Not many kids say they want to be a farmer when they grow up but that could soon change.
Farmers are now reaping the benefits of high wheat, oilseeds, corn and other ag-based products prices as well as profits from government incentives. "It's great to be a farmer these days!", as one US industry official remarked in a recent oleochemical conference that I attended.
Not only are they paid to provide food and feedstock for fuel, but now they can also be paid by providing environmental services, according to the 2007 State of Food and Agriculture report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In short, farmers worldwide can get paid by patching up the land that was degraded some by their own making in the first place such as razing carbon-rich rainforest for crops, soil erosion from poorly managed croplands, or even water pollution from fertilizers and animal waste.
"Agriculture employs more people and uses more land and water than any other human activity," said FAO director-general Jacques Diouf in his foreword to the report. "It has the potential to degrade the Earth's land, water, atmosphere and biological resources or to enhance them depending on the decisions made by more than two billion people whose livelihoods depend directly on crops, livestock, fisheries or forests."
But paying farmers to provide environmental services is not without its pros and cons, as admitted by Diouf. Preserving the ecosystem could mean less area to plant crops resulting in less income for farmers or even less demand for farmers. Less crops could lead to further rise in food prices as well.
Oh and yes, we could also see additional tax increase in our food receipt under the heading environmental preservation tax. Think about administrative costs to handle the distribution of payments and ensuring farmers and/or landowners don't renege on their promises to keep the environment safe.
Another barrier, according to the report, is the absence of clearly defined property rights which could prevent the poor from participating. In poverty-stricken countries, landowners could gain more powerful interests.
So why the initiative in the first place?
Because some of them works using carefully designed payment schemes, said FAO. Cited as examples are China's Grain for Green program paying farmers to plant forests on sloping and degraded lands; the Scolel Te project in Chiapas, Mexico, where farmers and rural communities are paid by private firms for voluntary carbon emissions offsets by the adoption of agroforestry practices; and ecolabeling schemes such as SalvaNATURA certification for shade-grown coffee from El Salvador.
According to the report, hundreds of payment programs for environmental services are currently being implemented around the world mostly for forest conservation but few targets farmers and agricultural lands in developing countries.
"Much work remains to be done to unlock their full potential. However, they hold significant promise as a flexible approach to enhancing the role of farmers worldwide in sustaining and improving the ecosystems on which we all depend," said FAO's Diouf.
With the cost of living on the rise, extra payments for my sustainably sourced coffee and cereal will surely pinched my wallet. But if implemented, I hope these payments go directly to individuals who helped preserve our ecosystem and not just to line some rich landowner's or even corporation's pockets.
As the report said, the concept is good but the implementation of it will be complex.