Ecoagriculture: Strategies to Feed the World and Save Wild Biodiversity

Ecoagriculture: Strategies to Feed the World and Save Wild Biodiversity

Haning, Blanche C

Ecoagriculture: Strategies to Feed the World and Save Wild Biodiversity, by Jeffrey A. McNeely and Sara J. Scherr, Island Press, 2003, 279 pages, hardcover $55.00; paperback, $27.50.

This outstanding book, referred to here as Ecoagriculture, occupies a special niche as a primary text in this frontier realm of theoretical, scientific, and applicable information. Its major theme is the importance of maintaining biodiversity while increasing agricultural production, primarily in developing countries but, also, in the entire world. Author Jeffrey A. McNeely draws from his experience as chief scientist at The World Conservation Union in London, and as editor of Expanding Partnerships in Conservation. Co-author Sara J. Scherr is senior policy analyst at Forest Trends and an advisor to Future Harvest in Washington, D.C., positions from which she also draws vast experience. In Ecoagriculture, they address some of the world’s serious issues facing agriculturists, biological conservationists, and policy makers. They review relationships between land biodiversity and agriculture, as well as case studies that emphasize challenges for environmentalists, from interdisciplinary perspectives. For example, natural habitat destruction is defined both within the narrow spectrum of classical environmentalism and as a component of agricultural productivity.

The text is divided into three major sections. In Part I, McNeely and Scherr describe the challenges presented by agricultural intensification, rural poverty, and biodiversity. In Part II, they outline strategies that are needed to integrate biodiversity with agriculture development. In Part III, they explain strategies for modifying existing agricultural infrastructure for the express purpose of saving wild biodiversity.

In Part I, The Challenge: Agricultural Intensification, Rural Poverty, and Biodiversity, graphs and tables serve as appropriate supplements to the text, providing readers with a foundation for understanding the complexity and the various methodologies of agricultural production throughout the world. For example, tables are used to compare the economy, topography, and climate of various countries, and to correlate these parameters with the types of crops grown and production methods. An example is the authors’ treatment of the “slash-and-burn” technique in which, once the nutrient content of a particular plot of cultivated land is compromised, farmers simply migrate to a forested region and clear the trees to cultivate a new plot. Obviously, the economic unfeasibility of farmers’ curtailing use of this technique is problematic, as alternatives, including government subsidies, are not available. McNeeley and Scherr use a map (4.3), “Tree Cover in Agricultural Land” to show percent foliage cover on every continent, and thereby show the disastrous consequences of uncurtailed slash and burn. Graphs and tables offer quantitative support for concepts throughout the text, even after the foundations of understanding are established in Part I.

In Part II, The Opportunity: Integrating Biodiversity Conservation in Agricultural Development, the authors give examples of cooperative progress between practitioners of subsistence agriculture and industrial agriculture, and they describe associated effects on particular ecosystems. In chapter five, they explain the conception of the term “ecoagriculture” in detail, although they mention it briefly in the preface, as well. While there have been negative consequences of agricultural development, the progress made in ecological and agricultural research highlights that the two systems can coexist. The root of “ecoagriculture” lies in this coexistence.

Three strategies that enable this coexistence support the authors’ main theme. For each strategy, there are explanations and examples supported with case studies. One strategy deals with making space for wildlife in agricultural landscapes. Biodiversity reserves can benefit local farming communities, and habitat networks can be developed in non-farmed areas. Reductions in wild land conversion to agriculture can clearly be achieved with increases in farm productivity. A second strategy focuses on enhancing the habitat value of productive farmlands, and involves the poignant notion of increasing both wild biodiversity and agricultural production. The third strategy financial benefits for farmers, may provide the necessary impetus for reductions in use of the most inefficient techniques such as the “slash-and-burn” method, or widespread use of highly toxic pesticides, even fertilizers.

McNeely and Sherr conclude Ecoagriculture by illustrating policies that can promote agro-ecological practices in all areas of the world. They describe market incentives for ecoagricultural practices as niche markets including development of products derived from wild species, and for agro-ecotourism. They emphasize that public and private institutions can directly and indirectly support ecoagriculture by introducing these practices into the lives of mainstream society.

Novices, including students, will learn a great deal from this text that can be incorporated into numerous different courses and curricula: economics, demographics, sociology, political science, geography, anthropology, and other basic sciences beyond agriculture and ecology. Such incorporation is very feasible because McNeely and Scherer have written Ecoagriculture without the field-specific jargon that could have prevented this highly recommended text from serving as an introductory model for future insight and progress. Ecoagriculture is the handbook for this emerging practice that needs further research and implementation. The book’s structure and content suit traditional college courses, seminars, colloquia, and special assignments.

Blanche G. Haning

Department of Plant Pathology

North Carolina State University

(Jonathan Alexander, Michael R. Hogan, Kate A. Medl, and Jason E Smith who reviewed this text as their senior project in Senior Seminar in Biology)

Copyright North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Jun 2004

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