Creating Win-Win Solutions for Agriculture and Conservation
I am fascinated by agriculture because it solves some of our most complicated problems to meet our most basic needs.
The most obvious of these basic needs is food.
Agriculture can also be central to solving other needs such as health, greenhouse gas concentrations, land use, preservation of natural habitat, malnutrition, women’s rights, social justice, poverty, and many more.
I recently had the chance to interview Michael Doane of the Nature Conservancy on the “Future of Agriculture” Podcast. Michael’s role as Managing Director of Agriculture and Food Systems gives him the chance to work with agriculture to find win-win solutions to some of these issues.
What struck me most about the discussion was the focus on science, pragmatism, and collaboration.
“Over the last decade the organization is coming to realize that agriculture is a big part of both the challenge and the solution to improving nature” Michael Doane of The Nature Conservancy
One example of that is the work The Nature Conservancy is doing in the Mississippi River Basin. There is a clear hypoxic zone (deprived of oxygen) in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Science has determined that deposits various chemicals, nutrients, and sediments are contributing to algal bloom. The algae that is enriched by these transported nutrients grows and ultimately deoxygenates the water, having negative affects on aquatic life in the area.
Other conservation groups may attempt to rally against agriculture, which is ultimately a leading contributor to this hypoxic zone. Instead, The Nature Conservancy uses a more pragmatic approach of partnering with agriculture in an effort to improve fertilizer management and soil management.
Guided by science, The Nature Conservancy brings a pragmatic approach to collaborating with businesses and governments to come up with realistic conservation solutions. Michael describes their mentality as that of a partnership, that they are “really guided by our goal to see land and water conserved for future generations”.
Three of the Nature Conservancy’s top priorities are to protect water and habitat, conserve and restore degraded lands, and take action on climate change.
Agriculture and food systems are a vital component as agriculture contributes to about 25–30% of global emissions. Agriculture is also the biggest user of habitable land in the world (38% of land area), and the largest user of freshwater (70% of freshwater withdrawals are for agricultural purposes).
The Nature Conservancy chooses to align itself with initiatives that work in a voluntary way rather than argue for aggressive legislation that may limit farmers’ ability to choose the best avenue to achieve those targets.
Michael points to projects in Brazil, where deforestation is an issue. They are working with companies like Cargill, Bunge, and ADM to better steer a path to geographic areas in the country that would be less damaging to delicate habitat.
Another major focus area worldwide is soil health, specifically the decrease in soil organic matter. There are farming practices that have helped curb the issue, such as reduced tillage and cover crops, but this is not yet prevalent enough to move the needle.
Michael acknowledges the collaborative role they must play in the implementation of these conservation solutions. “This is not going to be done by the nature conservancy,” says Doane, “but we are calling for increased investment and action to this end because we think it could be one of the best things where the conservation community and the farming community can really show that agriculture is the solution. It’s the solution on climate change, it’s the solution on water quality, it’s the solution on flood risk mitigation and it can be great for farmers. It can be great economically for farmers if we get this right”
The Nature Conservancy is putting their money where their mouth is, by recognizing the role financing can play in innovation. In partnership with Techstars, a major startup seed accelerator, they have launched a Sustainability Accelerator to create an ecosystem for new companies to develop solutions to these problems.
Like most issues, this is not a clear-cut, winner-take-all showdown between agriculture and conservation. Both are important to the future of our health and the wellness of our planet.
“ (We see this) as kind of a dual opportunity. Where its not a trade off of nature for people or nature against people or people against nature.” Doane continues, “But its really, how can we really create conditions where both people and nature thrive.”