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Food and sustainability

Anthony Pope: the future of agriculture is conservation

To reach the goal of agriculture which will ensure food for all in the coming years while protecting the environment, we need to drastically change current production systems. Conservation agriculture may be a solution.

Anthony Pope, conservation agriculture expert and consultant, is convinced: to face the challenges which arise from an increase in the earth’s population and from environmental and climate change, we must begin with agriculture. At BCFN’s International Forum on Food and Nutrition, held in Milan in December 2016, Pope explained what exactly conservation agriculture is and why it’s so important for the future of global food production.

Is it truly necessary to change the current agricultural production system?
The data speaks for itself: by 2050 the world’s population will reach 9 billion people and to feed them all we must increase food production by nearly 70%. It’s inconceivable that we reach these goals with our current agricultural systems. A more sustainable agricultural system which cares for and respects the land and water supply is obligatory – otherwise it will be the environment to pay the price of unrestrained exploitation.

Where can - and must - these changes in agriculture begin?
Working as a consultant to the FAO in different countries throughout the world, I had the chance to see many forms of agriculture: a few disasters, but also systems which truly work and benefit people and the environment. Today I fully believe that everything must begin with the soil: the soil is the platform upon which our future is based, and if we don’t start protecting it (improving organic matter and the biota, that is, the totality of microorganisms which populate it, improving cultivation systems for increased sustainability), we won’t have the food which we need.

Is that conservation agriculture? A system that takes care of the soil?
Seriously taking care of the soil is the first step for the wellbeing of this and future generations. Conservation agriculture is that, but it’s also so much more. It’s a practice founded on a few simple, interconnected principles. First, the minimal or entire lack of changes to the soil, to maintain the structure of the land and to preserve organic material and the presence of organisms which contribute to the compactness of the soil. The second involves providing for permanent soil cover, even what’s left over from production, so as to protect the land and discourage the risk of proliferation of invasive weeds.
The third and most essential principle is the diversification of crops through rotations or associations of different plants.

What are the advantages deriving from this type of approach to agriculture?
If used in the context of integrated management and production, conservation agriculture can improve the productivity, profit and safety of food, while protecting and supporting the environment. Conservation agriculture also has the ability to reduce many variable production costs; it can reduce soil consumption while increasing average productivity and save the land’s water resources and its structure (less erosion, an improvement in the quality of water and air, and clumps of earth, according to the FAO).
I firmly believe that this type of agriculture offers us the ability to achieve true sustainability and that events like the Forum are a good point of departure to make it known and to encourage farmers to produce food in the right way.
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