There’s a meeting this week in Nairobi, Kenya, of the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature initiative. It’s organized by a U.S.-based nonprofit called EcoAgriculture Partners, along with other groups – UN agencies, international agricultural research centers, the Dutch government, the World Resources Institute and Conservation International. You can follow the proceedings here.

The idea of the initiative is to get governments, funders, researchers and farmers to look at farms not just as means for producing food, fiber, fuel and income, but also as components of complex ecosystems that provide a range of vital services, from clean air and water to wildlife habitat.

This sort of thinking isn’t new, but clearly, it’s important. For one thing, you need a healthy environment – with birds, bees, bugs, bats, etc. – to produce healthy food and support rural communities. But agriculture is often its own worst enemy – gobbling up forests, reducing biodiversity, degrading soils, poisoning waterways and pumping out greenhouse gases. This is true not just for big industrial farms, but also for tiny subsistence plots.

Adopting a “whole landscape” approach, possibly using economic incentives to encourage tree planting, pollution and erosion controls, wetlands conservation and other environment-friendly practices, could be a way to lessen the impact. It also could boost productivity over the long term. (You can find some case studies here.)

Sadly, it isn’t easy to pull off. It’s one thing to convince (or pay) a government, corporation or wealthy landowner to set aside a swath of land for a park or wildlife preserve. It’s quite another to get farmers, loggers, herders, homesteaders, politicians, bureaucrats, civil society groups and other players to commit to protecting something as conceptually and legally abstract as a landscape. Natural systems may be complex, but they’ve got nothing on human societies.

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Jon Miller

Jonathan Miller is executive director of Homelands Productions, a journalism cooperative specializing in public radio features and documentaries. As a freelance journalist, he has reported from Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe and the U.S. for NPR, BBC, CBC, American Public Media's Marketplace, Monitor Radio, VOA, Radio Netherlands and Radio Deutsche Welle. He also has written for The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Parents, American Way, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. For 13 years, he lived and worked in the Philippines and Peru. 

Jon is currently serving as executive producer of "Food for 9 Billion," a collaborative project of Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Public Media's Marketplace, PRI's The World, and PBS NewsHour. He was executive producer of Homelands' award-winning "WORKING" project profiling workers in the global economy (2007-09) and the "Worlds of Difference" series about the responses of traditional societies to rapid cultural change (2002-05).