Why do we need sustainable agriculture?
The human population is predicted to grow to 10 billion by 2050. With half of all habitable land already being used for farming, we face an immense challenge to provide enough food for everyone, now and in the future.
However, as the pressure on food production grows, we must also consider the relationship between agriculture and the environment. Intensive farming practices can lead to problems like soil degradation, water pollution, and deforestation. In turn, environmental challenges like these can reduce agricultural yields, putting even more strain on farmers.
Sustainable agriculture aims to secure food production while safeguarding the environment. Preserving soils, protecting biodiversity and ensuring healthy water systems are all vital for protecting the health of people and the planet. We urgently need to work with farmers, businesses and policymakers to improve farming practices.
What is Earthwatch doing?
Earthwatch has a long history of uniting people to address the environmental challenges which affect us all. In the same way, we believe that we can only embed sustainable agricultural practises through collaboration with all the parties involved.
We’re using our expertise to bring together businesses, farmers, land managers, policymakers and scientists. Through our research, we’re studying the environmental impact of farming practices and agricultural supply chains. Our aim is to drive environmentally sustainable practices that also ensure food security for local people.
How citizen science can support businesses to deliver on environmental targets
Data has never been so important. With businesses and governments increasing their sustainability and climate ambitions, including setting science-based targets, the need for data is paramount to inform decision making and to monitor progress. In agriculture a range of different organisations and stakeholders need data; from agribusinesses and utility companies, to farmers who are increasingly being asked to demonstrate their contribution to positive environmental outcomes.
What actions can businesses take to improve soil health and biodiversity?
The estimated economic cost of land degradation is more than 10% of annual global gross product, and by 2050, land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are predicted to reduce crop yield by 10% globally. The business case for investing in soil health and biodiversity is clear and we have detailed the top actions businesses can take to ensure their supply chains are more sustainable and resilient in our recent report.
Below are examples of projects we’re involved in across the world to help local communities embed sustainable agriculture.
TATE & LYLE’S STEVIA SUSTAINABILITY PROJECT IN CHINA
Stevia is a low-calorie sweetener, which is rapidly growing in demand globally due to its health benefits over sugar. As a leading global provider of food and beverage ingredients, Tate & Lyle wants to ensure that the stevia market grows using environmentally sustainable and ethical practices.
In partnership with Tate & Lyle, Earthwatch is conducting research into the stevia supply chain in China, one of the largest producers in the world. Local scientists led by Earthwatch are studying the impact of stevia production on soil, water, waste and energy, as well as the effect on farming communities. The aim is to understand the impact of farming the crop in China, both for producers and the environment.
Tate & Lyle will use the insight gained to understand how their own operations affect the environment and local communities. Meanwhile, Earthwatch will work with Tate & Lyle to provide stevia growers with practical guidelines on how to minimise their impact on the planet.
NURTURING POLLINATING INSECTS IN INDIA
India’s Kullu Valley is an important area for agriculture, especially orchards for apples and other fruit. However, as a result of climate change and pesticide use, the populations of bees and other pollinating insects is declining. This in turn has led to a reduced apple crop, threatening the livelihoods of local people who depend on farming for income.
One crucial gap in our knowledge is how agriculture in the Kullu Valley is affected by the decline of plants known as ‘bee flora’, which attract pollinating insects. This has the potential to hamper sustainable agriculture in the region.
Earthwatch is partnering with a local research institute to study the biodiversity in the Kullu Valley, focusing on bee flora. We are also investigating how agriculture benefits local communities, and how encouraging natural pollination by insects could make farming sustainable once more.
So far, the project has trained and equipped more than 50 local farmers and youths to become beekeepers. In addition, 350 people have been trained about the importance of bee flora, leading to the planting of 2,000 varieties of these important plants. The data collected has also contributed to the Global Pollination Project, a worldwide initiative for the conservation of pollinating insects.
Earthwatch Europe is a partner in the UKSoils initiative – a website bringing together accessible resources to help everybody, from school children to agriculturalists, connect with soil health.
PREVENTING SOIL EROSION IN THE UK
Soil erosion causes lower crop yields. This can increase dependence on fertilisers, which can lead to local water pollution. Earthwatch is working in collaboration with small woodland owners and farmers to find a sustainable nature-based solution to soil erosion. Our novel field trial is aiming to understand whether waste wood products, known as coppice, can be used to prevent soil erosion and reduce nutrient run off into water bodies. This pilot project is installing coppice bundles on exposed agricultural soils, trapping soil and thereby preventing erosion.
Our research will also determine whether interventions like this can increase the demand for waste wood materials, and so support a new circular agricultural economy. Creating a market for coppice could encourage its production as a commercial venture, which could also increase woodland habitat for wildlife.
RESOLVING HUMAN-WILDLIFE CONFLICT IN SOUTH AFRICA
Many wild mammals in South Africa face growing pressures from farming and other commercial activities. Ranchers frequently cite leopard and brown hyenas as major killers of their livestock, despite evidence to the contrary. Baboons are also considered pests by crop farmers. As a result, landowners often see no choice but to use lethal methods to protect their farms from wild animals.
This conflict between humans and wildlife is having a real effect. Between 2008 and 2016, leopard populations have declined by nearly two-thirds overall, largely because of human activity. While tackling illegal poaching is an important part of wildlife conservation, reducing the conflict between humans and wildlife can also have a significant positive impact.
Earthwatch is working in partnership with local communities and commercial farmers to try to mitigate this human-wildlife conflict. By finding sustainable long-term solutions, we hope to support local livelihoods while promoting the conservation of wild mammals in the region.
So far, we have engaged with 338 different stakeholders in the Soutpansberg region of South Africa. Our work has provided local people with the resources to resolve wildlife conflict without lethal force, as well as reduce poaching. For example, farmers with livestock guarding dogs are now acting as ambassadors within the community, encouraging people to call for assistance rather than employing lethal control methods.