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EcoWatch is a community of experts publishing quality, science-based content on environmental issues, causes, and solutions for a healthier planet and life.
Planting dandelions could help reduce deforestation caused by traditional rubber plantations. Tashka / Getty Images

By Jack McGovan

In 1931, Soviet scientists were on the hunt for a natural source of rubber that would help the USSR become self-sufficient in key materials.

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
A lone tree stands in the Amazon rainforest near Santarem, Para state, Brazil, on September 4, 2019. Nelson Almeida / AFP / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

New data from a Norwegian nonprofit is generating fresh concerns about humanity's destruction of the natural world, revealing Monday that people have ravaged about two-thirds of original tropical rainforest cover globally.

Read More Show Less
HighGradeRoots / iStock / Getty Images Plus

CBD, or cannabidiol, now comes in a variety of different forms, including CBD oils, CBD gummies, CBD capsules, and even water soluble CBD powders. You can also use CBD vape oil like you would any other vape juice. Our guide to the best CBD vape oils will help you identify the top brands to consider and will provide important information about CBD, vaping, and wellness.

Read More Show Less
A rewilded area in Germany, near Dresden. Rewilded tracts foster biodiversity and improve crop yields. Thomas Hertel, author provided

By Thomas Hertel

Growing food in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way – while also producing enough of it – is among the most important challenges facing the U.S. and the world today.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that food security can't be taken for granted. Putting affordable food on the table requires both innovative producers and well-functioning markets and global supply chains. With disruptions to the system, prices rise, food is scarce – and people go hungry.

But feeding the world's 7.8 billion people sustainably – including 332 million Americans – presents significant environmental challenges. Farming uses 70% of the world's fresh water. Fertilizers pollute water with nitrates and phosphates, sparking algal blooms and creating dead zones like the one that forms every summer in the Gulf of Mexico.

Clear-cutting land for farms and ranches is the main driver of deforestation. Overall, the planet loses about 48,000 square miles (125,000 square kilometers) of forest each year. Without habitat, wildlife disappears. Farming also produces roughly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

All of these challenges make balancing food production with environmental security a crucial issue for the Biden administration, which is working to address both a hunger crisis and an environmental crisis in the U.S.

Two Different Pathways

As an economist studying food systems, I'm keenly aware that trying to provide affordable food and a thriving agricultural sector while also preserving the environment can result in many trade-offs. Consider the different strategies that the U.S. and Northern Europe have pursued: The U.S. prioritizes increased agricultural output, while the EU emphasizes environmental services from farming.

Over the past 70 years, the U.S. has increased crop production with ever more sophisticated seed technologies and highly mechanized farming methods that employ far fewer workers. These new technologies have contributed to farm productivity growth which has, in turn, allowed U.S. farm output to rise without significant growth in the aggregate economic index of agricultural input use.

Figure shows an economic index of all agricultural inputs and outputs with 1961 as the base year. Chart: The Conversation / CC BY-ND. Source: USDA ERS. Get the data

This approach contrasts sharply with Northern Europe's strategy, which emphasizes using less land and other inputs in order to protect the environment. Nonetheless, by achieving a comparable rate of agricultural productivity growth (output growth minus the growth rate inputs), Northern Europe has been able to maintain its level of total farm output over the past three decades.

Figure shows an economic index of all agricultural inputs and outputs with 1961 as the base year. Chart: The Conversation / CC BY-ND. Source: USDA ERS. Get the data

Boosting Prices Versus Benefiting Nature

The U.S. also has a long history of setting aside agricultural land that dates back nearly a century. In response to low prices in the 1920s, farmers had flooded the market with grain, pork and other products, desperately seeking to boost revenues but only pushing prices down further.

Under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the U.S. government paid farmers to reduce their output and limited the supply of land under cultivation to boost farm prices. This strategy is still in use today.

In 1985 the U.S. launched a new program that created real incentives to protect environmentally sensitive land. Farmers who enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program "rent" environmentally valuable tracts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 10-15 years. Withdrawing these acres from production provides food and shelter for pollinators and wildlife, reduces erosion and improves water quality.

But this is a voluntary program, so enrollment ebbs and flows in tandem with crop prices. For example, when corn, soy and wheat prices fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s, enrollment grew. Then with the commodity price boom of 2007, farmers could make more money from cultivating the land. Protected acreage dropped more than 40% through 2019, erasing many of the environmental benefits that had been achieved.

Enrollment in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program dropped by almost 13 million acres from 2007 to 2016. U.S. Department of Agriculture

Rental rates for agricultural land in the U.S. vary widely, with the most productive lands bringing the highest rent. Current rental rates under the Conservation Reserve Program 2021 range from $243 per acre in Cuming, Nebraska to just $6 in Sutton, Texas.

The EU also began setting aside farmland to curb overproduction in 1988. Now, however, their program focuses heavily on environmental quality. Policy reforms in 2013 required farmers to allocate 5% of their land to protected ecological focus areas. The goal is to generate long-term environmental benefits by prioritizing nature.

This program supports both production and conservation. Within this mix of natural and cultivated lands, wild pollinators benefit both native plants and crops. Birds, insects and small predators offer natural bio-control of pests. In this way, "rewilded" tracts foster biodiversity while also improving crop yields.

Who Will Feed the World?

What would happen if the U.S., a major exporter of agricultural products, followed the EU model and permanently withdrew land from production to improve environmental quality? Would such action make food unaffordable for the world's poorest consumers?

In a study that I conducted in 2020 with colleagues at Purdue and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we set up a computer model to find out. We wanted to chart what might happen to food prices across the globe through 2050 if the U.S. and other rich economies followed Northern European conservation strategies. Our analysis focused on the world's most food-insecure region, sub-Saharan Africa.

We discovered that altering food production in this way would raise food prices in that region by about 6%. However, this upward price trend could be reversed by investing in local agriculture and new technologies to increase productivity in Africa. In short, our research suggested that conserving the environment in the U.S. doesn't have to cause food insecurity in other countries.

Implications for U.S. Farm Policy

Many experts on hunger and agriculture agree that to feed a growing global population, world food output must increase substantially in the next several decades. At the same time, it's clear that agriculture's environmental impacts need to shrink in order to protect the natural environment.

In my view, meeting these twin goals will require renewed government investments in research and dissemination of new technologies. Reversing a two-decade decline in science funding will be key. Agriculture is now a knowledge-driven industry, fueled by new technologies and improved management practices. Publicly funded research laid the foundations for these advances.

To reap environmental gains, I believe the U.S. Department of Agriculture will need to revamp and stabilize the Conservation Reserve Program, so that it is economically viable and enrollment does not fluctuate with market conditions. The Trump administration reduced incentives and rental payment rates, which drove down enrollments. The Biden administration has already taken a modest step forward by extending the yearly sign-up for the program indefinitely.

As I see it, following Northern Europe's model by permanently protecting ecologically rich areas, while simultaneously investing in knowledge-driven agricultural productivity, will enable the U.S. to better preserve wildlife and its natural environment for future generations, while maintaining an affordable food supply.

Thomas Hertel is a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

Disclosure statement: Thomas Hertel receives funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

Trending
Indigenous leaders from Latin America, Indonesia and Africa take part in a Guardians of the Forest demonstration in Parliament Square against illegal logging, deforestation, loss of lands and climate change, in London, England on Oct. 24, 2017. Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Aiming to preserve 30 percent of the world's land and water by 2030, dozens of countries will take part in a UN biodiversity conference later this year – but Indigenous people won't have a seat at the table.

Read More Show Less
An aerial view of Amazon rainforest deforestation and farm management for livestock in November 2014. Ricardo Funari / Brazil Photos / LightRocket / Getty Images

The Amazon rainforest likely emits more greenhouse gases than it absorbs, a first-of-its-kind study has found.

Read More Show Less
An oblique (left) and dorsal (right) photo of a female Pharohylaeus lactiferous. J.B. Dorey / Journal of Hymenoptera Research

Australia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. It is home to more than 7% of all the world's plant and animal species, many of which are endemic. One such species, the Pharohylaeus lactiferus bee, was recently rediscovered after spending nearly 100 years out of sight from humans.

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A rare bird not seen for 170 years has turned up in Borneo's South Kalimantan province in Indonesia. robas / Getty Images

In October 2020, two men living in Indonesia's South Kalimantan province on Borneo managed to catch a bird that they had never seen before. They photographed and released it, then sent the pictures to birdwatching organizations in the area for identification.

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A mix of public and private forests in Oregon's Coast Range. Beverly Law / CC BY-ND

By Beverly Law and William Moomaw

Protecting forests is an essential strategy in the fight against climate change that has not received the attention it deserves. Trees capture and store massive amounts of carbon. And unlike some strategies for cooling the climate, they don't require costly and complicated technology.

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A 3-hour special film by EarthxTV calls for protection of the Amazon and its indigenous populations. EarthxTV.org

To save the planet, we must save the Amazon rainforest. To save the rainforest, we must save its indigenous peoples. And to do that, we must demarcate their land.

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Fresh cassava at a market in Bangkok, Thailand. Busakorn Pongparnit / Moment / Getty Images

By Sean Fleming

What thrives in poor soil, can tolerate rising temperatures and is brimming with calories?

The cassava – sometimes referred to as "the Rambo root." This plant could potentially help alleviate world hunger, provide economically viable agriculture and even put an end to soil erosion, according to research published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice.

Also known as yuca (but distinct from the ornamental yucca plant) the root of the cassava is a staple of many Caribbean and South American meals – and it will thrive in conditions too difficult for many other plants.

A Gateway Crop

"Evidence suggests (cassava) could potentially revive degraded land and make it productive anew, generating numerous positive socioeconomic and environmental impacts with proper crop management," said Maria Eliza Villarino, the report's lead author and a researcher at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in the science publication, PhysOrg.

An estimated 40% of land in Colombia suffers from degradation, according to the alliance. It, therefore, "serves as a good testing ground for exploring the different possibilities that farming cassava could lead to."

The cassava could become a gateway crop, helping farmers bring once unproductive land back into use. Soil that has been revived could then be used to grow commercial crops like coffee or chocolate, corn or soy.

But Cassava Mustn't Tread the Same Path as Soy

The global market for soy is estimated at around $150 billion, and around 80% of all soy production comes from the U.S., Brazil and Argentina. Making space for soy farms has resulted in significant deforestation in parts of the Amazon rainforest, with the WWF estimating that "an area roughly the size of California" was lost to deforestation around the world between 2004 and 2017.

"We acknowledge that scaling up production of any commodity risks an increase in deforestation and biodiversity loss, and we need to do more research," Augusto Castro Nunez, a land-use and climate specialist at the alliance, said in the PhysOrg article. "But what we know is that we need something new; what has been done to prevent deforestation is not working, and this is something new."

Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.

A newly discovered species of chameleon is the size of a sunflower seed. Frank Glaw / SNSB / ZSM

Scientists have discovered a new species of tiny chameleon, and it may be the smallest species of reptile on Earth.

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Area bordering Kaxarari Indigenous territory in Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil, in August, 2020. Christian Braga / Greenpeace
Tropical forests are guardians against runaway climate change, but their ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is wearing down. The Amazon, which accounts for more than half of the world's rainforest cover, is on the verge of turning into a carbon source.
Read More Show Less
EcoWatch is a community of experts publishing quality, science-based content on environmental issues, causes, and solutions for a healthier planet and life.
Planting dandelions could help reduce deforestation caused by traditional rubber plantations. Tashka / Getty Images

By Jack McGovan

In 1931, Soviet scientists were on the hunt for a natural source of rubber that would help the USSR become self-sufficient in key materials.

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
A lone tree stands in the Amazon rainforest near Santarem, Para state, Brazil, on September 4, 2019. Nelson Almeida / AFP / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

New data from a Norwegian nonprofit is generating fresh concerns about humanity's destruction of the natural world, revealing Monday that people have ravaged about two-thirds of original tropical rainforest cover globally.

Read More Show Less
HighGradeRoots / iStock / Getty Images Plus

CBD, or cannabidiol, now comes in a variety of different forms, including CBD oils, CBD gummies, CBD capsules, and even water soluble CBD powders. You can also use CBD vape oil like you would any other vape juice. Our guide to the best CBD vape oils will help you identify the top brands to consider and will provide important information about CBD, vaping, and wellness.

Read More Show Less
A rewilded area in Germany, near Dresden. Rewilded tracts foster biodiversity and improve crop yields. Thomas Hertel, author provided

By Thomas Hertel

Growing food in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way – while also producing enough of it – is among the most important challenges facing the U.S. and the world today.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that food security can't be taken for granted. Putting affordable food on the table requires both innovative producers and well-functioning markets and global supply chains. With disruptions to the system, prices rise, food is scarce – and people go hungry.

But feeding the world's 7.8 billion people sustainably – including 332 million Americans – presents significant environmental challenges. Farming uses 70% of the world's fresh water. Fertilizers pollute water with nitrates and phosphates, sparking algal blooms and creating dead zones like the one that forms every summer in the Gulf of Mexico.

Clear-cutting land for farms and ranches is the main driver of deforestation. Overall, the planet loses about 48,000 square miles (125,000 square kilometers) of forest each year. Without habitat, wildlife disappears. Farming also produces roughly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

All of these challenges make balancing food production with environmental security a crucial issue for the Biden administration, which is working to address both a hunger crisis and an environmental crisis in the U.S.

Two Different Pathways

As an economist studying food systems, I'm keenly aware that trying to provide affordable food and a thriving agricultural sector while also preserving the environment can result in many trade-offs. Consider the different strategies that the U.S. and Northern Europe have pursued: The U.S. prioritizes increased agricultural output, while the EU emphasizes environmental services from farming.

Over the past 70 years, the U.S. has increased crop production with ever more sophisticated seed technologies and highly mechanized farming methods that employ far fewer workers. These new technologies have contributed to farm productivity growth which has, in turn, allowed U.S. farm output to rise without significant growth in the aggregate economic index of agricultural input use.

Figure shows an economic index of all agricultural inputs and outputs with 1961 as the base year. Chart: The Conversation / CC BY-ND. Source: USDA ERS. Get the data

This approach contrasts sharply with Northern Europe's strategy, which emphasizes using less land and other inputs in order to protect the environment. Nonetheless, by achieving a comparable rate of agricultural productivity growth (output growth minus the growth rate inputs), Northern Europe has been able to maintain its level of total farm output over the past three decades.

Figure shows an economic index of all agricultural inputs and outputs with 1961 as the base year. Chart: The Conversation / CC BY-ND. Source: USDA ERS. Get the data

Boosting Prices Versus Benefiting Nature

The U.S. also has a long history of setting aside agricultural land that dates back nearly a century. In response to low prices in the 1920s, farmers had flooded the market with grain, pork and other products, desperately seeking to boost revenues but only pushing prices down further.

Under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the U.S. government paid farmers to reduce their output and limited the supply of land under cultivation to boost farm prices. This strategy is still in use today.

In 1985 the U.S. launched a new program that created real incentives to protect environmentally sensitive land. Farmers who enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program "rent" environmentally valuable tracts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 10-15 years. Withdrawing these acres from production provides food and shelter for pollinators and wildlife, reduces erosion and improves water quality.

But this is a voluntary program, so enrollment ebbs and flows in tandem with crop prices. For example, when corn, soy and wheat prices fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s, enrollment grew. Then with the commodity price boom of 2007, farmers could make more money from cultivating the land. Protected acreage dropped more than 40% through 2019, erasing many of the environmental benefits that had been achieved.

Enrollment in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program dropped by almost 13 million acres from 2007 to 2016. U.S. Department of Agriculture

Rental rates for agricultural land in the U.S. vary widely, with the most productive lands bringing the highest rent. Current rental rates under the Conservation Reserve Program 2021 range from $243 per acre in Cuming, Nebraska to just $6 in Sutton, Texas.

The EU also began setting aside farmland to curb overproduction in 1988. Now, however, their program focuses heavily on environmental quality. Policy reforms in 2013 required farmers to allocate 5% of their land to protected ecological focus areas. The goal is to generate long-term environmental benefits by prioritizing nature.

This program supports both production and conservation. Within this mix of natural and cultivated lands, wild pollinators benefit both native plants and crops. Birds, insects and small predators offer natural bio-control of pests. In this way, "rewilded" tracts foster biodiversity while also improving crop yields.

Who Will Feed the World?

What would happen if the U.S., a major exporter of agricultural products, followed the EU model and permanently withdrew land from production to improve environmental quality? Would such action make food unaffordable for the world's poorest consumers?

In a study that I conducted in 2020 with colleagues at Purdue and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we set up a computer model to find out. We wanted to chart what might happen to food prices across the globe through 2050 if the U.S. and other rich economies followed Northern European conservation strategies. Our analysis focused on the world's most food-insecure region, sub-Saharan Africa.

We discovered that altering food production in this way would raise food prices in that region by about 6%. However, this upward price trend could be reversed by investing in local agriculture and new technologies to increase productivity in Africa. In short, our research suggested that conserving the environment in the U.S. doesn't have to cause food insecurity in other countries.

Implications for U.S. Farm Policy

Many experts on hunger and agriculture agree that to feed a growing global population, world food output must increase substantially in the next several decades. At the same time, it's clear that agriculture's environmental impacts need to shrink in order to protect the natural environment.

In my view, meeting these twin goals will require renewed government investments in research and dissemination of new technologies. Reversing a two-decade decline in science funding will be key. Agriculture is now a knowledge-driven industry, fueled by new technologies and improved management practices. Publicly funded research laid the foundations for these advances.

To reap environmental gains, I believe the U.S. Department of Agriculture will need to revamp and stabilize the Conservation Reserve Program, so that it is economically viable and enrollment does not fluctuate with market conditions. The Trump administration reduced incentives and rental payment rates, which drove down enrollments. The Biden administration has already taken a modest step forward by extending the yearly sign-up for the program indefinitely.

As I see it, following Northern Europe's model by permanently protecting ecologically rich areas, while simultaneously investing in knowledge-driven agricultural productivity, will enable the U.S. to better preserve wildlife and its natural environment for future generations, while maintaining an affordable food supply.

Thomas Hertel is a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

Disclosure statement: Thomas Hertel receives funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

Trending
Indigenous leaders from Latin America, Indonesia and Africa take part in a Guardians of the Forest demonstration in Parliament Square against illegal logging, deforestation, loss of lands and climate change, in London, England on Oct. 24, 2017. Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Aiming to preserve 30 percent of the world's land and water by 2030, dozens of countries will take part in a UN biodiversity conference later this year – but Indigenous people won't have a seat at the table.

Read More Show Less
An aerial view of Amazon rainforest deforestation and farm management for livestock in November 2014. Ricardo Funari / Brazil Photos / LightRocket / Getty Images

The Amazon rainforest likely emits more greenhouse gases than it absorbs, a first-of-its-kind study has found.

Read More Show Less
An oblique (left) and dorsal (right) photo of a female Pharohylaeus lactiferous. J.B. Dorey / Journal of Hymenoptera Research