A number of forces are currently shaping and threatening the rural landscape around the world.
First is continuing population growth. By 2050, the world’s population will grow from 6.8 billion to 9.0 billion, an increase of 32% and equal to about 7 times the size of the current U.S. population. With this growth comes an increase in the need for food. The United Nation’s (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that to combat existing hunger, as well as feed the additional 2.2 billion people, world food production will have to increase by 50% by 2050. This added pressure on the world’s already depleted land and water resources could have catastrophic impacts on the sustainability of food production and cause irreversible damage to already stressed ecosystems.
Second, climate change has great potential to reshape landscapes across the globe. We are already seeing changing growing seasons, increasing evapotranspiration, variances in precipitation patterns, and an expanding range of pests. Perhaps the climate change related impact of greatest concern is desertification caused by overgrazing and accelerated by reduced rainfall. The UN estimates that about 12 million acres of agricultural land, an area twice the size of Vermont, are lost each year to desertification.
Third, inadequate knowledge of soil and water conservation principles, combined with inadequate institutional support, leaves farmers and ranchers with few alternatives to environmentally costly production practices that adversely affect agricultural areas. The resulting problems include high erosion rates on cropland, toxic salt accumulation in improperly irrigated soils, and destruction of grazing lands by over-grazing. All of these natural resource problems contribute to a significant decline in the landscape’s ability to produce food and fiber.
The confluence of over population, climate change, poor production practices and other factors have created a perfect storm that could have an enormous impact on food security, poverty, health and political stability. Compounding the stress on rural landscapes at the local or regional scale are natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfire, drought and earthquakes.
Several international efforts are focused on addressing the challenge of feeding a world population of 9 billion. As a follow-up to Rio+20 meeting in 2012, agricultural and conservation leaders met in Rio in July 2013 to launch a new initiative, “Bridging Agriculture and Conservation.” In noting the importance of this initiative, M. Ann Tutwiler, Director of Bioversity International, said, “For the first time, the agriculture and conservation sectors are coming together to find solutions to these issues together. …Bridging Agriculture and Conservation Initiative will bring together an international and interdisciplinary team of scientists to find the synergies and provide science-based solutions integrating biodiversity conservation and food security together. We need new solutions to these dual challenges.”
Bridging agriculture and conservation has been the mission of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) since its inception. The NRCS business model is founded on developing technically-sound conservation practices that protect natural resources while helping farmers and ranchers maintain or enhance agricultural production. NRCS has the world’s largest collection of soil scientists, agronomists, agricultural engineers, biologists, range specialists and other scientists working to develop conservation technology. In addition, in nearly every county in the United States it has field staff who work closely with local conservation districts to help producers adopt a wide range of conservation practices.
Through U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding for long-term projects and funding from NRCS programs for short-term technical assistance exchanges, NRCS has a long history of working in both developed and developing countries. However, NRCS is constrained in its ability to provide a coordinated and continuing program related to international conservation because of limitations in its existing authorities.
Opportunities exist to establish a coordinated long-term international conservation program and accelerate progress through initiatives like Bridging Agriculture and Conservation by expanding NRCS’ international work. The question is whether the taxpayer and political will exists to make that happen. Currently, the agency can only provide such assistance through agreements with USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service or USAID. To more effectively deliver international conservation assistance would require that NRCS not only be provided funding for an international conservation program (much like the Forest Service has), it must also be given authority to:
- Enter into international agreements with other countries or international organizations, and
- Receive non-U.S. funds to carry out international technical assistance.
This may seem like a tall order at a time when sequester, budget deficit and debt ceiling occupy the floor in the U.S. public policy discourse. However, the payoff stands to be enormous in averting one of the most enormous challenges of our day—feeding 9 billion people . . . sustainably.