Leah Bevis is a PhD candidate at Cornell’s Dyson School, currently on the job market. Sylvia Wood is a postdoctoral fellow with Bioversity International. Both were members of the Junior Researcher Task Force at the 2nd International Conference on Global Food Security following theme 5.
As the human population continues to expand, societies at every geographic scale must balance competing needs for land and water resources to produce food, conserve wildlife and biodiversity, maintain ecosystem services, and to support rural and/or urban livelihoods. Yet, in a world increasingly interconnected by trade, these trade-offs may appear not only across time but also across space. Policy-makers seeking to maximize human welfare must consider both the local and global repercussions of terrestrial and aquatic resource use. Within the 5th theme of the 2nd International Conference on Global Food Security, researchers explored a number of trade-offs at various scales.
A paper presented by Alexander Prishchepov and colleagues explored the local and global implications of massive land abandonment after the collapse of the USSR. In current day Kazakhstan, over 22 million hectares of land were placed under agriculture during the Soviet Virgin Lands Campaign to achieve self-sufficiency in national food production, only to have much of it later abandoned with the collapse of the USSR. These abandoned lands in Kazakhstan are now considered a massive carbon sink — they hold 255Mt of carbon sequestered since 1990. (This type of sequestration has also been observed in a few other post-Soviet union countries.) However plans are afoot to bring the best, but most carbon-rich, lands back under production to meet local and global cereal demand. Already 6 million hectares have been re-plowed, releasing 50 Mt of sequestered carbon. This has sparked a heated debate on whether agriculture re-expansion into these lands for local food security or protection of an important global carbon sink is most appropriate strategy in this region.
Florian Schierhorn explains, in a related presentation, that in other parts of the former USSR, widespread land abandonment resulted in the collapse of the livestock sector, largely displacing meat production to the far-away Brazilian Amazon. In 2014, 64% of Brazil’s meat export was destined for the Russian market. Although the land abandonment led to 4.15 million hectares of new forests growing in western Russia (which has so far sequestered 440 Mt of carbon!), Russia has become the largest importer of CO2 emissions embodied in Brazilian beef from the deforestation of carbon-rich tropical forests. These trans-oceanic linkages and unexpected environmental trade-offs, combined with potential questions of food sovereignty in Russia and the economic role of beef export in Brazil, play into a complex, multi-scale, multi-nation equation of costs and benefits. It is unlikely that any one policy-maker will have the political and algebraic tools to solve for all elements at once, leaving the question: how do we maximize global welfare when externalities, trade-offs, or even “win-win” situations fall across government boundaries?
Similar examples of resource trade-offs abounded within the papers presented at the conference—from rubber plantations replacing cropland in China and their environmental effects on local communities (G. Cadisch and co-authors), to moving beyond simple yield-biodiversity trade-offs in agrarian landscapes to consider socio-economic impacts of land use change on people and communities (Bronwen Powell and colleagues). Although many trade-offs remained unresolved, one paper offered a hopeful message regarding win-win scenarios for resource use. Matt Herring and co-authors note that rice fields in Australia, sometimes criticized for their heavy use of water in a primarily desert country, offer human-built wetland for birds, including endangered birds such as the Australian Bittern. It turns out that this happy nexus of rice and birds has been noted elsewhere too—in California for instance, where the US federal government pays $45 an acre for “bird-friendly” rice farming practices. The question remains: how can such payments incentivize win-win situations in other contexts, where positive and negative externalities fall further apart over space and time and governmental structures?
As economies become more interconnected via trade, human migration and foreign investment, the resource dynamics between countries and sectors are increasingly intertwined. In rare instances this may create a sweet spot, win-win situations where food security, biodiversity, economic needs, and/or ecological sustainability may be maximized simultaneously. In other instances—perhaps the majority of instances—we shall find our objectives at odds with one another. By finding ways to align political, social, and economic incentives, perhaps we can foster more of the former.