AED: Agriculture, Environment, Development

What are the relationships between agriculture, the environment and development? What should be the relationships between agriculture, the environment and development? Development thinking has, for a long time, focused almost solely on economics. GDP per capita has been the standard measure of how developed a country is. Agriculture has been heavily influenced by this thinking, with the expansion of industrial agriculture owned by transnational corporations. This can increase agricultural productivity in the short term, but can also have negative environmental consequences, and negative effects on local populations. Recently there has been a movement towards taking into account environmental and social consequences in development thinking that are not necessarily connected to economic indicators.

The importance of agriculture in developing countries was highlighted recently by famine throughout Africa. Rains have failed and temperatures have risen, leaving millions without food from Ethiopia to South Africa. This is partly due to Climate Change, and also to a particularly strong el-nino (2016). In particular this has put into sharp contrast Ethiopia’s recent surge in GDP growth, with its ability to prevent famine (see my last post).

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is one organization that is influential in development thinking and practice. The foundation widely supports agriculture in developing countries. They especially focus on small farmers, and women, trying to target the most marginalized sections of society. Their stated goal is to “help all people lead healthy, productive lives.” This is one definition of development, and agriculture factors prominently in its achievement. The Gates Foundation specifically aims to increase the productivity of small farmers in an effort to bring prosperity to poor rural areas, and enable them to send their children to school. Their goal is to also do this in an environmentally friendly manner (2011). These appear to be laudable goals, that not many people would disagree with. However, many charities, including the Gates Foundation, have been criticized for not truly delivering on the improvements they say they will make. After completing a project and funding dries up, often the effects of that project dry up as well. In addition, the Gates Foundation mentions explicitly their funding of projects involving the research on and use of transgenic crops, which many environmental groups do not approve of.

Another viewpoint is through an academic and engineering lens. Sreekala Bajwa is a professor at North Dakota State University who is an agricultural engineer. He advocates an approach called precision agriculture. This approach requires the studying of specific environmental conditions on any land being farmed, as well as increased communication between farmers in the same area. This system allows farmers to know exactly how much irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. to use. According to Bajwa this will maximize production while reducing the carbon footprint and other negative consequences of agriculture (2015). However, many poor small farmers, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, would have difficulty affording any of the technology or materials required to use this technique, and environmentalists often disagree with the use of any chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

In contrast to this view that agriculture is primarily a scientific and engineering issue, Annalies Zoomers, a professor of International Development, and George Schoneveld, a Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research in Nairobi, view agriculture in its place in the middle of social, political and economic practices. They advocate Inclusive Green Growth (IGG). Under IGG governments would play a bigger role in ensuring private investment, especially from transnational corporations (TNCs) would benefit everyone, as well as stopping land grabbing. Governments would concentrate more on aiding small farmers, including building infrastructure that would benefit everyone. Food should be produced by and for the local community and only exported when there is a surplus. The authors argue that these changes are necessary to achieve IGG, which has failed in the recent past due to the diminishing of the state and the power of the private sector. One main challenge that the authors admit is that in order to make these changes, a strong government is necessary, and strong governments are lacking in many places, especially Africa (2015). There are also questions about how productive agriculture can be without significant technological improvements. IGG extends to much more than just agriculture, though. It includes all natural resources and environmental protections. One recent innovation in attempting to achieve IGG gets around the troubles experienced by African governments. A group of Zambian villagers is suing the TNC Vedanta for polluting their water through mining operations…in London. Vedanta is based in London, and although its transgression was perpetrated in Zambia it might be held to account in its hometown (Vidal 2016). There are precedents for this in Europe, but so far none in America.

Incorporating social and environmental factors, such as food security, in development is a contentious issue. Recently there have been many ideas put forward, some of which I have written about such as low-carbon growth, green economy, agroecology and IGG. It is clear that humanity as a whole needs to increase agricultural production, but we also need to decrease our negative effects on the environment and decrease inequality. Treating development as purely economical and relying on free markets has not worked for us so far. It should be acceptable for states, especially wealthy states, to not have continuous economic growth. Food security should be more important than economic growth. Economic growth is not desirable if it only benefits a small percentage of a population and destroys the environment. Consumption should not be the ideal of a society. In order to feed everyone on Earth we need to waste less food. We need to improve scientific knowledge and technology related to agriculture. We need to promote social well-being as much as economic development. We need to support governments who will do what is best for everyone, and not special interests. Most of all we need to think to the future so that we will be able to continue to survive in the long term.


Bajwa, S. (2015). Precision Agriculture and International Development. Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World. Retrieved from:

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2011). Agricultural Development: Strategy Overview. Global Development Program. Retrieved from:

IPPMedia (2016). ‘Little Boy’ devouring African Food. IPPMedia. Retrieved from:

Schoneveld, G, & Zoomers, A. (2015). Natural resource privatisation in Sub-Saharan Africa and the challenges for inclusive green growth. International Development Planning Review. Retrieved from:

Vidal, J. (2016). Mining Giant Vedanta Argues UK Court Should not Hear Zambia Pollution Case. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Paint it Green

My last post focused on a new method of agriculture, which, among other things, takes into account the effect agriculture has on the environment. This post is mainly about how the economy can take into account impacts on the environment. This concept is referred to as the “green economy.” The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) defines the green economy as “one that results in improved human well‐being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. It is low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive” (2012).

One loosely associated group or movement attempting to further green economics is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). TEEB has developed one way for conceptualizing how ecosystem processes/structures can translate into economic value. For example, trees are a biological structure, which have the function of anchoring the soil. Less soil erosion leads to better soil for growing crops for food, which is an ecosystem service. Food has obvious benefits to humans, which can be economically quantified. However, one major problem with measuring and studying the green economy is that there is not one unified system, and translating ecosystem services into exact economic value can be difficult. TEEB uses a system of aggregating value to find the total monetary value of an ecosystem, which requires evaluating the value of an ecosystem to people over space and time. Macroeconomic indicators are starting to take into account environmental impacts, and offering monetary benefits for environmentally sustainable practices ( de Groot et al., 2010).

The green economy is linked to many other ideas, such as sustainable development and low carbon development. These ideas, which fit in with the green economy, predate it, but are now being merged into it. At an international scale one example of these practices is the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program, in which richer countries pay poorer countries for limiting deforestation. This requires the determination of the value of forests. The forests in Ethiopia are tentatively valued at approximately 2.5 to 4% of the nations total GDP (Sisay, 2015).

In addition to specific sectors, entire economies can be made “green.” This goal is being realized in some places through the UN Partnership for action of green economy (PAGE). The second country to benefit from this is Peru. The greening of the economy, especially in terms of biotrade is expected to “not only benefit the economy but also improve human well-being, enhance social equity and protect the environment” (UNEP). One other country that could benefit from this initiative is the aforementioned Ethiopia. In spite of the fact that Ethiopia has had tremendous economic growth, they have not been immune to adverse environmental conditions which are currently causing famine in that country (Arai, 2015). Maybe if Ethiopia included the environment in its development calculations it would have been better prepared for this eventuality, though REDD is a step in the right direction.

Green economy is an important step in achieving sustainable development. Both Economics and environmental science (as well as sociology, geography, etc) must realize and account for the impact of one on the other. International Development, of course, must take into account all of these factors to work towards a sustainable, equitable and prosperous future for all.


Arai, Ghelawdewos (2015). Famine and Development: contradiction in terms of the Ethiopian context. Ethiopian Observer. retrieved from:

Allen, Cameron & Clouth, Stewart (2012). A guidebook to the green economy. UNDESA: division for sustainable development. retrieved from:

de Groot, Rudolf et al. (2010). The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: The Ecological and Economic Foundations. Chapter 1:Integrating the ecological and economic dimensions in biodiversity and ecosystem service valuation. TEEB. retrieved from:

Sisay, Andaulem (2015). Ethiopia to determine value of forest cover. Africa Review. retrieved from:

UNEP (2016). Greening Peru’s Economy. United Nations Environment Programme: environment for development. retrieved from:



The Third Path

Originally all farming was “organic”. Fifty or so years ago the second green revolution swept across the world, introducing chemicals, fertilizers and mechanization, although many small farmers still continued to rely on traditional methods. The second green revolution increased crop yields, but has faced significant backlash as it is seen to benefit mainly larger, and already wealthy farmers as well as transnational corporations (TNCs), at the expense of small farmers. In addition, the processes and materials implemented through the second green revolution have caused environmental degradation. These issues have led many people to believe that traditional farming patterns were better, but the problem still remains that traditional farming does not produce as much food. Now, a third method has been put forward to supplant conventional (second green revolution) and traditional farming practices. It is agroecology.

Agroecology is “a science, a movement, and a practice”(Wibbelmann et al., 2013). Agroecology is an approach to farming that emphasizes the inter-connectivity of farms and ecosystems. It’s goal is for farms to support ecosystems, and ecosystems to support farms. Agroecology is an approach to achieving sustainable agriculture. The main idea of agroecology is using scientific knowledge to increase farm production through mostly natural and sustainable means. It often involves the use of natural fertilizers, predators instead of pesticides, modifying the physical landscape to conserve water, encouraging or introducing beneficial bacteria into the soils, and intercropping to avoid negative effects of monoculture. Conventional farming techniques require large inputs of water, pesticides, and fertilizers, and rely on monocropping. This degrades the soil, which requires increasingly large chemical inputs. Conventional farming also often requires deforestation, while intercropping with trees can make farms carbon sinks, while also stabilizing the soil to protect it from erosion. In addition conventional farming only takes into account economic productivity, while agroecology accounts for effects on the ecosystem and social factors. Agroecology emphasizes social cohesion and the local community, with most farm production staying in the same region, as opened to being exported. Agroecology is mostly designed for and used on small farms (Wibbelmann et al., 2013).

One of the main concerns about agroecology is its efficacy in production and by extension its economic viability, especially in developing countries. Recently, researchers from the geography department of the University of Montreal conducted a study on agroecological versus conventional farming practices in four villages in Cameroon. Their research concluded that most farmers using agroecological techniques were seeing rises in crop yield. However, wealthier farmers who used conventional methods still saw larger increases in yields. The paper concluded that for most farmers agroecological methods would be more beneficial than conventional methods, but still face many limitations. One proposal the authors made was that Cameroonian farmers would benefit from more scientific knowledge of ecosystems and biochemical processes to complement their traditional knowledge, and experience in the local area. The paper also suggested that agroecological techniques could be modified with limited conventional inputs, for example using both organic and inorganic fertilizers, to increase crop yields (Epule, Bryant, 2016).

Although conventional agriculture is currently seen as the only way to produce enough food for the world’s growing population, some people disagree, even the former UN special rapporteur on the right to food who said “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live, especially in unfavorable environments” (Todhunter, 2016). This indicates that agroecology could, in fact, be the solution to long-term increase in food supply. However, how can agroecological practices be sustained in the short term? According to Colin Todhunter, only with a global movement supporting small farmers, and taking action against corporations (2016). In richer countries agroecological farmers rely on the affluence of their fellow citizens to pay extra for the sustainably produced crops, which will not translate well to poorer countries (Wibbelmann et al., 2013). Another possible route is government subsidies for small farmers and sustainable practices in the Global South. the US and the EU have long subsidized farmers, but these options have not been available to many developing countries, which have been constrained by IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies. Now, however, some countries are starting to introduce susbsidies. One example is Nigeria, although some of their subsidies are for conventional farming practices such as the fertilizer susidy (Nnoram, 2016).

As the world’s population grows, using our scientific and traditional knowledge to work with the environment instead of against it could be our best option for food production. However, there are still many obstacles and doubts. Agroecological crop yields are constrained by natural obstacles. Conventional farming practices have much more money behind them. Even so, as we encounter new environmental challenges, we must change and adapt, or face disaster.


Epule, E.T., Bryant, C.R., (2016). Assesssing the effects of agroecological and conventional farming techniques on small scale peasent farmers’ crop yields in the Fako and Meme districts of Cameroon. African Journal of Agricultural Research. Vol 11(10), pg. 849-866.

Nnorom, N (2016). Nigeria, ‘government must be willing to support smallholder farmers’. Vanguard. retrieved from:

Todhunter C., (2016). Resisting the corporate stranglehold on food and farming-is agroecology enough? Ecologist. Retrieved from:

Wibbelmann, M., Schmutz, U., Wright, J., Udall, D., Rayns, F., Kneafsey, M., Trenchard, L., Bennett, J. and Lennartsson, M. (2013) Mainstreaming Agroecology: Implications for Global Food and Farming Systems. Centre for Agroecology and Food Security Discussion Paper. Coventry: Centre for Agroecology and Food Security. ISBN: 978-1-84600-0454

Feeding the World

Ever since Thomas Malthus came up with the idea that humans are going to run out of resources on Earth causing unthinkable catastrophe, Earth’s growing human population and finite resources have been cause for concern. One of the main resources of concern is food. Malthusian concerns regarding lack of food were temporarily stalled by the second green revolution, which greatly increased food output. However, the second green revolution was driven by increased chemical (pesticide, fertilizer, etc.) use, and an increase in gasoline powered machines, which raises questions about sustainability (McMichael, 2012). I believe that we should explore as many possible solutions to lack of food, and sustainability of food production, as we can. Here are just a few examples.

One solution that has been put forward to sole the world’s food problems is genetically modified (GM) crops. In a policy paper from the Environmental Working Group, Emily Cassidy argues that these crops, especially genetically engineered crops, have failed to improve agricultural production (2015). This is a highly contentious topic, and further research should be conducted, preferably by an independent source, that is not part of the fight between Monsanto, Cargill, etc. and environmental groups. However, Cassidy also gives many alternatives to genetic engineering. These include: growing more crops that require less fertilizer, and using more fertilizer in regions that require fertilizer for agriculture as opposed to further fertilizing already relatively fertile areas. Reducing the use of biofuels such as ethanol, which use corn that could be consumed by humans. Changing the diet of richer humans to decrease the prevalence of meat, and reducing food waste (2015). You have probably heard two of these ideas before, even though you did not know it, from your high school biology teacher, and your grandmother. In high school biology your teacher probably taught you about trophic energy levels in ecosystems. The bottom level is producers, including grains, soy, etc. The second level is herbivores, including cows. Between each levels, approximately ninety percent of the available energy is lost, which means only ten percent is transfered. Most beef cattle today are grain fed. That means we could greatly increase the energy in biomass available to us if we just ate the grain or soy we feed to cattle, instead of eating beef. Now to your grandmother. If she is anything like mine, probably encouraged you to clean your plate and refused to throw out any food. It turns out your grandmother has been doing her part to help feed the world this whole time.

Now I will move from policy and consumer behavior to specific methods of producing food. The first is aquaponics. This is a process of farming fish and plants in the same process. Some benefits of this system include the excretion of fish being high in nitrogen, which the plants need (increasing nitrogen availability is the goal of fertilizer). One problem with aquaponics is that plants and fish generally do best at slightly different pH’s (acidities).To this end a group of German scientists and engineers has designed a new aquaponic system with fish and plants in separate tanks, and a filter in between through which the water flows. The whole process is contained in a greenhouse powered by solar panels. the greenhouse also has a water condenser to reuse evaporated water (Kloas, et al., 2015). This is a great example of an idea for sustainable food production that should be encouraged. Fish could become a more sustainable source of nutrients and especially protein than terrestrial animals such as cows. Although most fish humans eat, such as tilapia, which was the fish used by the aforementioned scientists, are at or above cattle in terms of trophic level, fish are cold blooded, while traditional livestock are warm-blooded. Warm-blooded animals require more inputs of energy to regulate their temperature. As a result, fish may require less input of biomass for greater output. One problem with this system, however, is that it requires significant inputs to get started, fish tanks, a greenhouse, filters, water condensers, etc., that may not be possible for many people, especially in poorer states.

The next, and last, two examples come from developing countries. The first comes from Eastern Africa. Farmers, who occupy land that was previously deforested are being encouraged to plant trees. By restoring trees, farmers improve their soil, and prevent it from eroding, which improves grazing for their livestock. These farmers generally cannot afford to buy fertilizers, and “Many tree species are nitrogen-fixing species”(Kibet, 2016). The last example comes from India. Farmers in very dry parts of India have found that traditional flood irrigation was insufficient. In addition, conventional arid irrigation such as drip-irrigation lost too much water to evaporation. To prevent this, scientists devised an irrigation system that collects rainwater and keeps it covered from the sun. The water is taken to the plants and then dripped into the soil underneath the plant, underground. Using this system, much less water is lost to evaporation. Currently, farmers have to have some wealth to put the system in place that is out of reach of many small farmers. NGOs and the regional government are helping many such farmers by subsidizing the cost of installing the new irrigation, but most are still left behind (Suchitra, 2014).

The main point of this blog post is to show how many diverse ideas there are to increase sustainable food production. in my opinion we should not try to rely on just one solution as if there is a miracle cure to providing food for the whole world. There is a multitude of solutions, and all of them should be explored.


Cassidy, Emily (2015). Feeding the world without GMOs. Environmental working group. retrieved from:

Kibet,Robert (2016). East African farmers rewarded for letting grass grow under their feet. The Guardian. retrieved from:

Klaos, Werner, et al. (2015). A new concept for aquaponic systems to improve sustainability, to increase productivity, and reduce environmental impacts. Aquaculture Environment Interactions. retrieved from:

McMichael, Phillip (2012). Development and Social Change:A global perspective (5th ed.). Washington, D.C.:Sage Publications, Inc.

Suchitra, M (2014). Orchards in Desert. DownToEarth. retrieved from:

Environment Friendly Development

Environment friendly development, is it an oxymoron? A necessity? physically possible? These are questions I will try to explore in this blog. One major focus will be agriculture, how can we feed the Earth’s growing population in an environmentally sound way? Can we feed Earth’s growing population in an environmentally sound way? Sustainability is another major topic in terms of environment and development, although what exactly is meant by sustainability is not always clear. Critical development and alternative development will also be explored where these approaches intersect with environmental concerns. The geographical focus of this blog will be the poorest countries in the world, especially sub-Saharan Africa and some countries in Asia.

I have four short examples of what will be discussed on this blog. The first example concerns policy in the Lake Tana region of Ethiopia, where the Stockholm Environment Institute(SEI) led a collaborative project to come up with a plan it believes to be superior to the government’s. The SEI uses a nexus approach in which they try to formulate a coherent policy to optimally utilize water, energy,and food resources. The SEI spent time talking to stakeholders and determining the impacts various plans would have on agricultural output, hydroelectric output from dams in the vicinity of Lake Tana, and water levels in Lake Tana. The SEI plan prioritizes using water for food production and keeping the water levels in Lake Tana high enough to prevent negative impacts on biodiversity and Ethiopians who depend on the lake for their livelihoods. The government of Ethiopia, on the other hand, has prioritized the production of hydroelectricity, which will lower the water level of Lake Tana. The SEI calls on the government and people of Ethiopia to rethink the scale of livestock production to decrease biomass consumption as well as a major rural electrification scheme (SEI, 2014). These findings present many questions. What should the governments priorities be? How sustainable is hydro-power if it interferes with agriculture? Should these policies be formed at the national level, or at more local levels?

The second example comes from Mohamed Behnassi and Sanni Yaya, “Land resource governance from a sustainability and rural development perspective.” The authors argue that “pro-poor, democratic and sustainable” land governance is necessary for rural development. They argue that land reform is necessary to accomplish these measures, and is  along process that should be at the forefront of national and international policy. The authors promote secure land tenure in order to ensure that the land will be used responsibly by its occupants. they call on a stop to widespread “land grabbing” whereby international actors buy large chunks of land in a country. The authors express optimism for sustainable development and environmental practices if land governance can be reformed in many parts of the world, but how can we make that happen?

The final example is a warning to the possible consequences that we face if we do not act. The Guardian reports that much of sub-Saharan Africa is facing the worst drought in decades as the impacts of global warming and an el-nino combine. In Ethiopia, “more than 10 million people will need food aide.” Droughts have been increasing in frequency recently, and leave locals dependent on the international community for aide (Lamble, Graham-Harrison, 2016). In central India a village had its Community Forest Rights cancelled, which has allowed coal mining operations to restart, which are predicted to have negative effects on local biodiversity and human communities “who are dependent on the forest for their livelihoods”(Kohli, 2016).


Behnassi, Mohamed and Yaya, Sanni (2011). Land Resource Governance from a sustainability and rural development perspective. in Mohamed Bahnassi, Shabir A. Shahid & Joyce D’Silva (eds.). Sustainable Agricultural Development (3-23). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Karleberg, Louise, et al. (2014).”Applying the nexus – meeting Ethiopia’s development goals by addressing links between water, energy and food.” Stockholm Environmental Institute. retrieved from:

Kohli, Kanchi (2016).”Anything for a mine.” Geography and You. retrieved from:

Lamble, Lucy & Graham-Harrison, Emma (2016). “Drought and rising temperatures ‘leaves 36m people across Africa facing hunger’.” The Guardian. Retrieved from: