“Buy land, my son. They don’t make it anymore!” was the advice one farmer, whom I met some years ago, was given by his father. The man inherited a big farm right on the outskirts of a fast-developing city. The laws that stipulate the land use in that region dictate that, in order to remain under his farm’s management, the land must be given some economic use. Facing the threat of losing a considerable portion of the land that had no use for his farm’s agricultural activities, the man came up with another solution. He turned it into a golf course.
He had never played it nor has any interest in becoming a golf player. Thanks to his wits, this land will not be turned into another residential area (during his lifetime). More importantly, this large area of land is now used to support biodiversity and capture carbon dioxide.
Multi-functionality is a crucial aspect that has often been ignored in monoculture-oriented industrialized agriculture. It is particularly relevant for the SDG15 since agriculture stands for approximately 40% of global land use (FAO). In the past century, higher crop production was achieved by the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. These have improved agricultural efficiency; however, such practice’s externalities have for too long been ignored, leaving behind soil and aquatic degradation and further endangered the functioning of entire eco-systems.
Providing food remains one of the fundamental purposes of land use. But continuing with the practices exploited during the Green Revolution has proven to be unsustainable. While it is very challenging, promoting policies and governance that favor the scaling up practices that are proving to give results should be one of our primary collective efforts. From regenerative and perennial agriculture to tree intercropping, multistrata agroforestry, and hydroponic farming, there are many effective ways to grow food, while keeping the planetary boundaries within the safe operating space for humanity.
Eco-systems function as living machines, and the loss of a single component can lead to the entire system’s collapse. By reducing wildlife habitat we force species to move and this way increase the interactions that can lead to pandemics. For this reason, ensuring biodiversity must be the focus of any future land use planning. Multi-functionality in that sense is the right way forward because it provides greater system resilience by integrating biodiversity.
Just one example to emphasize its importance. Today we know medical properties for approximately 5-8% of known plants. The remaining immense majority still keeps secrets that can provide cure for many known and unknown diseases. Therefore, the loss of a single species can lead to irreversible negative consequences. And that is only an example from the medicinal use of plants. So much of our existence is intrinsically related to all other living species, and before cataloging them as ‘useless’, we should always remember that ‘We don’t know what we don’t know’.
The example of the farmer from the beginning of this text is among millions and millions of people committed to land preservation and conservation. On his farm, food is produced through organic practices. He uses no synthetic fertilizers, and the windmill provides the energy. However, from the SDG15: Life on land perspective, it is even more important that he decided to leave a large portion of land un-tilled.
While the soil is not being tiled and exposed to air by plowing, at the same time, on the golf course, instead of using machinery, he keeps sheep for cutting grass and beehives to produce honey. Grazing strengthens the plant roots while biodiversity is fomented through bee pollination. However, perhaps the greatest contribution comes through no-tillage, bringing the carbon back into the soil. And to get the idea of how vital this type of practices are for reaching the decarbonization goals, it helps to be reminded that:
“NO OTHER MECHANISM KNOWN TO HUMANKIND IS AS EFFECTIVE IN ADDRESSING GLOBAL WARMING AS CAPTURING CARBON DIOXIDE FROM THE AIR THROUGH PHOTOSYNTHESIS.” (Drawdown)
By no means am I saying that we need more golf courses. This was just one (rather creative) example of keeping land safe from more construction and industrial agriculture.
Favoring land-use practices that are more respectful of natural cycles leads to greater biodiversity which assures stronger eco-system resilience. At the same time, leaving carbon dioxide sequestration to photosynthesis is the most effective carbon capture and storage mechanism available. The only obstacle standing in the way of making these practices dominant is the current economic cost efficiency. Many of these practices take time to develop into full-scale operations and often require state subsidies. If only the short-term gains were to be considered, the ‘business of usual’ would remain the best viable option. But when the enormous amounts of subsidies that keep the ‘business as usual’ profitable are considered, it sounds suicidal to ignore the opportunities that the new paths open up for us. After all, ‘Only the fool confuses value and price,’ as great Francisco de Quevedo once wrote.