Agriculture and Aquaculture in a Changing World

Author Jaivime Evaristo is a graduate student in the Master of Science in Applied Geosciences program at the University of Pennsylvania. This post is adapted from his conclusion of a paper he wrote for the IGEL Student Research Briefs series. Opinions represented in blog posts and research briefs represent the opinions of the authors only, not of Wharton, Penn or IGEL. Click here to read the whole paper>>

In industrialized countries, the area given to agricultural activities has fallen by three percent between 1961 and 2007.  In developing countries, however, it has risen by 21 percent (FAOSTAT 2009). However, although the aggregate output is quantitatively greater than the aggregate food demand, it is unfortunate to note that one in seven people today still do not have access to sufficient food, primarily in the developing world, while an equal number are overfed (Godfray et al. 2010).

Furthermore, a number of studies synthesized by The Royal Society (2009) argue that the demand for food by rich countries will divert supplies away from poorer nations and that international markets alone will not equitably and sustainably address global food insecurity. This is a paradoxical challenge that certainly warrants global attention, especially from industrialized countries that have the technological means and maybe even the moral responsibility to lead, if the world is to pursue the “path unforetold”. That is not to say, however, that the developing world does not have a role to play. If anything, it has every greater responsibility in all facets of the challenge.

As someone from a developing country, this issue could not come any closer to heart. Primarily a rice exporter decades ago, which laid the impetus for the establishment of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the country, the Philippines now imports rice from its neighbors. This dependence on imports not only means vulnerability to external price shocks, as was the case during the 2007/08 rice crisis, but also considerable political pressure on the country’s leadership to re-build the path to rice production sufficiency. Oftentimes, this equates to the cultivation of more land for agriculture. And, as discussed in earlier sections of this paper, this is unsustainable given the adverse environmental impacts on soil, water, and biodiversity.

Now, change the food product to, say, shrimps, and the picture will change rather quite differently – on the demand side at least. That is, this time being driven more by foreign exchange earnings from the export of shrimps than by the need to become self-sufficient [of the shrimp food]. The case for rice and the case for shrimps, in Philippine context, are great examples of how different drivers of demand can have similar adverse impacts on the environment. This means that regardless of the arguments for agriculture/aquaculture intensification, trade-offs may still arise. In a country that places Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) on top of its economic agenda, the concern for the environment is one that is usually left to the NGOs and the academia. By Western standards, this is a depressing reality; by human standards, this is by no means necessary, much less morally justified. At some point in the discourse, like in earlier sections of this paper, a “third alternative” may be possible.

For example, the concept of “sustainable intensification” (The Royal Society 2009) may be something that developing countries, like the Philippines, need to consider. This concept argues that production growth targets must be achieved without the cultivation of additional land; or, the conversion of additional mangrove forests, for that matter, to shrimp farms. Some of the attributes that form the body of this concept are the following: (1) the use of crop varieties and livestock breeds with high productivity per externally derived output (2) harnessing agro-ecological processes such as nutrient cycling, biological nitrogen fixation, allelopathy, predation, and parasitism (3) making use of local intellectual capital to adapt and innovate, and social capital to resolve common landscape-scale problems (4) quantifying and minimizing the impacts of system management on externalities such as GHG emissions, clean water availability, carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, and dispersal of pests, pathogens, and weeds. Moreover, this concept espouses a complete departure from the either/or approach commonly associated with food security debates. In short, no techniques or technologies (e.g. GM crops, use of pesticides, organic farming, etc.) should be ruled out. Finally, agronomy, soil science, and agro-ecology need to be given greater attention than they have been over the last few decades.

It is apparent, just by looking at the aforementioned attributes, that a developing country might face some technological difficulties in the assimilation, much less implementation of some of these extremely useful pointers. Thus, this is where the role of the academia and other agencies can play its most critical part. That is, the internationalization of training through placements in developing countries, as well as studentships and postdoctoral research opportunities for scientists in the developing world to study in the USA or the UK.

In my opinion, only when a developing country starts to consider all available and viable technological options, without causing any further harm to the environment and biodiversity; and, only when it strives to work towards achieving socio-economic justice for its people, can the path to sustainable agriculture and aquaculture begin. And, again, I chose “begin” not for form but for the substance that it represents. That is, a journey, that ends only when either the people involved stop contributing for the collective good or the earth stands to a halt. The latter, of course, was metaphorical at best, poetic at least.

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