The Organic advantage through the lenses of the Eco-Index – Land Use Intensity
Over the past month we have been examining the advantage of organic cotton agriculture through the lenses of the Eco-Index. At the end of the month we will be producing a small booklet consolidating the highlights from this blog series which will be available for free download to our members.
Today we are going to look at Land Use Intensity. Perhaps the curliest of the Eco-Index lenses. From most angles, the other lenses; Toxics, Water, Energy, Waste, Biodiversity, it is easy to understand the environmental objective. It’s also fairly straight forward to see the inter-connectivity between each theme (lens) since each builds on or overlaps the other. For example, Toxics generate Waste which impacts on Biodiversity. Land Use Intensity, on the other hand, is arguably at odds with elements of sustainability, yet undeniably a necessary consideration for the textile industry and the massive need the industry currently has for raw materials.
In this extensive blog, I’ve attempted to bring to you some of the academic research and definitions of Land Use Intensity and how to calculate it; along with some of the complexities and challenges for the industry of measuring Land Use Intensity from a more holistic sustainability perspective. The conventional assumption is that Intensification means more inputs of chemicals, energy, and machinery. I’m going to challenge that by introducing the concept of Eco-Functional Intensification - achieving a higher degree of organization per land unit, making knowledge and eco-functionality the resources we intensify. Thereby, keeping Land Use Intensity in harmony with the rest of the Eco-Index.
Let’s start by looking at what the Eco-Index Working Group says about the subject and its relevance to the indutry.
Eco-Index: Land Use Intensity The intent of this lens is to recognize that there is an increasing demand on use of land to create feedstock, and to some degree the manufacturing of materials and finished products.
How is Land Use Intensity in agriculture defined?
Land Use Intensity in agriculture is basically related to the inputs and outputs from a given area of land. One argument for intensifying land use (i.e. increasing the amount of inputs) is the objective of increasing outputs (yields) without increasing the amount of land under production.
Land Use Intensity in cropland areas is related to the degree in which the cultivation of the land is mechanized, the application or not of fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of water for irrigation (EU Desire Project). In the paper prepared by Lambin et al from the University of Louvain (Belgium) in 2000, the authors describe Land Use Intensification in conventional agriculture to mean using a higher input of nutrient elements and of pesticides per land unit, more energy (direct for machinery and indirectly for inputs produced off-farm). It also focuses on better exploiting the genetic variability of plants and animals; to do so, all available breeding techniques, including genetic engineering, are used.
How is Land Use Intensity modelled and measured?
Lambin et al, and Dietrich et al, at the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Central & Eastern Europe (Germany) explain in their respective papers, that Land Use Intensity is usually measured in terms of output per unit of land or, as a surrogate, input variables against constant land area. Input intensification measures the increases in input variables, e.g., chemical fertiliser, pesticides, etc., and can be distinguished from output intensification, which measures the increases in production against land area and time, e.g., food-tonnes or number of calories per hectare per year. In an input-oriented approach the amount of inputs is measured and weighted with their assumed increase in production or single input characteristics are used as a surrogate, for instance cultivation frequency (Dietrich).
For the cotton industry output intensification would equate to the yield which is either measured in seed cotton or fiber (kg) per ha per season (ICAC cotton harvest year August 1st – July 31st). However, if we were to use input intensification (in the conventional sense) as a measure of Land Use Intensity, the indicators i.e. amount of energy, water, chemicals, etc, would paint a considerably less sustainable picture for the industry (than output intensity) and be inconsistent with the goals of the Eco-Index.
The organic advantage The opportunity to draw on the objectives of organic advantage in terms of Land Use Intensity, are immense and wide ranging; potentially, enabling the industry to deepen the understanding of the term for the Eco-Index.
- First, organic cotton agriculture aims to maximise yields through reducing the use of manufactured and synthetic conventional inputs. This is by far more consistent with the aims of the Eco-Index, and the sustainable land use agenda in general.
- Second, many studies (e.g. by IFOAM, FAO, FiBL, Louis Bolk Institute, Rodale Institute), plus our own farm and fiber research into yields suggest that well-established, experienced, and well-resourced organic cotton farmers achieve yield parity with their conventional farming colleagues – arguably achieving longer-term soil fertility and soil structure.
- Third, and this is a rather more complex sustainability scenario, but from a cotton farmers perspective sustainable land use intensification could be best represented by an increase in his or her household security. Household security would include for instance food crops (number of varieties and yield), cash crops (income and yield), and long term adaptation to climate change, as well as the obvious cotton crop yields/area/time. Admittedly, the benefits of Land Use Intensity measured from this angle might be most appropriate in developing countries. But remember, a large amount of our cotton is grown in developing countries. Developing countries account for over 70 percent of the global area under cotton. There are approximately 20 million cotton farmers globally (and I think this is quite conservative), 97 percent of whom farm in developing countries. (Chaudhry, International Cotton Advisory Committee, 2001).
Land Use Intensity and output/yields of conventional and organic agriculture
I don’t want to go into a deep and argumentative monologue on conventional vs organic yield. Suffice to say it depends largely on good seed, geography, climate, access to water, soil conditions, support services, and knowledge of good agricultural practices. The most recent research on this subject that I have found, prepared by Seufert et al and published in Nature in May 2012 was based on a meta-analysis examining the relative yield performance of organic and conventional farming systems globally (note: cotton was not specifically mentioned). Research findings were: (1) Organic farming is deemed less environmentally damaging than non-organic systems, but it may require more land to produce the same amount of food. (2) Although organic yields are lower on average, they are almost equivalent to conventional yields for some crop types and when good organic management practices are used.
In our most recent research, we found that organic cotton yields are comparable (or higher) when comparing cropping under similar conditions. It’s probably right to say that cotton grown under high input conditions (including intense use of fertilisers, pesticides, and water) will yield high but potentially at the expense of the environment in the long run – and certainly at the expense of the farmer’s wallet. Under rainfed conditions, organic performs well, and farming systems are proven more likely to withstand sub-optimal weather events such as periods of low or high rainfall.
It’s also worth mentioning briefly that a considerable amount of organic cotton is produced within marginal growing zones, within socially orientated ‘projects’ often supported by NGOs or other development-minded organisations, to improve the lives of isolated farming communities. In marginal growing zones, farmers are not going to achieve great yields but potentially they will achieve better yields under organic production ‘by design’ than by organic or near organic ‘by default’.
Land Use Intensity and GMOs One of the big arguments by advocators of genetic engineering is that the use of GMOs will intensify production – thereby allowing more land to be used for other purposes. This is a very big and controversial subject, with many differences in opinion not only about the ability of GMOs to achieve higher yields in the long run, but also about the suitability of GMO (high input) farming in developing countries and indeed whether intensifying production systems is the best use of land, and ultimately whether it is ‘sustainable’.
Agricultural Land Use and Ecological Impact
In the Dietrich paper, a simple and logical explanation of agricultural land use/land management is offered. The authors say... A piece of land, irrespective of its size, is characterized by a particular use. This use is associated with a given type of management which is dictated mainly by climate and changes because of environmental, social, economic, technological and political factors. Depending on the particular type of management or land use intensity, land resources are subject to a given degree of stress.
Lambin et al believe land-use (and land-cover) change, to be one of the main driving forces of global environmental change, thus it is central to the sustainable development debate. Land use and land-cover changes have impacts on a wide range of environmental and landscape attributes including the quality of water, land and air resources, ecosystem processes and function, and the climate system itself through greenhouse gas fluxes and surface albedo (reflection) effects (Lambin et al). Further, several studies show a correlation between agricultural land-use intensities and decreases in species diversity (Dietrich et al).
Another way of looking at it - Eco-Functional Intensification
The concept of Eco-Functional Intensification is another way of looking at intensifying sustainable agriculture.
Niggli et al, authors of the Vision for an Organic Food and Farming Research Agenda to 2025, explain that Eco-Functional Intensification means activating more knowledge and achieving a higher degree of organization per land unit. It uses the self-regulating mechanisms of organisms and of biological or organizational systems in a highly intensive way. It closes materials cycles in order to minimize losses (e.g. compost and manure). It searches for the best match between environmental variation and the genetic variability of plants and crops. Knowledge is the key characteristic of eco-functional intensification.
It offers a huge opportunity to produce more food [and fiber] without compromising the quality of the environment, the quality of foods, or the life quality of farmers and the welfare of farm animals. Finally, eco-functionally intensified production systems are more resilient and highly adaptive to the unpredictability of climate change scenarios (TP Organics, Vision 2025, Organic Knowledge for the Future, see page 33-34).
Powered By Nature - The IFOAM Biodiversity & Eco-Intensification Campaign
IFOAM explain in their Powered By Nature campaign how, as an ecosystem-based sustainable production system, organic agriculture relies on the utilization of biodiversity and the optimal utilization of ecosystem services. The use of these services is the key to success. To maximize multi-functional benefits organic agriculture utilizes ecological rather than chemical intensification. Ecological intensification optimizes the performance of ecosystem services. These services include pest and disease regulation, water holding and drainage, soil building, soil biology and fertility, nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, photosynthesis and carbon sequestration, multiple agricultural crop and animal species, pollination and others.
IFOAM is developing a new publication in conjunction with partners that better describes and codifies eco-intensification. This will be an essential internal and external advocacy tool that will assist the uptake of farming practices that optimize the utilization, enhancement and protection of ecosystem services (including carbon sequestration and food production) and the quantity and quality of natural and agro-biodiversity (IFOAM).
Final note - Sustainable land management
A recent literature review of different sustainable land management practices was commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The review aimed at assessing the success of different land management practices in increasing and stabilizing crop productivity in developing countries. The findings supported the view that soil and climate characteristics are key to interpreting the impact on crop yields and mitigation of different agricultural practices and that the technology options most promising for enhancing food security at smallholder level are also effective for increasing system resilience in dry areas and mitigating climate change in humid areas. Since it sums up my ambition to wider the debate on Land Use Intensity models quite nicely, I will leave you with the summary of the review...
To secure and maintain food security, agricultural systems need to be transformed to increase the productive capacity and stability of smallholder agricultural production. However, there is a question of which technologies and practices are most appropriate to reach this objective, and considerable discussion about the inadequacy of the dominant model used for intensification so far—relying on increased use of capital inputs such a fertilizer and pesticides. Generation of unacceptable levels of environmental damage and problems of economic feasibility are cited as key problems with this model (Tillman et al. 2002; IAASTD 2009; FAO 2010a). Greater attention is thus being given to alternative means of intensification, particularly the adoption of sustainable land management (SLM) technologies. Key benefits of these technologies are increasing food production without further depleting soil and water resources (World Bank 2006), restoring soil fertility (IFAD 2011; Lal 1997), increasing the resilience of farming systems to climatic risk, and improving their capacity to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change (FAO 2009; FAO 2010c) (taken from Climate-Smart Agriculture: A Synthesis of Empirical Evidence of Food Security and Mitigation Benefits from Improved Cropland Management FAO).
Next we take a look at integrating social issues into the Eco-Index.
Dietrich, et al, Measuring Agricultural Land Use Intensity, IAMO, Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Central & Eastern Europe (Germany), 2010 http://www.iamo.de/fileadmin/veranstaltungen/hawepa10/Dietrich_et.al._Hawepa_2010.pdf
DIS4ME (Desertification Indicator System for Mediterranean Europe) http://www.unibas.it/desertnet/dis4me/indicator_descriptions/land_use_intensity.htm
EU Desire project; Land Use Intensity Indicators (for fragile arid and semi-arid ecosystems) http://www.desire-his.eu/wimba/WP2.1%20Indicators%20in%20the%20study%20sites%20(Report%2066%20D211%20Mar10)/page_66.htm
Branca et al, for the FAO (Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), Climate-Smart Agriculture: A Synthesis of Empirical Evidence of Food Security and Mitigation Benefits from Improved Cropland Management, 2011 http://www.fao.org/docrep/015/i2574e/i2574e00.pdf
IFOAM - Powered By Nature - The IFOAM Biodiversity & Eco-Intensification Campaign http://www.ifoam.org/partners/advocacy/Biodiversity_Campaign.html#Overview%20of%20Eco-Intensification%20Campaign%20Activities
Lambin et al, Are agricultural land use models able to predict changes in land use intensity? Agriculture, Ecosystems, & Environment, Elsesvier, 2005 http://elmu.umm.ac.id/file.php/1/jurnal/A/Agriculture,%20Ecosystems%20and%20Environment/Vol82.Issue1-3.Dec2000/1653.pdf
Nature, 10 May 2012, Vol. 485, page 229-233 Summary of the Letter can be found online here (and information on how to purchase the full article) http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/nature11069.html Further information on John Reganold’s commentary: Comparing apples with oranges can be found here http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v485/n7397/full/485176a.html
Technology Platforms ‘Organics’; Vision for an Organic Food and Farming Research Agenda to 2025: Organic Knowledge for the Future, 2008 http://www.tporganics.eu/upload/TPOrganics_VisionResearchAgenda.pdf
Textile Exchange, Farm & Fiber Report 2010-11 http://farmhub.textileexchange.org/farm-library/farm-fiber-reports