Feeding the World – And Saving It

Mark R. Tercek; President and Chief Executive Officer of The Nature Conservancy, photographed at the Conservancy's Worldwide headquarters in Arlington, Virginia (August 17th, 2011).

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organization. He is the author of “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature,” released this summer in paperback. Before joining the Nature Conservancy in 2008, he was a Partner and Managing Director of Goldman Sachs where he worked for 24 years. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek.

Mark R. Tercek
The Nature Conservancy

As the world’s population quickly approaches 9 billion people, the pressure on both natural areas and agricultural lands will be more and more intense. It has never been more important for conservation and agriculture to work together. And these two fields are less at odds than some might think.

Environmental organizations, agribusiness companies, farmers, governments and consumers now face the need to determine how they all might work best together as we pursue both more output and better environmental outcomes from agriculture. Such blurring of roles can make people uncomfortable.  Nevertheless, big challenges like this one require bold thinking and courageous action.

The role of agriculture in feeding the world, and saving it, has never been clearer.  At the risk of oversimplifying, if agriculture does not effectively increase productivity, farmers will spill into nature reserves and national parks to find their land. If conservation does not protect watersheds and forests, farms will suffer from more destructive floods and more prolonged droughts.  If conservation fails to protect habitat for pollinators and natural pest controls, yields will fall.

Food companies also must account for environmental services in agriculture, especially those provided by soil and water. If these companies pursue higher yields without considering these essential resources, then they will run out of both. Agribusinesses can mine soils for several years by adding more fertilizer but doing so will eventually impoverish both the ecosystem and the farmers.

Already we see a broad consensus on the nature and urgency of the challenge: the world’s food supply must double by 2050, not just to feed all people on the planet, but also to support the more resource-intensive, protein-rich diets of an expanding middle class. Over a few short decades, agriculture must find ways to use less habitat; to use water more efficiently; and to manage land, soil, and water in ways that strengthen rather than degrade the environmental services they provide.

Yet in a time of shrinking budgets for many governments, in too many places public funding for agricultural research and extension is declining. In Latin America, for example, for every $100 in agricultural goods produced, only $1.10 is invested in agricultural research. This trend is disturbing. We should invest in solutions, even when public funding is tight.

That’s where innovative collaborations come in. For example, my organization, the Nature Conservancy, is proud to partner with the Inter-American Development Bank and leading agribusiness companies on AgroLAC 2025, a new funding platform to support sustainable agricultural practices in Latin America. The partnership’s goals include improving land use planning, getting new skills and technologies into the hands of farmers, linking producers to sustainable markets, and balancing conservation with development at a scale that matters. We are excited about the opportunity to ensure that Latin America realizes its full potential to help the world meet global food demand in a sustainable way.

Businesses must think of the bottom line more imaginatively, with a focus on long-term results. Conservationists must work with the agriculture industry to intensify food production safely, to minimize the further conversion of land, and to lessen the impact of intensified agriculture on nearby wildlife and natural habitat. Governments must make policies and investments to protect the natural systems that the earth’s 7 billion people rely on for their health and well-being.

Visionary leadership is needed today more than ever.  That’s why the Nature Conservancy is collaborating with the Latin America Conservation Council (www.nature.org/lacc) to catalyze visionary actions that take sustainable solutions to scale. We’re pleased to count IDB President Moreno as a member of this impressive group of leaders and applaud his efforts to promote the LACC’s ambitious goal to double food production in Latin America with no new habitat loss.

Accordingly, public-private partnerships like AgroLAC 2025 will be key to developing a smarter world food system that meets increasing demands without degrading the natural systems on which we all depend.