Food for thought


To feed the world, understanding how natural ecosystems support agricultural landscapes is vital, a new report published today in Nature argues. The Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network is the key to this.

The global hunger crisis will be exacerbated by ignorance, a new report in Nature, co-authored by Conservation International's Dr. Sandy Andelman, argues today. The report claims that to tackle it we need a unified global approach that includes studying the ecosystems that support us – a service that the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network is already providing.

The report, entitled "Monitoring the World's Agriculture," was co-authored by celebrated economist Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Dr. Andelman, and another 22 of the world's leading thinkers on food security. It focuses on the need for holistic monitoring of landscapes in a manner that considers – at multiple scales – how they can be sustainably managed for long-term benefit rather than exploited to achieve short-term "successes" within narrow parameters that may do more harm than good.

It says: "Historically, agricultural strategies have been assessed on the basis of a narrow range of criteria, such as profitability or yields. In the future, the monitoring of agricultural systems should address environmental sustainability, food security (people's access to food and the quality of that food), and human health and economic and social well-being."

Dr. Andelman, Vice President for the TEAM Network at Conservation International, explains: "We need quantitative data on the production and value of key services people get from ecosystems, like providing the water for crops, fuel wood, the quality of soil and on pollinators. We also need to understand how the global climate is changing and the implications of these changes for agricultural and natural systems. These integrated data are critical to prevent informational tunnel vision, and its associated consequences which could include ecosystem and societal collapse."

The TEAM Network, which is a partnership of Conservation International (CI), the Smithsonian Institution, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Missouri Botanical Garden, is already providing multi-scale, standardized data from 16 tropical sites in Africa, Asia and Latin America that enables scientists to understand entire systems – from changes in the way single trees are growing, to macro-scale impacts across the whole landscape, to regional and global responses to climate change.

TEAM is providing this information on the web in near real time, for free, to the global scientific community. TEAM is a network by design, and the sites systematically span the range of key environmental gradients, for example, from high rainfall to low rainfall, and anthropogenic gradients, from landscapes largely converted to human uses to those with little or no human use. The network began with a focus on tropical forest systems, but now expanded – initially in southern Tanzania – to regional scales and has put in place a monitoring framework to detect the impact of agricultural intensification on ecosystem services.

But while the critical first step – the recognition of the need for TEAM and other systems that provide this multi-scale information about entire systems – has been taken, the global community now needs to invest in ensuring that they cover the world's most important ecosystems and agricultural production systems. TEAM is already working with other monitoring systems and within the next 2 years will be operating in 40 landscapes worldwide – but even this is just the beginning.

Dr. Andelman added: "We need to rapidly increase the scale of the TEAM Network and other monitoring systems and ensure the metrics they use are standardized. As today's Nature article points out, we need this global information network now to find robust solutions to the challenges of food security, climate security and biodiversity security as the world population heads toward the 7 billion mark by 2012 and almost 10 billion by 2050."