David Cleary: Deforestation and habitat loss in the Amazon and beyond

David Cleary, director of global agriculture at The Nature Conservancy, discusses the institution’s three main sustainability goals: to reduce deforestation, increase soil health and promote water conservation.

Learn what these three goals mean for climate change, habitat conservation, regenerative agriculture and the recent fires in the Amazon.

The following is an edited transcript of David Butler’s interview with David Cleary. Click below to hear the full audio.

Interviewer:  I’m here with David Cleary, director of global agriculture for the Nature Conservancy. Welcome, David.

David:             It’s a pleasure to be here.

Interviewer:  Thank you very much. Tell us a little bit about what your role entails.

David:             Sure. Basically, three things. We have agriculture programs in about 40 countries around the world, so my first and most important job is to support those programs to help them grow their capacity, help fund-raise for them, and also to have them sort of, more or less, flying information around a shared definition of what sustainability and agriculture means. I represent the organization and voice our opinions on topics relevant to agriculture. That’s the main reason why I’m here at this particular event. I also help to manage some of the global-level relationships relevant to our agriculture work in both the private and the public sector — so large agribusiness companies that operate on a global scale, but also organizations like the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the Gates Foundation, institutions that have an important role to play within the global ag space that we’d like to try and have conversations with and, occasionally, try to influence.

Interviewer:  You said that the Nature Conservancy has agriculture programs in how many countries?

David:             Around about 30.

Interviewer:  Okay, so what goes on at the country level? What do your programs do?

David:             Well, we have three areas of focus. One is trying to reduce and eliminate deforestation and habitat conversion from supply chains. We also have a soil program, trying to avoid soil erosion but also manage soils and increase soil health. The third area of focus is around water, water conservation and water quality, so dealing with agriculture so that it has the least possible impact and the most efficient possible use of water around the world.

Interviewer:  Great! That sounds like very important work, really.

David:             Very important and very challenging, sometimes.

Interviewer:  Yeah. You’ve spent a lot of your career — you’ve been at the Nature Conservancy a pretty long time, right?

David:             It wasn’t deliberate, but that’s how it’s turned out, yeah.

Interviewer:  You’ve spent a lot of your career there focused on Brazil. Is that right?

David:             Mm-hmm, Brazil and Latin America, more broadly.

Interviewer:  Okay, so what are some of the biggest challenges there? I can guess one of them.

David:             Well, Brazil is a big country, so wherever you are, the challenges are slightly different. I think the biggest challenge that I dealt with the time I was living there was around deforestation and commodity supply chains, especially in the soy and the beef industry. We’ve actually been very successful over the last 10 to 15 years in reducing deforestation in the Amazon, way below where it used to be. I’d say you have an increasing problem now in various parts of Brazil with water use. We’ve already been able to see some changes in rainfall patterns probably linked to climate change. We’ve also, I think, in different parts of Brazil, got issues around soil loss and soil health. Brazil is an extremely efficient agricultural producer. It’s a massive supply of agricultural commodities to the global market, but in some ways, that grain complex, an oil seed complex that drives that, have got some vulnerabilities on the soil and the water front.

Interviewer:  And is most of the erosion there related to large quantities of rainfall? Are a lot of the farmers there using no-till?

David:             No-till is really common in Brazil. It’s been taken up by wildfire, actually, over the last 10 or 15 years. Brazil is a tropical climate, so you do have quite violent rain. That’s just part of the natural cycle there, but I think what’s happened is that quite a lot of habitat has been cleared in recent years to be able to expand the agricultural, the planted area there, and quite often, that’s loosened root structures, and it’s made soil erosion a problem in some places.

Interviewer:  Yeah. I’m sure there’s a massive amount of erosion right after the forests are cleared, right?

David:             Yeah, that’s absolutely right. You can see it very obviously on the landscape. It’s important just to flag, though, that, actually, most of the cropland area in Brazil, it’s expanded over grasslands rather than forests. The Amazon is by far the most famous part of Brazil outside Brazil, but the real engine of agricultural growth in Brazil has been, actually, more the Cerrado, which is a mix of savannah and woodland-type biome.

                        It’s rather similar to the U.S., actually. The history of U.S. agriculture is it expanded much more over grasslands than it did in forested areas, and that’s actually true of Brazil, too.

Interviewer:  Okay. Is that actually a bigger environmental problem than the rainforest deforestation?

David:             Well, it depends (on) what lens you want to view it through. If you’re worried about biodiversity, then forests are more of a problem because they have much higher levels of biodiversity. If you’re worried about climate change, probably, you’re going to be more worried about forests as well because, when you burn a forest, it releases more carbon, if you’re burning savannahs — but at the same time, we worry about all ecosystems, not just about forests. The Cerrado and grasslands, generally — the U.S. also — they’re a really important ecosystem. They have historically been incredibly important to human life both in agricultural terms and for ranging and livestock, so it’s really important, around the world, that rangelands and grasslands are kept in a good state. That’s always going to be a focus of our work.

Interviewer:  This episode was recorded in May 2019 at our ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, and it was a great conversation with David Cleary. But shortly after that, things went awry in the Amazon rainforest, and there were thousands and thousands of fires this summer. David was nice enough to get on the phone with us today and give us a little update about where we are, how much damage was done, and what does the future look like for the Amazon.

David:             Thank you, David. Well, yes, you’re right. Things have gone awry. The background to that is that the Brazilian government essentially signaled to the farming and ranching sectors in the Amazon that they weren’t going to spend a huge amount of time or effort chasing down people who didn’t have the requisite deforestation permits to clear land.

                        What we’ve been able to verify so far is an uptick, quite a strong uptick, in fire activity. It’s important you understand what we know and what we don’t know. What we do know is there’s a lot more fire activity in the Amazon. What we don’t know is the size of the land areas that those fires are clearing. We don’t know that because the smoke and the clouds at this time of year make it very difficult for us to get reliable satellite data. But what happened is we’re at the end of the year, and at the end of the year, we’ll know what the deforestation figures are.

                        Now, I know the figures that you’ve seen in the media are quite dramatic. There definitely has been a significant increase in fire activity, but there’s a lot of other factors in the mix as well. I mean, if the rains come early, that dampens it down. It’s not necessarily true that a large increase in fire activity in the Amazon is going to result in that level of increase in deforestation. It could be more; it could be less. We won’t know until the end of the year. What I think we can say is that, even with the quite strong uptick of deforestation in the Amazon, it will be bad in comparison with last year, but it’s still going to be at a level that, historically, is not as bad as it was about ten years ago. It’s bad news, but it’s not devastating yet.

Interviewer:  What do you see for the remainder of President Bolsonaro’s term? Do you expect that this is going to be an ongoing thing year after year? Will it accelerate? I know that conversations or messages from the G7 to him didn’t work very well this summer. How can we engage with Brazil to slow this down?

David:             Well, I think it’s pretty interesting, what happened, because I think the strong international reaction to the fires in the Amazon really put the Brazilian government on the back foot. It was very clear that they weren’t expecting such a strong reaction. It wasn’t just the environmental NGOs and the Greenpeaces of this world that were very critical. A lot of the companies that invest in Brazil and are active in the agricultural sector were also critical.

                        Brazil depends upon those companies, and the agribusiness sector in general is an incredibly important and thriving part of its economy. So, to the extent that Brazil makes life more difficult for its big agribusiness sector, and because it’s an exporting economy, an agricultural commodity-exporting economy, it could do without the sort of damage to its image that the Amazon fires do. I think the government understands that better now. There are actually parts of the Brazilian government that always understood that very well. The Agriculture Ministry, for example, is run by an extremely competent woman who was very active in saying that, “No, no, this is not the way for us to be going.”

                        I think you did point to the sort of diversity of opinion even within the Brazilian government. In fact, there are different power centers within it. I’d be quite optimistic that, next year, perhaps, learning a little bit from this experience, we’ll find the government and the private sector and the farmers making more of an effort to combat the damage that was done. There was clearly damage.

Interviewer:  Well, that sounds good. I hope that we can find a good way to go forward and not lose all the progress that we made over the last decade or more. At this point, we’ll rejoin our previous interview in which you talk about how all that progress was made. Thanks for joining us again today, David. I really appreciate it.

David:             It was a pleasure.

Interviewer:  You mentioned that there’s been a lot of progress in reducing deforestation in the Amazon. What were some of the things that were successful there?

David:             Both private and public initiatives played a role. On the public side, you have, actually, very good regulatory framework for agriculture. Farmers in the Amazon have to keep 80% of the land holding in native vegetation, so that’s already a good thing, a high bar to be able to work from. The government also recognized deforestation is a problem, and it had targeted strategies to crack down on it where in the bits of the Amazon they could see that deforestation was increasing.

                        Technology really improved over the last 20 years to the point that you could really pinpoint where the problem was, and that made it much easier to target policing actions, but it wasn’t just a sort of top-down regulatory approach. There was also, I think, a recognition on many market actors that there’s plenty of land that’s already cleared that you could expand soy over. There was also an understanding, I think, that there was consumer resistance to deforestation because the soy and beef that was being produced, significant amounts of that were exported to Europe. There was also, I think, a feeling among the big global traders that had their presence there that they had a reputation or risk here as well, so it was a kind of perfect storm of coming together of both the public and private initiatives that drove the deforestation levels down. It’s worth saying by how much: Fifteen years ago, it was about 30,000 square kilometers a year. Right now, it bumps along between 5,000 and 8,000 kilometers, so very, very significant reduction.

Interviewer:  That is a big difference, yeah. How is that effort working on the savannah areas?

David:             Well, it’s sort of like a catch-22 because, the way the geography of Brazil is, is you have the forest in the north. In the center of Brazil, you have the grasslands, the Cerrado. From our standpoint as a conservation organization, it’s not a win if we’re successful in reducing deforestation in the Amazon but all that does is displace that pressure for habitat conversion into the grasslands of the Cerrado. That has actually not happened. The dynamics are slightly different in the different regions.

                        Right now, we’re in a situation where, for the last three years, habitat conversion levels in the Cerrado have been very low. Six or seven years before that, they were really booming. A lot of the Cerrado was converted and, right now, we’re in a situation where we have about half of the Cerrado in native vegetation; the other half is under agricultural or pasture. There’s a very large amount of pasture that’s not particularly productive — probably about 20 million hectares in total that you could expand cropland over. So, at least in theory, you can see a future sweet spot where you have cropland expanding over pasture and pasture intensifying. That would make a lot of economic sense. Of course, there’s many a slip between cup and lip, and you can see that in theory, but actually, having that land-use pattern develop is a complicated thing, but that’s what we’re working towards there.

Interviewer:  Some of the areas that have been in agriculture the longest, do they suffer from soil degradation, loss of fertility, possibly partly because of the heavy rainfall?

David:             Well, that’s a hard question to answer because if you pull out globally and just do a quick look around the world, there are places that have had agriculture in place literally for millennia with reasonable soil quality being maintained throughout that period. There are parts of Southeast Asia, for example, that you’ve got these smallholder, peasant farming systems that use a very intensive — they use manure a lot, and they have maintained really excellent soil quality. That’s because, on the whole, there are fairly stable systems, and they’re in fairly stable market context.

                        What’s destabilizing for soil is when you have a sudden expansion of demand and intensification of production that the natural ecosystem of the soil in that particular area can’t support. There are many places around the world where you can point to that kind of dynamic having happened as well. There’s no hard and fast rule, I think. You can certainly generate what the basic principles of good soil management are and apply them pretty much anywhere and it’s going to improve your situation if you’re in one of those stress systems.

Interviewer:  Yeah. Is there a movement to try to use regenerative agriculture techniques like no-till?

David:             Yeah. No-till, cover cropping, there’s a whole range of systems. I think whatever agricultural system you’re in — whether it’s a system that’s typical of, like, the U.S. or the Brazilian corn and soy belt, very high productivity, industrial agriculture, or a smallholder system like you could find in Africa or Southeast Asia — good soil management is a basic principle of success in all of those different agricultural systems. That’s why it’s really strategic for us to focus on it, because it doesn’t really matter what scale of agriculture you’re in; basic soil management is going to be important, too, so it’s an across-the-board strategy for us.

Interviewer:  Okay. Let’s step back up to the global level that you’re focused on. When you look at agriculture as a whole internationally, what do you see with regard to greenhouse gas emissions? That’s a trickier thing to measure at the local level, right?

David:             Yeah. Well, we know a lot about what the patterns of greenhouse gas emissions around agriculture are, and I think we can make some pretty secure assumptions moving forward based around what we know about population growth rates and also consumption, patterns of consumption in developing countries as they transition from developing status to developed. I think China is a really good example of what you can expect; the country, a generation ago, was poor. I have colleagues in China who talk to me about their siblings who — they remember famine conditions when they were children. China today is a totally transformed country: much higher levels of income, much higher levels of protein consumption, protein demand, rather, so we can expect a world where hundreds of millions of people are transitioning into a middle-class lifestyle with all of these demand patterns that are involved.

                        For agriculture, I think the really big question on the climate change standpoint is you’re going to have a big increase in demand for protein. As we know, enteric fermentation is the second-biggest source of greenhouse gasses after land conversion, so if you have the huge increase in protein demand that we expect, that’s got implications. The agriculture could increase overall, in absolute terms, its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a really important problem for the industry to be thinking about, the solutions to it. There’s different range, a very large range of potential solutions to it, but it’s really important that people understand, I think, within the industry, that the development pattern that we’re on, which we have to manage, too — I don’t think it’s possible to do more than bend the curve of development of the margins. It’s very difficult to go to countries like China and Brazil and say, “No, you can’t be achieving the same levels of consumption and development of the U.S. and Western Europe.” That’s not going to happen, but I think, with the combination of wider understanding within the agriculture industry of how critical this is, and also science and ingenuity, which has always been really important in agricultural history as well, I’m reasonably optimistic that we can make progress.

Interviewer:  Can you drill down on a couple of the tools that we might put into place there?

David:             There are a lot of things around soil management that you can do that reduce carbon emissions. There’s a lot of work that you can do around reducing the emissions intensity of livestock production. We’re going to be diving into, I think, some of that work during this conference (ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference). There’s also a lot that you can do around managing fertilizer, which is an important contributor here as well.

                        But most critically of all, I think we can think about ways that we can intensify agriculture without expanding its geographical footprint into a natural habitat because, if you look at the numbers, that’s the single biggest contributor of agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions. It’s the expansion of the geographical footprint of agriculture. If food demand increases by 70% or 100% or whatever it is — we know it’s going to be a big number — there is no way that we can do that by expanding 70% or 100% the area that we farm or the area that we graze. We absolutely have to intensify our production systems but do that in a way that doesn’t increase the environmental impact of those systems. It’s hard, but I think there are some places around the world that you can point to where this is happening to a significant extent already.

Interviewer:  What do you sense as the mood in the room, sort of, when you talk to large agribusiness companies and you talk to governments? Do you think they’re excited about digging into this challenge, or are they helpful or optimistic or pessimistic?

David:             That’s a hard question to answer because I think it depends on who you’re talking to. If I could make some very dangerous generalizations, I’d say that I think the CEO level of ag companies in the agribusiness sector, they get how climate change is important. They’re faced with two problems. One is their obligation is to their shareholders, and a lot of the short-term impact of what you need to do to address climate change is not necessarily going to be positive for your bottom line, so there’s that tension between the short-term time horizon that many companies have to manage to and the medium- to long-term nature of the impacts of climate change.

                        The other problem, I think, that the private sector often faces is that you have — the world food system and the agribusiness companies within it are very large and complicated organizations, and it’s like trying to change, the proverbial changing the direction of a supertanker. It’s a difficult thing to do and it takes time and one has to be patient about it, but at the same time, there’s a limit to the patience that we can have here given the urgency of some of the problems that we face.

                        In governments, I think there’s much greater variety compared to market actors and how they look at climate change and the urgency that they feel. I think the European governments, to take one example, feel the urgency of climate change a great deal, and that’s because they’re reflecting, I think, the greater level of concern about that among European electorates. You don’t see that same level of concern in developing countries, for obvious reasons; they have very pressing social and economic issues that they have to address, and they regard those as more politically important in the short term than the longer-term issues that swirl around climate change. I completely get where they’re coming from on that, but that’s basically the picture of where we are.

Interviewer:  Well, let’s talk about a couple of specific governments, maybe. The president in Brazil has just rolled back a lot of environmental regulations there. Are you afraid that that might undermine a lot of the progress that you’ve made?

David:             Well, I broadened it out because I think that Brazil and the United States are a really interesting compare-and-contrast right now. There’s also, in the U.S., been a rollback of a lot of environmental regulations. There are some similarities, I think, with the view of the world that both President Trump and President Bolsonaro have. I think what you’ll find in Brazil, and I think what we’ve seen in the U.S., is that the president can try and do things and set a certain tone, but Brazil and the U.S. both have quite strong institutions.

                        You will, I think, see a lot of the things that President Bolsonaro was attempting to do end up in court in the same way as things in the U.S. are ending up in court. Brazil has a very strong judicial system. It will take a while for things to work themselves out. I know there’s a lot of coverage, all the media coverage about all of the things that could happen and might happen. I suspect that what actually will happen is actually a lot less than some people are thinking, because those institutions are going to come into play and, I think, to a significant extent, moderate what President Bolsonaro is thinking about doing. I think you’re probably going to see the same or have seen the same dynamic in the U.S. as well.

Interviewer:  Tell me a little bit about this online tool that you’ve created for mapping out soybean production in Brazil.

David:             Sure. As I’ve referred to, a critical question for the long-term sustainability of agriculture in the Cerrado is encouraging soy and other grains and oil seeds to expand over land that’s already been cleared instead of directly into native habitat. So, companies and other market actors, they might want to do that, but they’d face the challenge of, “Well, where would it be most economic for me to do that?” That’s partly a question of what your environmental conditions are, what your topography is, what your precipitation ratio is, what your soil conditions are like, but it’s also a question of economics — like, what are your transport costs going to be like, what’s the yield history of this particular area, what yields can I expect, how much fertilizer am I going to need, all those kinds of questions.

                        What Agroideal does — and I should emphasize that Nature Conservancy put the system together, but the parameters of the system and what it’s meant to do was completely designed by the soy traders and the financial institutions in Brazil that have a direct interest in this and can actually really drive what happens. All we did was execute what they said they needed. Agroideal is a geospatial planning tool. It’s web-based. It’s free for anyone who wants to use it. It allows you to zoom in on particular regions within the Cerrado. It covers the whole of the Cerrado. It’s also, by the way, being expanded to Chaco in Argentina and Paraguay. It layers different categories of information — environmental, social, economic — and it allows the user to model different potential scenarios. So, I put a silo here or if I build a road spur over there or a railway in here, how can I do that in a way that minimizes soy expansion into native habitat and maximizes expansion over land that’s already been cleared? It’s a tool that allows market actors to be able to play with different scenarios and have that influence where they site their infrastructure in a way that channels cropland expansion over cleared land, over pasture, usually, rather than into native vegetation.

Interviewer:  That’s fantastic. Well, let’s talk a little bit about resiliency. You mentioned that as one of your global focuses.

David:             Well, the first thing to say about resilience is, it’s kind of difficult to define. Scientists tie themselves up in knots trying to define it and map it, but you can recognize it when you see it. It’s like good art: difficult to define but easy to see when you’re walking around the landscape.

                        I’d say there are two really important points to make. One is that you can make all agricultural systems, whatever scale they are, more resilient. You often hear debates about, “Well, this particular system is more resilient than that particular system.” Well, that might be true, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t increase the resilience of all systems. The other thing, I think, that’s really important to understand is that, in order to increase the resilience of your system, it’s going to make sense for you to be sharing your agricultural landscape at least a little bit with natural habitat, because natural habitat plays a huge role in buffering the environmental impacts of agriculture. That’s true even in a largely converted landscape like the U.S. Corn Belt, for example.

                        Provided you’ve got patches of native vegetation buffering your field edges, provided you’re doing things like cover cropping and trying to do what you can to increase the variety of the agricultural system that you’re using — intercropping, whatever it is — you’re going to be more resilient than you would be if you weren’t doing it.

                        Now, if you’re in a smallholder system in Africa, say, or Southeast Asia or China, you’re going to be probably more resilient in the sense that you’ve got lots of different crops instead of just one or two, often, in a really small area — but at the same time, you’ve got bigger population and growth. You’ve got urgent demands for production, and that can also undermine the resilience of your system, because you’re over-intensifying, basically. The strategies that you would use in different settings vary depending on the nature of the system, but in general, don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. Diversify as much as you can. Make sure you’ve got some native habitat around to be buffering the impacts of what you’re doing.

                        I think it’s easy to talk about it in the abstract. It’s often good to be citing some concrete examples. My favorite example is actually what, on the surface, looks like one of the most vulnerable, politically unstable parts of the world for farmers, and that’s Sahel. That’s the area just south of the Sahara Desert as it transitions into West Africa. In the last 10 to 15 years, specifically in Mali and Niger, countries which had all sorts of political problems, you’ve had this extremely impressive agroforestry movement, where thousands and thousands of small farmers have implemented a system that’s known in the trade as farmer-managed natural regeneration. It involves using a lot of different tree species to intersperse with their cropping. Some of the tree species have direct economic use, some of them don’t, but they all have an important role in helping to shield cropping from the effects of drought and increasing yield. You look at satellite photos of that part of the world, compare them, what they are, compare them today with what that part of the world looked like 20 years ago. It’s much greener today, so there are examples of success stories. It’s not just a story of “what a terrible problem, and it’s really difficult to do anything about it.”

Interviewer:  Yeah. Well, that’s really exciting that they’re seeing increased yield from that practice. Do you know if there are upfront costs that they have before they can switch to a practice like that, and how can we overcome those upfront costs?

David:             There are upfront costs. The upfront costs are quite modest. It’s a fairly low-tech solution compared to what you might be using in other parts of the world. Those costs have been funded by a combination of governments getting behind it, agriculture research institutes and extension agents getting behind it, so a lot of experimentation on what particular species would be good that was done within CGIAR network, which is a UN-funded network of agricultural research institutes. A lot of non-governmental organizations also played a really important role in bankrolling some of the costs, so lots of different people got involved.

                        The critical thing, I think, is that this was a low-tech solution. There were costs, but they weren’t crippling. And even within the context of the fairly poor, hardscrabble farming that most of these villages were in, it was realistic. With appropriate external help, they were able to scale it up to the level that it’s reached today.

Interviewer:  I imagine that Nature Conservancy works to try to spread practices like that.

David:             Yeah. Funnily enough, we can’t claim any credit here because we actually don’t have a program in West Africa. Our programs are in East Africa in Africa. It’s very much the type of thing that we try to encourage, building resiliency, but also when we’re looking at it, not just trying to import expensive external solutions that just aren’t a realistic proposition for the realities on the ground and the places that we’re trying to influence.

Interviewer:  A similar kind of practice, I think, is silvopasture, where you mix forests and livestock pasture. Where do you see that taking off in parts of the world?

David:             Actually, that is one of the areas we work very directly with in Colombia and also in Argentina. You do see it taking off, yeah. It’s really impressive to see some of the transformations it’s been able to cause on the ground. I would introduce one note of caution, which I think is not just with agro-silvopastoral systems, but across the board, is that, sometimes, the impacts are really spectacular, especially in places that have been badly degraded. It’s extraordinary how quickly areas can come back when they’re well-managed, and these systems are really good at doing that.

                        Agriculture is always about context. It’s the most contextual thing that there is, and what works in one valley might not work in the next valley along, so it’s important not to get too evangelical and oversell any individual strategy. I think sometimes that happens with agro-silvopastoral systems. People try and say it’s a silver bullet when, in fact, we’re in a world where it’s silver buckshot. I think it’s really useful. We work with it directly. We find, especially in Colombia and Argentina, it’s really made a huge contribution, but it’s one of lots of solutions that we need to be thinking about and implementing.

Interviewer:  Well, it’s exciting that there are some very low-tech solutions like this that are helping farmers put carbon back into the soil and into the forests.

David:             Yeah, although I would say also, I’m not knocking for the high-tech solutions either, because I think one of the really interesting things about American agriculture right now is that you look at the digital technologies that are coming out and the extraordinary way that they can transform how we manage water, for example, how we’re able to target inputs in a really efficient way so that we can, for example, know exactly when we ought to be applying fertilizer, exactly where, and that kind of input efficiency is also really important in being able to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture while increasing yields.

                        I think one of the really fascinating questions that we’ll be working out over the next 10 or 20 years is the U.S., in particular, it’s always been this engine of technological innovation that’s always led the way in thinking about the appliance of science. It’s really had an extraordinary impact on the productivity of American agriculture. Now, if we could get those, even a fraction of those productivity gains in places like Africa or in Southeast Asia, we’d be well on the way to solving the problems that the world food system faces.

                        One of the great challenges, I think, is how can we translate those technologies and bring the promise that digital agriculture offers to very different settings, where you have farmers who are, on the whole, poor; on the whole, can’t afford the level of investment that American farmers can to access these technologies; and, on the whole, don’t have much of a digital education. These technologies are complicated, and a farmer who doesn’t have much education is going to have trouble applying them. You don’t have, in Kenya or Tanzania, this ecosystem of service providers that you have in the U.S., but when you think about the need to increase the productivity of agriculture while minimizing its environmental impacts, these technologies can be incredibly transformative. How you can get them working at a scale in a smallholder farming context, where you have poor farmers and not so much capital to invest — that, I think, is one of the great unanswered questions of the next generation. If we answer it, I think we’ll be a long way towards cracking the kind of questions that we’ve been discussing today.

Interviewer:  That’s very exciting, and I like your concept of silver buckshot.

David:             It’s not my phrase, by the way. I have to acknowledge Jon Foley, who’s the president of the California Association of Science, who came up with that.

Interviewer:  Well, thank you very much, David. It was great talking to you.

David:             Yeah, it was a great pleasure. Thanks a lot.

Interviewer:  Thanks.

by  | Dec 2, 2019 | Sustainable Agriculture