FOLU Champions: Inger Andersen

The FOLU Ambassador network is made up of a wide range of leading experts, innovators and practitioners in food and land use systems. In this piece, we hear from Inger Andersen, Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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In her role as Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), FOLU Ambassador Inger Andersen works to equip public, private and non-governmental actors with the tools and knowledge to enable human progress, economic development and nature conservation to take place together.

The Danish economist and environmentalist has more than 30 years of experience in international development economics, environmental sustainability, and policy-making, as well as in designing and implementing projects and impact on-the-ground. Before joining IUCN, Inger was Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank and Head of the CGIAR Fund Council.


“We need to understand that it is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable who will be hit first and hardest by climate change, and so development cannot be separated from environmental sustainability.” 


Your career has often combined social and economic development with environmental sustainability. Have you always seen these as linked? Where do you see the key intersects?

My career has been guided by the principle that environmental sustainability is inextricably linked with social and economic development. In fact, my first job out of university was with a non-governmental organisation in Sudan, where I worked on drought and emergency relief work for four years. We need to understand that it is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable who will be hit first and hardest by climate change, and so development cannot be separated from environmental sustainability.

We hear a lot about the trade-offs between agriculture and biodiversity. What do you see as the key areas of tension – are these real or perceived?

Plenty has been written about the trade-offs between agriculture and biodiversity, not least the role of agricultural expansion in the clearance of grassland and deforestation. However, it is also important to look at common ground between agriculture and conservation in terms of biodiversity. For example, agricultural productivity is greatly influenced by soil biodiversity. Soil biodiversity determines soil fertility, including the level of organic carbon and nitrogen in the soil. Soil biodiversity also has a major influence over soil moisture. In many parts of the world, trees play an important role in maintaining soil productivity and in managing agricultural risks. Biodiversity in farming landscapes provides important habitats for pollinators, while the biodiversity of crop and livestock breeds can be crucial for diversifying risks and adapting to climate change.


 “Sustainable farming provides a number of external benefits and these may hold the key to getting agroecology practices to take off.”


What are the key benefits of integrating biodiversity into agriculture? What would it take for agroecology and other agricultural practices that integrate biodiversity to take off?

Biodiversity is integrated into agriculture to different degrees depending on the farming practices that are used. The solutions for more sustainable farming are well-known and they include practices like reducing soil disturbance, maintaining soil cover and practicing crop rotation and diversification. If we aim to conserve sustainable farming landscapes we can conserve both on-farm biodiversity and biodiversity beyond the farm boundary.

Sustainable farming provides a number of external benefits and these may hold the key to getting agroecology practices to take off. In addition to providing food, sustainably managed agricultural landscapes can protect water sheds, reduce the risk of droughts and floods, and mitigate climate change. These are services to society that are worth investing in and we can do more to support farmers as stewards of the environmental and providers of such public goods.


“… we need to do more to measure the conservation benefits of sustainable land management and to validate good practices. There are many trade-offs in land management and we need stronger evidence to handle these trade-offs more effectively.”


 Where have you seen the biggest successes in conserving and/ or restoring biodiversity?

If we are talking about biodiversity in relation to agriculture, then we need to look at regions where sustainable farming practices are being practiced on a large scale. In the Sahel region of West Africa, for example, millions of hectares of cropland are under agroforestry. Numerous countries, including the USA and Mongolia, have restored grasslands through improved herd management practices.

However, we need to do more to measure the conservation benefits of sustainable land management and to validate good practices. There are many trade-offs in land management and we need stronger evidence to handle these trade-offs more effectively. This includes better knowledge on the value of different ecosystems services that are influenced by farming practices and better assessment of overall ecosystem health. The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems is emerging as a useful standard for tracking changes in ecosystem health and for assessing where ecosystems are managed sustainably or where they are in need of greater protection.


“The most promising trend is that biodiversity conservation and restoration has become increasingly ‘mainstreamed’.”


What do you see as the most promising trend in terms of conserving and restoring biodiversity?

The most promising trend is that biodiversity conservation and restoration has become increasingly “mainstreamed”. Biodiversity conservation is important because we need it – healthy ecosystems provide services such as pollination for agriculture, water regulation and good air quality. Biodiversity conservation measures are now also part of the agenda across different sectors, often with a species management focus. People now realise that to preserve species such as tigers, snow leopards and mountain gorillas, they need to maintain vast landscapes and critical patches of natural habitat – with the ecosystem services they provide - whilst still helping local communities to develop and escape poverty.