Picking up that ripe avocado in a supermarket in Western Europe, we rarely think of the farmer who brought this seed to life, and even less so about how our modern food and agriculture systems are both a driver and victim of climate change and nature loss. But we are sleepwalking our way into this crisis. Madagascar today faces what is the first climate change-created famine in modern history. It is time to wake up and see all that is at stake with irreversible consequences.
Agriculture, which today is responsible for about one-third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 80 percent of tropical deforestation, can also be the solution for fighting and adapting to climate change. Farmers and primary producers — stewards of that land — have a critical role to play in helping the world transition towards a net-zero, nature-positive and equitable future.
The question then is: How can we realign incentives and shift systems to accelerate this transition which puts farmer livelihoods at the center?
Farming as usual is no longer an option
Food and agriculture systems, and the way they use natural resources, are large drivers of our current climate and biodiversity crises.
This is not only an ecological crisis. Today, $400 billion per year is lost in productivity due to the degradation of 52 percent of agricultural production land. It is predicted that further land degradation could reduce global food productivity by 12 percent, thereby increasing food prices by 30 percent over the next 25 years. Put simply, this could mean that an average American would spend an additional $780 on food every year. Poorer countries, where people are already spending up to 50 percent of their income on food, compared with 7 percent in the U.S., would be much harder hit. Business as usual is no longer an option.
In addition to ecological and economic fallout, land and soil degradation, and unpredictable, extreme weather patterns are creating humanitarian challenges. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of migrants from Central America to the U.S. increased fivefold, coinciding with a dry period that left many without enough food. Madagascar is experiencing a terrible famine and unimaginable suffering. And for the first time in modern history, it has been solely caused by climate change.
The science and evidence are clear. We need to transform our agricultural practices not only to reduce their impact on climate and nature, but also to become more resilient in the face of unavoidable change. We need to transition towards net-zero, nature-positive and equitable food systems.
The good news is that agriculture can be part of the solution to the current ecological and climate crises. Regenerative agriculture, for example, could reduce agriculture sector emissions by nearly 50 percent over the next one to five years in the U.S., while creating as much as $4 billion in economic value. Other solutions include agroforestry, precision agriculture and green ammonia.
Agriculture could also be crucial to economic growth and could be key to the post-pandemic recovery. Growth in the agriculture sector is two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the poorest compared to other sectors. Some 65 percent of poor working adults globally make a living through agriculture.
Bringing the public and private together across the food supply chains will help overcome key challenges to scale and help farmers buy in to the solutions.
However, if this is to work, we need to put farmers who work hard to produce our food at the center of the conversation. In the U.S., for every dollar spent on food, only 7.8 cents goes to farmers. For farmers to invest in sustainable food production practices, we need to work with them, understand their needs and challenges, finance the transition and provide fair economic opportunities.
100 million farmers
Recognizing this, the World Economic Forum has recently launched its 100 Million Farmers platform to facilitate government leaders and private stakeholders around the world to take action to transform the food systems in several ways. The time for change is now; we need to move from talk to action. We will start testing and applying models for the future in collaboration with farmers. Bringing public and private stakeholders together across the food supply chains to pre-competitive spaces will overcome key challenges to scale and help farmers buy in to the solutions.
We need to think at a national and regional level to create global change. By bringing together different groups in the same areas, we will incentivize the farm transitions to be relevant to local needs and ensure local ownership.
Silos among the food, nature and climate agendas, which are too often considered separately, need to be broken. The role of food and agriculture systems in solving the climate crisis is still largely absent in nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. Many countries still consider agriculture and environmental concerns separately, which helps explain the persistence of subsidies and incentives that promote harmful behaviors, such as the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides. By bringing food systems to the forefront of climate solutions, we can address potential trade-offs and increase the likelihood of meeting the intertwined goals of climate, nature, land-degradation and food security.
Finally, but most important, we need to work with and for farmers. Farmers will be active stakeholders in the coalitions. They will and should be an active voice in shaping the shared narrative. They will be at the forefront of representing the food agenda. We need to develop solutions that incentivize 100 million farmers to adopt regenerative and climate-smart practices. But it will also provide consumers with the awareness and visibility needed to support and demand these practices.
The time for change is now — we have so much to gain and so little to lose. If we are to be successful, we must harness the power of public-private collaboration along the entire value chain, develop a set of recognized science-driven, economically relevant practices and keep the farmers, with their insights and experience, at the center of the journey.