Agriculture and Environment: Soybeans

Better Management Practices: Protected Areas & Easements

The creation of protected areas on expanding soybean frontiers could be an essential source of protection for biodiversity and fragile ecosystems in areas that are often not suited for long-term soybean production.
In Asia and Latin America where soybean production is expanding into tropical savannas and forests, one strategy would be to identify key biodiversity sites and work to set them aside as protected areas as a condition of the further expansion of soybean production. For example, in the cerrado of Brazil less than 2% of the land is under any form of protection. In the Atlantic coastal forest of Paraguay there is a similar lack of protection.

Focus on productive areas
It is also possible that individual producers would choose to set aside areas of their farms that are less productive because they are simply not profitable to farm. Focusing on more productive areas may allow such producers to increase net profits while reducing overall impacts.

Conservation easement programs
Another way to accomplish many of the same objectives of permanent protection would be through conservation easement programs. In this strategy, producers would be paid (by a government or some other interested party) some portion of the value of their land if they agreed to adopt a specific BMP approach.

Such a system might specify preferred practices as well as those to avoid. Or the approach might focus on the results and leave it to the producer to figure out how to achieve them. Practices that could be encouraged include getting producers to leave hedgerows intact, not to destroy waterways, and to reseed or otherwise repair waterways where soil erosion has occurred. Other requirements could include prohibiting the use of certain classes of pesticides or insistence on the use of conservation tillage or no-till production.

The Conservation Reserve Program in the US
An example of a conservation easement is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the United States, which has allowed for a considerable reestablishment of biodiversity on areas of former cropland. In this case, the government purchases a "no-use" right for a period of ten years on some 14.5 million hectares, at least half of which are highly erodible.

In some cases, trees have grown back in these areas, and it is doubtful that they will be used for crops even after the end of the ten-year contract. In part this happened because the payments were higher than necessary. The first CRP contract payments often exceeded the local rental value of the land by 30-50%.

About half of the land in the initial program was highly productive and was included more for political reasons than environmental ones (Runge and Stuart 1998). Ways to improve the program include targeting leases only for highly erodible areas, identifying new areas that would form the basis of an overall conservation strategy, encouraging farmers to plant trees or to allow trees to grow and collect carbon sequestration payments as well, and paying less for conservation easements on lower-quality lands.

Different situations, different approaches
In many parts of the world soybean crops are grown amongst other crops, not surrounded by natural habitat. In these situations, permanent protection may be irrelevant. Instead, zoning regulations could promote soybean production on lands already in agricultural production or on degraded or abandoned land, rather than on environmentally sensitive land.

Credits

Extracts from "World Agriculture & Environment" by Jason Clay - buy the book online from Island Press

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