Agriculture generally suffers from an image problem. It is seen as an outdated, conservative and unprofitable profession that has trouble attracting young people. Urban populations point a finger at agriculture as a source of pollution. The truth of the matter is that agriuclture is the linchpin in addressing the global sustainability issues facing our global society today. Achieving sustainable agriculture and all the positive knock-on effects that entails will require a concerted effort and should interest all of us, even city dwellers.
Putting agriculture in context — WEHAB
The agenda leading up to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development was cluttered, to say the least. In order to impose some order on the laundry list of themes, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested using a framework called “WEHAB” to focus the work.
W – Water & sanitation
E – Energy
H – Health & the environment
A – Agriculture
B – Biodiversity & Exosystem management
These 5 points form a nexus of interactions. The diagram below shows some of the ways that agriculture interacts with the four other subjects.
I like the WEHAB concept for its clarity. However, I do find the analysis in this diagram to be incomplete. For example, it fails to mention the critical role of agriculture in water conservation (“more crop per drop”), the role of enhanced nutrition in preventing disease or the need to maintain (and even increase) crop output per unit of land to prevent encroachment on non-agricultural habitats. This last point is critical as the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity opens. Agriculture is by definition a managed landscape. It’s not “natural”. But that doesn’t mean it cannot work in cooperation with nature.
It also means that people need to work in cooperation to address the specific sustainability issues that are relevant in a specfic location, especially where there is potential for conflict between agriculture and other activities. Water, for example, can be a significant point of contention in many places. An excellent example of how seemingly divergent interests can work together can be found in Landcare. Begun in Australia in 1986 and now active in more than 15 countries, Landcare is based on a community-based approach to addressing sustainability issues because at the end of the day, only people working with other people can make the adjustments needed to produce sufficient quantitites of the agricultural goods we need sustainably.
Which brings us back to the most glaring omission in the diagram: social and economic impacts. Farmer livelihoods are not included, nor are the prospects for developing off-farm jobs created by farm activity. People have to be at the middle of the nexus or sustainability will never be achieved.