Feed the world's hungry while protecting wildlife

Finally, a major environmental group has gotten serious about agriculture's critical role in both destroying wildlife habitat and conserving wildlife species.

The World Conservation Union, a Swiss-based international wildlife organization, is calling for "eco- agriculture" to help save wildlife species - primarily through sustainably higher third-world crop yields and more effective management of wildlife habitat in and near the world's farms.

Based on current trends, the World Conservation Union says, the world will lose half its existing wildlife species by 2050. Wildlife preserves comprise 10 percent of the earth's land area, but they're too small and scattered. Their wild species, lacking opportunities for migration and cross-fertilization with outlying populations, are becoming "islands of dying biodiversity." The World Conservation Union wants farmers to create wildlife habitats on or near their farms, and link those habitats with existing wildlife preserves.

Most of the world's current wildlife extinctions are being caused by the expansion of primitive low-yield farming, the union says. More than 1 billion people live (and mostly farm) in the world's 25 biodiversity "hot spots" - the places where the greatest concentrations of separate wildlife species are found. Sixteen of these hot spots are also centers of severe human malnutrition.

"I had no idea of the [massive] scale [on which] habitat change is taking place," says Susan Scherr, University of Maryland economist and co-author of "Common Future, Common Ground," a new report by the World Conservation Union and the group Future Harvest, which represents 16 agricultural and conservation research centers in the third world. The World Conservation Union is a respected conservation voice whose members include more than 100 government agencies, 700 nongovernmental organizations, and 10,000 conservation scientists.

For the past 40 years, too many environmental groups have pretended that organic farming could feed the world's growing population and save wildlife, too, despite crop yields that were little more than half as high as those of modern mainstream farms.

Groups such as the World Wildlife Fund have demanded that we preserve the traditional peasant farmers of the third world. Unfortunately, these are the very farmers whose primitive, desperate cropping strategies have already destroyed half the world's tropical forests.

Pesticides protect the high yields achieved by modern seeds, nitrogen fertilizers, and irrigation. Without these high-yield strategies, my peer-reviewed estimate is that we would already have plowed another 16 million square miles of wildlands - the total area of the planet's remaining forests - to produce today's food supply.

The Organic Trade Association says organic farming could also produce higher yields if it had more research funding. But organic farming has carved its niche by rejecting every yield-enhancing piece of science since 1932: chemical fertilizer, insecticides, chemical weed killers, antibiotics for livestock, and - most recently - biotechnology.

The World Conservation Union and Future Harvest agree that agricultural pollution must be minimized, but the groups condemn organic farming with faint praise. They call it "one ecoagricultural strategy, but not the only one." Then they compliment integrated pest management, which uses pesticides sparingly. They also emphasize the importance of chemical fertilizer. "In impoverished soils, such as many found in Africa, some chemical fertilizer is often needed in combination with organic nutrients to build up soil organic matter for sustainable production," their report notes.

The World Conservation Union has challenged the conservation credentials of the environmental movement.

Dennis T. Avery is director of Global Food Issues for the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis. He was previously the senior agricultural analyst in the US Department of State and served on the staff of President Johnson's National Advisory Commission on Food and Fiber.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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