Posts Tagged: Alastair Iles
Mark Bittman, cookbook author and New York Times food writer, used the occasion of New Year’s Day to throw down the gauntlet for real and permanent change to the U.S. agricultural system. “We must figure out a way to un-invent this food system,” he says in a Times opinion column. He likens the scale of the task to tectonic cultural strides like abolition, civil rights, and the women’s vote.
UC Berkeley researchers have been working on some specifics for several years now, researching the agricultural, policy, and social practices that would make possible the type of systemic change Bittman is advocating. In a special multi-article feature devoted to "diversified farming systems," or DFS, for the December issue of the journal Ecology & Society, scientists from Berkeley, Santa Clara University, and other institutions lay out a comprehensive scientific case that biologically diversified agricultural practices can contribute substantially to food production while creating far fewer environmental harms than industrialized, conventional monoculture agriculture—that is, large swaths of land devoted to growing single crops using chemical inputs.
DFS are different from the narrow definition of organics, and the research shows that, unlike industrial agriculture, biologically diversified agriculture tends to generate and regenerate ecosystem services such as soil fertility, pest and disease control, water-use efficiency, and pollination, which provide critical inputs to agriculture. The research also found that DFS support globally important ecosystem services, including substantially greater biodiversity, carbon sequestration, energy-use efficiency, and resilience to climate change.
But changing America’s agriculture system is more complex than just changing farming techniques, according to Alastair Iles, assistant professor of environmental science, policy, and management, and co-director of the Berkeley Center for Diversified Farming Systems.
In one Ecology & Society article, Iles and co-author Robin Marsh, also of UC Berkeley, consider several obstacles that prevent or slow the spread of diversified farming practices, such as the broader political and economic context of industrialized agriculture, the erosion of farmer knowledge and capacity, and supply chain and marketing conditions that limit the ability of farmers to adopt sustainable practices.
“To transform agriculture, we need to understand these obstacles and develop and test solutions, such as peer-to-peer learning, recruitment and retention of new farmers through access to credit and land, and compensation for ecological services provided by ranchers, for example,” Iles says.
Other key facets of a sustainable agricultural system include attention to its social dimensions, such as human health, labor, democratic participation, resiliency, diversity, equality, and ethics, according to special issue co-editor Chris Bacon of Santa Clara University. In an article with colleagues, Bacon proposes creating partnerships with institutions that could address issues like immigration, food access, and worker health.
But first and foremost, the farms themselves have to produce enough to remain profitable and to feed a growing population. Conservation biologist Claire Kremen, also a UC Berkeley professor and co-director of the Berkeley DFS Center with Iles, says that more work is needed to build on what is already known about biologically diversified agriculture, to make them these methods even more productive.
“To date, the amount of research and development investment in this type of agriculture is miniscule compared to what’s been invested in conventional agriculture,” Kremen said. “There may be substantial potential to increase food production from biologically diversified, sustainable agriculture that we have not yet tapped into. With research support to study and improve on sustainable farming systems, we can tap that potential. Growers want to utilize sustainable practices if they can, but they need to know it won’t hurt their bottom line.”
So, DFS scientists might argue, Bittman’s New Year’s manifesto, which ends with a call for “energy, action — and patience,” could be amended to include “a comprehensive scientific, political, and sociological approach, and putting dollars behind the right kinds of research.”
Read more about diversified farming systems research at UC Berkeley.
If you buy fresh fish with any regularity you’ve likely come across tilapia. A relative newcomer to American fish markets, the mild, flakey white fish originated in Africa and was introduced to American markets about 10 years ago, sometimes accompanied by favorable sustainability ratings from markets like Whole Foods. Most farmed tilapia consumed in the U.S. currently comes from fish farms in Central America.
But sustainability turns out to be a slippery term. “Producing tilapia brings into play a wide range of issues — how developing countries are trying to create sustainable tilapia farming systems but are also struggling with the pollution and waste that they produce,” Iles says.
The scale of the aquaculture industry is expanding around the world, generating, Iles says, a number of environmental and social impacts that cause increasing concern. In addition to the waste problem that fish farms create, feed made from other fish can deplete fisheries even more, and making soy feed may involve land-based agriculture, which could lead to deforestation in countries like Brazil. Escapes of farmed fishes into the wild harm the genetic diversity of the wild tilapia, and there are land use effects as well. As a result, multiple certification schemes are emerging to try to define "sustainable" aquaculture at the global scale.
“It's essential to look at how these schemes are developing because they may affect what the whole industry looks like in the future,” he says.
Iles and his collaborator Elizabeth Havice, an ESPM Ph.D. graduate who is now an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, are examining two certification schemes that are currently developing: the Global Aquaculture Alliance, the aquaculture industry trade group; and the World Wildlife Fund, working in partnership with the newly formed Aquaculture Stewardship Council.
A new study by the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, a non-governmental organization, compares the two schemes, and concludes that the WWF certification is tougher in its requirements than the GAA’s standard in that farmers tend to fail the WWF requirements more often. But there is little insight into why and how these differences occur. Is it because the two organizations are using science in different ways — for example, depending on a relatively narrow fish farm-centered impacts analysis, versus using a life-cycle approach that looks at where all the inputs comes from? Or is it because the negotiators of the schemes are aiming at technology-based standards that only large-scale farms can meet?
“We think the World Wildlife Fund has paid much more attention to a participatory process and has heard from many more stakeholders, whereas the GAA has been quite top-down,” Iles says. They plan to publish their findings next year.
For now, what’s an environmentally sensitive consumer to do? Avoid farmed fish like tilapia? Iles says that’s not the answer. “We need aquaculture for the foreseeable future because wild-caught fisheries just can't supply enough fish,” he says.
But he stresses that there are very different ways to practice this aquaculture. The new standards, together with Iles’ research to clarify the science behind them, should help navigate the murky waters.
“Our aim is to help improve the science-based process for developing these standards so that aquaculture can evolve into the most genuinely sustainable forms and will actually change how farmers across the world practice their work,” he says.
In the meantime, Iles recommends that if you are buying farmed fish, ask for certification to help ensure that the fish is more sustainable. The new certifications are just beginning to show up in stores, so, watch for them, and demand from your store that they be used.