January 30, 2012

Landscapes for People, Food and Nature: Introducing our Blog

Photo credit: Nathan Dappen By Dr. Sara J. Scherr, President
EcoAgriculture Partners, Washington, DC, USA

I worked for 25 years as an agricultural economist in tropical rainforests and hillsides, studying sustainable agricultural development in what were then called “marginal lands” for farming. I was answering questions like: “can farming be sustainable here?” and “given their importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, would these lands be better left in natural forest or grassland?”  My view of the world changed abruptly in 2000, when I collaborated with two geographers to map and analyze the global extent of agricultural land, using remote sensing data. I was stunned to see that many of the most important habitats for wild biodiversity, watersheds, forest products, bio-energy, and stores of carbon (from vegetation and soils) were located in agricultural lands—not just those “marginal lands” but in the world’s main breadbaskets and rice bowls. Moreover, these maps showed that most of the world’s agricultural land—if not most of the production—was in mosaics of farmland and natural areas.

The question morphed to: How can we manage our farms and farming landscapes not just to supply food for 9 billion people over the next few decades, but do so in ways that also secure our water needs, conserve biodiversity, manage climate change, and sustain rural livelihoods?  In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, EcoAgriculture Partners was established to address this rather different question.

We have found that an integrated agricultural landscape strategy acknowledges the diverse demands on our lands, and the limitations of narrow sectoral approaches.  What are the key elements of such a strategy?

  • Agricultural practices that have positive impacts on ecosystem services;
  • Ecosystem management strategies that encompass the role of farmlands as well as natural areas;
  • Social and cultural norms and institutions supporting sustainable food systems;
  • Markets and policies that make these systems financially viable and sustainable;
  • Governance systems that enable the diverse stakeholders in the products and services of our land base to define, negotiate, and implement a coherent vision.

Action is needed at all scales, from farm fields and forest patches to international policy. But the landscape is the scale where the interfaces of multiple demands on land and resources must be negotiated and managed. Foresters and conservationists are accustomed to thinking in terms of landscapes, but typically in relation to the forests and protected areas under their direct control. Farmers and agricultural businesses think more in terms of farms, fields, and supply chains. Thus it can be a struggle to collaborate in complex, multi-use landscape mosaics. [See Landscape Measures Resource Center]

But what creativity is resulting!  All over the world, innovative leaders are collaborating across sectors and across social groups to address landscape-level challenges and opportunities.  Farmers and farming communities are acting collectively to make their landscapes more productive and conserve ecosystems critical to their livelihoods. Indigenous peoples are managing their territories to ensure food supplies and protect their natural patrimony. Non-governmental organizations and governments are partnering with farmers to restore degraded landscapes, develop wildlife corridors, manage critical watersheds, and more recently to make agricultural landscapes more resilient to climate change.  Market actors are embracing eco-standards for agricultural products that contribute to sustainable landscapes, and developing programs to reward farmers and farming communities for stewardship of ecosystem services in their croplands, forests, rangelands and wetlands. New models of territorial development and urban-rural foodsheds are seeking ways to link agriculture and ecosystem management within broader strategies for social and economic development.

But these innovative initiatives don’t yet fit comfortably into mainstream policies and institutions. To support the practice of integrated agricultural landscapes, in November 2011 EcoAgriculture Partners launched the 3-year Landscapes for People, Food, and Nature Initiative  with eight other international co-organizers to foster cross-sectoral knowledge sharing, dialogue, and action. The Initiative will advance viable pathways for sustainable development in places where food production, ecosystem health, and human wellbeing must be achieved simultaneously.

We hope this new Blog will generate momentum for the Initiative and build a dynamic community around these landscapes. Featuring work done by the co-organizers, advisors, landscape leaders, and other innovators, it will provide a space to showcase specific landscapes, present updates on policy and research developments, and mobilize action. We encourage your active engagement and welcome comments to individual posts in order to stimulate a wide-ranging discussion and debate around the topics presented through the blog.

Further Reading
Scherr, S.J. and J.A. McNeely, eds. 2007. Farming with Nature: The Science and Practice of Ecoagriculture. Island Press; Washington, DC.

Wood, S, K. Sebastian and S. Scherr. 2000. Pilot analysis of global ecosystems: agroecosystems. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

More In in Staying Current


  • Daniel Bornstein
    February 1, 2012 at 11:33pm

    Thanks for this post, Dr. Scherr. I look forward to meeting you in Nairobi (I’m the Dartmouth student who’s been talking with Erik Nielsen). I think one of the goals of Ecoagriculture Partners’ effort should be to highlight the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. I was recently at a conference where Hans Herren presented the findings, but it seems that very few people are aware of its conclusions!

  • bronwen evans
    January 31, 2012 at 5:03am

    Living in Thailand that makes a lot of sense to me as we are integrating food production (organic of course!) with nature conservation.

  • Sandro Cafolla
    January 30, 2012 at 6:45pm

    Great idea, good luck with the launch

    As you say the question is:
    How can we manage our farms and farming landscapes not just to supply food for 9 billion people over the next few decades, but do so in ways that also secure our water needs, conserve biodiversity, manage climate change, and sustain rural livelihoods?
    like it or not molecular science will probably end up, ‘looking to nature’ to copy the most sustainable natural “design” / make up of natural organisms, if there gone, via extinction, what may be lost?
    Working with nature, involves all of us, in all walks of life, I think, if we approached it correctly and insured every agricultural/nature produce worker was fairly rewarded for work, from Education and health, from community to equal rights to opportunities, that we would incentivize workers to be able to feed 30 billion people. Not that we are lazy now, just our working terms and conditions don’t give insentives to production. Take rich farmers, never mind poverty stricken ones, rich farmers drive up and down a lot, head wrecking stuff. industrialised fields are boring, oh yea, some see every corn seed as a dime or dollar, but I know to many farmers who love the life but hate the system that agri-business has locked them into.
    In Ireland there is a plan for the year 2020, to increase agri- production by 50% from less land.
    This will require older farmers to leave the business and younger farmers to take bigger bank loans for more land (EU grant aided) and the aim will be to squeeze them between the inevitable rise in interest rates and lower prices. YuK..

    Sustainable production within local communities and between import / export can be achieved, if land/marine communities start to see themselves for what they are, and urban and financial communities fully realise the natural model that a city is, like a tree or forest, it centralizes production from feeder roots which until the tree is established the feed root rural economy must bear the total growth of the city. From mining to energy, from water to nutrient recycling, the lot.
    Its pay back time, for thousands of years rural workers have supported cities. its only now we are even considering replenishing soil from urban wastes, simple things for urbanites to do, like producing waste acceptable to put back on the soil, and not toxic, will go along way. but really a mind change has to happen.
    Consider this, every company tells the consumer via branding, how they produce stuff, how clean, or good for you. does any company withdraw there products to consumers who don’t do there bit?? the consumer may be KING, but I live in a republic, therefore the consumer and the producer are equal.
    We need good old solidarity, the protect all argi /nature workers, to provide real livelihoods, quality of life (not at the expense of others) and we need to encourage wildflowers, cos through beautiful things, the farmer being a lover and poet, gets inspired by Biodiversity, its essential to life, and the answer to your question is easy, we can manage our resources by sharing them equally amongst nations and peoples, rising all boats with the same tide of sustainability.
    without biodiversity and conservation, managed and unmanaged, even if all production is in climate controlled glasshouses, we must incentivise people, and I aint just talking financial…

  • Sara Scherr
    January 30, 2012 at 5:03pm

    Ed and Pat,

    Development of educational materials will be foundational for shifting policy and action, so thanks for sharing these resources. If there is anything you particularly want to learn about, or where you think the discourse has notable gaps, please let us know.


  • Pat Heslop-Harrison
    January 30, 2012 at 4:32pm

    Congratulations on starting this blog. We don’t have 6,000 students like Ed George, but next week have a new undergraduate course module starting at the University of Leicester, Biodiversity and Sustainability (BS2072 -http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/biology/undergrad/modules/2069 ). Our aims are to define and describe biodiversity at organismal and molecular levels, to explain why biodiversity is important, to learn why biodiversity is a resource that can be used and to describe threats to maintaining biodiversity. It looks like many of the issues to be discussed here will be very relevant!

  • Ed George
    January 30, 2012 at 12:46pm

    I’m from Nebraska and engaged in a soils project with 141 Nebraska Agriculture Educators (FFA)We’re working on soil education to 6,000 students about learning more about land/ soil, water/soil conservation, food production and land use responsibilities.