodiversity Partnership, a multilateral partnership comprising FFI, Earthwatch Institute, the Tropical Biology Association and the business partner British American Tobacco. The partnership ran from 2000 to 2015.

If you are interested in conducting a BROA, the three NGO partners involved in developing this tool can provide training and support. Download the BROA tool for free here: guidance document and working tables.

Landscape-level restoration

National policies are now making landscape-level restoration a reality and FFI is working to restore degraded peat forest in Kampar Peninsula on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The project is designed to rehabilitate the landscape, secure sustainable livelihoods for forest communities and provide a blueprint for wider ecosystem restoration in the context of government plans to restore and protect some 2.5 million hectares of forest. More than two million native trees are being planted over a ten-year period.

Supporting smallholder farmers

In addition to reducing the impact of commercial agriculture at a landscape level, we also work at the local level, supporting small-scale farmers who grow food staples and cash crops. Our aim is to link productive farming systems based on appropriate land-use planning with clear governance and land tenure, improve resilience to climate change, and maintain the ecosystem services on which we all depend.