Making Agriculture Sustainable

Agriculture is possibly the most important sector of global activity. It is a source of foods, fibers and, increasingly, fuel. It provides livelihoods and subsistence for the largest number of people worldwide. It is vital to rural development and therefore critical to poverty alleviation. Up to 40% of the land’s surface is used for agriculture, along with 70% of the world’s fresh water supply. Today, agriculture accounts for 38.7% of total global employment.

Population growth and increasing affluence in some countries are increasing demand for food and changing the types of food in demand — from grain to meat, for example, a change that requires more farmland. More land is being used to grow fuel crops, and climate change and water scarcity are compromising the ability of agricultural lands to deliver quality produce.

The last 150 years have witnessed large-scale conversion of land to make way for agricultural and other activities. Land-use change has both positive and negative impacts on biodiversity. Making land productive often helps to attract greater biodiversity, while conversion of land for agro-forestry also encourages greater levels of biodiversity.

Farming needs biodiversity and healthy ecosystems: for pollination, the creation of genetically diverse plant and crop species, the development of robust, insectresistant strains, crop protection and watershed control.

Thus biodiversity loss hurts business. Farming and its downstream value chain — food, biochemistry, and the pharmaceutical and textile industries — are particularly vulnerable. They face diminishing supplies or rising costs of key resources and inputs, such as raw materials and water.

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The major challenge today therefore is to secure and increase agricultural yield while at the same time conserving biodiversity, ecosystems and resources, as well as maintaining a healthy base for those who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. In other words, balancing agricultural needs with those of ecosystems and biodiversity to ensure both are able to deliver their services in a sustainable manner.

The key to achieving this lies in the implementation of sustainable agriculture. This more holistic and systemic approach integrates the three pillars of sustainability: profitability, environmental protection and social equity. It includes the premise that agriculture needs to be managed while supporting biodiversity and ecosystem health. The agricultural sector possesses a wealth of biodiversity-relevant knowledge and therefore has tremendous scope for effective management of ecosystems and biodiversity resources. Agricultural producers and consumers should act as stewards of ecosystems and biodiversity.

During WBCSD meetings in Brussels in October, members of the WBCSD Ecosystem Focus Area met for the first time to discuss their work program. Given the importance of agriculture and the enormity of the challenges it faces, members of the Focus Area Core Team decided to adopt agriculture as one of their key workstreams, collaborating with agricultural partners from member companies and partner organizations toward achieving sustainable agriculture.

As both an agricultural producer and consumer, business has a vital role to play in achieving sustainability. Business, particularly those companies in the bio-crop and agricultural sectors, can deliver technology for improved agricultural yields.

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