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Ramachandran P. K. Nair: 'Agroecosystem Management in the 21st Century: Back to the Future'. Discurso no acto de investidura como doutor honoris causa pola Universidade de Santiago de Compostela

Rector  Magnífico Sénen Barro Ameneiro of the University of Santiago de Compostela,
Distinguished Members of the Faculty and other Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen!

Buenos días! Bienvenidos a este maravilloso evento. Gracias por venir. Ustedes me honran con su presencia.

I want to say how pleased and privileged I am to be honored with the Doctor honoris causa degree from this prestigious university.  I do not have adequate words to describe how delighted and humbled I am in receiving such an outstanding recognition.  For selecting me for this highest honor of this great university, I thank the Rector and the administration; Professor Antonio Rigueiro-Rodríguez and Professora Rosa Mosquera-Losada, my sponsors; the Crop Production Department, and the entire university community of of the School; the Claustro Universitario, and all other departments and individuals for their commitment, support, and resources for making this possible. Ladies and gentlemen, THANK YOU ALL VERY MUCH!

May I take a few moments of your time in reflecting on what I think are some of the critical issues and challenges we face today in the area of land management?  We, the inhabitants of this planet, and its agroecosystems, are challenged as never before with natural resource management problems that require an integrated approach.  We are at a critical moment in the history of civilization such that the dictum “act locally, think globally” – Thomas Friedman called it “glocalization” in his compelling 2006 book The World is Flat – is more appropriate now than ever before. 

Global disparity is a stark reality today. According to the United Nations Development Report, the number of people living in poverty, that is, those who earn less than US$1 a day, is a staggering 1.2 billion, about one-fifth of the world's population; the number earning less than US$2 per day is almost 3 billion.  Yet, the richest 225 individuals in the world have more wealth among them than half the Earth's population. The combined wealth of the three richest people in the world is more than that of 48 of the world’s poorest nations.  The gap between the richest and the poorer countries is widening, not decreasing. Just one fifth of the world's population accounts for 86% of consumption.  This disparity is reflected on all aspects of life and activities on earth, including the practice of land-use systems such as agriculture and forestry. 

No one disputes that faster economic growth is necessary to reduce poverty and the income gap between people. The more challenging question is whether economic growth by itself is enough to achieve the accompanying social goals, and what impact will the measures we may adopt for achieving economic growth have on the Earth’s natural systems?  Coming close to the subject-matter areas of agriculture-related land-use, what are the “best” ways of ensuring productivity and maintaining ecosystem health in perpetuity?

The world has witnessed dramatic increases in agricultural production during the past half a century, from 1950 to 2000.  During this period, the world population more than doubled, from 2.5 billion to 6.1 billion, and the world grain production tripled from 640 million tons in 1950 to about 1,900 million tons in 2000.  Out of this 190 % increase in grain production, only 30 % was the result of increases in area under cultivation, while the remaining 160 % was made possible by increases in yield per unit area brought about by development and adoption of modern agricultural technology.  Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug has famously articulated that this higher grain production per unit area brought about by new technologies on 660 million hectares has spared 1.1 billion hectares of forest land from being cleared; in other words, an additional 1. 1 billion hectares of forest land would need to have been cleared to produce the same amount of food grains if modern technologies were not used. 

These are impressive accomplishments, indeed.  But the question that has begun to be asked is, what is the “real” cost and long-term impact of these gains?  Obviously there are different scenarios and viewpoints on such a complex question.  The crucial question is: are the modern technologies causing increasing damage to the ecological foundations of agriculture such as land, water, forests, biodiversity, and atmosphere?  In other words, in our efforts to provide for the needs of the present, are we compromising the ability of future generations to provide for themselves?  In short, are these technologies sustainable? 

Lester Brown describes in his compelling books how our principal threats are now more environmental than military.  He argues that our claims on earth for feeding the expanding populations have become excessive.  We are asking more of the earth than it can give on an ongoing basis.  Throughout history, humans have lived on the earth’s sustainable yield – the interest from its natural endowment.  But now we are consuming the endowment itself.  The roots of our current dilemma lie in the enormous growth of the human enterprise over the last century.  

How are ecology and natural resources impacted by intensive agriculture and forestry?  Raising land productivity has depended on using more fertilizer, controlling pests, and expanding irrigation.  The growth in the world fertilizer industry after World War II  has been spectacular.  Between 1950 and 1990, fertilizer use climbed more than ten-fold, from 14 million to 146 million tons.  Similarly, pesticide production and consumption have increased substantially.  Excessive use of these agrochemicals is causing non-point-source pollution of water bodies and health hazards – the high demand in the industrialized world for organically produced agricultural commodities is a case in point. Paralleling excessive use of agrochemicals is the near tripling of irrigated area during the past half century, initially through building dams, and later, by harvesting underground water through irrigation wells.  And, vast areas of irrigated land have become nonproductive due to salinity.  In many parts of the world, the need for water is simply outgrowing sustainable supply.  Indeed, water is one of the most endangered natural resource today.  

Thus, we are faced with a very complex problem.  We need to increase land productivity to meet the growing demands of food and fiber, for which use of nonrenewable inputs is essential – at least according to our current thinking.  But we also need to reduce the use of these inputs for the sake of environmental integrity and ecological balance. Furthermore, our emphasis on research and promotion of a preferred few food crops has resulted in considerable reduction in the diversity of food sources and neglect of a large number of traditional food crops and other plants that have been used for generations. 

As Albert Einstein said “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”  A new level of thinking – a paradigm shift, if you will – is needed in addressing these land-management issues both in the industrialized and developing nations.  Some of us, including my colleagues Dr. Antonio Rodríguez and Rosa Mosquera and others at the University of Santiago de Compostela’s Lugo campus, believe that Agroforestry is an approach to sustainable land-use, based on the age-old practice of growing crops and trees together.  In selecting me to receive the highest recognition of the University, I believe that the University of Santiago de Compostela is not honoring me as a person; rather, you are recognizing the importance of agroforestry and honoring a body of work accomplished by the collective efforts of a large group of individuals with whom I have had the privilege of working.  To me, there can be no greater pleasure and honor than seeing that the discipline is recognized by such a prestigious institution as yours – from now on, ours!  

Thank you all.