Conserving the Environment

Young family in front of the earth

Climate change, economic globalization and human intervention in nature are changing our environment. The loss of biodiversity in particular is a threat to human well-being and a challenge for research. Land use, for example, will have to be adapted to global change in order to address the climate and energy crisis and conserve local animal and plant species. Cities can play an important role in future. They can act as centres of a new kind of food production which complements traditional agriculture in some important aspects.

The United Nations figures are alarming: Biodiversity is rapidly decreasing. 22 percent of all mammals, 14 percent of all birds and even 31 percent of all amphibians are currently considered endangered or are already extinct. If climate change is not slowed down, this factor alone will make about one quarter of all species worldwide disappear. In addition, too many forests and savannahs are being cut for agriculture worldwide, which accelerates the erosion of soil. One third of all farmland worldwide is threatened by degradation and desertification, while more and more arable land is needed to feed the growing world population. The demand for water is also increasing rapidly. One third of all people are affected by water scarcity and more than one billion people worldwide have no access to clean water.

Research for sustainable development is therefore trying to find ways to reconcile competing concepts of use in a sustainable way, i.e. securing food production, energy supply, urban living and maintaining environmental integrity. To meet these challenges, we need concepts and strategies for viable land management that can contribute to securing a sustainable use of our natural resources. 

The "Sustainable Land Management" funding measure of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) aims to provide the necessary know-how, technologies and instruments in national and international projects. Research approaches include the analysis of interactions between land management, climate change and ecosystem services and the development of innovative system solutions while taking into account interrelations between urban and rural areas and regional value added networks and resource flows. The research results are to be implemented in the respective regions as quickly as possible. Local decision-makers and players are therefore involved in the research process right from the start. The BMBF will provide about 100 million euros in project funding until the year 2015.

Example: Madagascar

On the Mahafaly Plateau in south-west Madagascar, which is considered one of the poorest countries in the world, German scientists, together with the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), will try to develop alternatives to current, not very sustainable forms of land use (SULAMA project). The project will thus contribute to a lasting improvement of the livelihoods of present and future generations and to maintaining and enhancing ecosystem biodiversity and related ecosystem functions and services. "We want to conserve this unique flora and fauna and at the same time improve the livelihoods of the people", explains biologist Dr. Susanne Kobbe of the Zoological Institute of Hamburg University, who is in charge of coordinating the project. 

"Our interdisciplinary approach combines know-how in the fields of ecology and socio-economy, landscape planning and the management of natural resources", Dr. Susanne Kobbe continues. Among other things, SULAMA studies whether biocharcoal from plants can increase the mineralization of compost and the amount of organic substance in the soil on a long-term basis. Another sub-project analyses the impact of different types of land use –  such as national parks or community forests – on forestry, carbon storage and the natural regeneration of the original vegetation and studies how sustainable forestry can develop under different conditions.

Food from the Cities of the Future

Dr. Armin Werner also pursues an integrative research approach. Werner is the head of the Institute for Land Use Systems at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF). He says: "Agricultural landscape research is not limited to the fundamental and technological questions of land use. It also comprises the social, ecological and economic interactions with the environment and thereby has an impact on the entire space." Werner is certain that future food production will no longer be limited to rural areas but will increasingly take place in cities, especially when it comes to fresh vegetables. High hopes are placed on urban farming. "The basic idea is simple: fresh food with minimized land use and reduced emissions", says Werner. 

Whether urban food farming can contribute to stemming the emerging food crisis remains to be determined. However, food produced locally in megacities in emerging countries could give more people access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables. The German-Moroccan research project "Urban Agriculture Casablanca" (UAC) as part of the BMBF's "Research for Sustainable Developments of Future Megacities" programme is focussing on these interrelations. The project is headed by Undine Giseke, Professor for Landscape Architecture/Open Space Planning at the Technical University Berlin. She pursues the aim of increasing urban integration in Casablanca by means of urban farming – and thus of reducing economic dependence, social inequities and ecological threats. This research project is particularly innovative in that it combines planning, technical, economic and ecological disciplines and the social sciences.

Hanging Gardens in Berlin?

Urban farming is also becoming popular in Germany. Under the BMBF-funded research projects ZFarm and INSULA, the ZALF teams are studying conditions for urban farming in Germany together with partners at TU Berlin and the company inter3. The large city of Berlin serves as a model to study how space on, in and around buildings can be used to grow food – e.g. in roof greenhouses or hanging gardens.


Overview Science Year 2012 "Project Earth"

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