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The sustainable agrifood system puzzle

Sponsored: The path forward for a sustainable agrifood system can be cultivated through collaboration, innovation and co-investments across the entire value chain.


Nutrien Ag Solutions employee checks on bean crop in Brazil. Image courtesy of Nutrien.

This article is sponsored by Nutrien

With the world’s population recently hitting 8 billion people, feeding the world within planetary boundaries has become a significant challenge. As the agrifood system strives to provide food, fiber and fuel for a growing world, the pressure on agriculture continues to increase. Global conflict, inflation and rising food prices are amplifying that pressure.

Developing agricultural solutions requires meaningful collaboration, scaling innovations and co-investing across the entire value chain.

Sustainable and productive agriculture relies on understanding economic, social and environmental challenges and opportunities while investing in the limiting factors to balance the entire system. For example, we can’t solve climate change if it means restricting grower’s ability to produce food (such as imposing nitrogen reductions) because the ripple effect will be an increase in hunger and poverty. The world can’t choose between climate and food security — we must solve for both together.

In fact, we need to consider all of the intersecting factors such as crop yields, animal productivity, nutrient use efficiency, water conservation, biodiversity loss, soil health, and farmer livelihoods and prosperity. Those items alone represent only the base of the puzzle. We can’t lose sight of equally important factors such as human rights, worker health and safety, inclusion and responsible supply chains.

From past to present

The world has come a long way since the "Dirty '30’s," the dust bowl era named for unprecedented soil erosion, starvation and economic hardship.  This experience put agriculture on a journey of learning, experimenting and innovating to come up with new ideas, products, practices, services and technology.

Thirty years ago, nobody could have imagined a cell phone that could turn on irrigation wheels, powered by the sun. Or crop protection products that could zero-in on a single weed, disease or pest.

Innovation, across industries, plays an important role in agrifood solutions.

According to the World Economic Forum (2023), "There has been an explosion of innovations in the food and agriculture space in the last decade. However, it is often a challenge to quickly achieve large-scale adoption of [sustainable and productive] practices, inputs, and technologies. …Academic research shows that adopting complex new agricultural practices can take 20 years or more. …Adopting agricultural practices, inputs, and technologies accelerates when the ‘4As of adoption’ are in place: Awareness, advantage, access and affordability."

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that not every innovation can or will be adopted. Customized, local solutions must be considered across the entire value chain.  

Moving the dial in a complex system

To help advance the 4As, the value chain needs to collaborate on some essential pieces of the puzzle, including:

  • Ensuring a grower-centric model is in place: Growers are the front-line workers, producing the food the world relies on and managing the land their livelihood depends on. It’s critical they are consulted and involved in changes that affect them.   
  • Aligning priorities and co-investing in shared sustainability goals, initiatives and programs: Co-developing solutions in partnership with government, industry, non-profits, scientists and growers has the potential to make a larger and more lasting impact.
  • Providing financial rewards for growers: There is often a cost to implement a new product, practice, service or technology. Growers must consider the profitability of sustainability, like any other business. When the value proposition on the farm is unclear, the value chain partners should step in to help mitigate the risk.
  • Advocating for supportive public policies: Policymakers need to create clear, science-based frameworks for sustainable agriculture that incentivize innovation and the adoption of new technology and practices.
  • Piloting locally and sharing globally: Every acre is unique, and local solutions should be piloted based on science and best practices for the area. Sharing the results of what worked and what didn’t is an easy way to help others learn and adjust to suit their own operation.
  • Measuring progress with data: Data collection and analytics are essential to benchmark and report on progress.
  • Addressing barriers in a timely fashion: With each passing season, the population continues to grow, and pressures continue to increase. We can’t wait another 30 years for the next agricultural evolution. We need to act now.

To scale adoption, sustainability outcomes need to be economically viable with positive environmental benefits and be substantiated with proof.

Value chain program with proven results

As the world’s largest provider of crop inputs, services and solutions, Nutrien is well positioned to lead engagement around the nexus of food security and climate action, particularly given the company’s focus on feeding the future through sustainable and productive agriculture.

Nutrien, through its Carbon Program pilots, is partnering with growers, value-chain stakeholders, governments and non-governmental organizations to support realistic pathways for the monetization of measurable carbon improvements in the agriculture sector.

The shared goal of the program is to bring companies across the agricultural value chain together to incentivize grower adoption of sustainable products and practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and maintain or increase soil organic carbon stocks. The co-investment of various agriculture value-chain partners provides additional incentives to growers to accelerate the adoption of climate-smart practices, as well as generate mutual carbon footprint benefits.

In 2022, Nutrien helped to enable North American carbon pilots on approximately 685,000 acres, working with growers and collaborating with approximately 10 suppliers and downstream partners.

Nutrien also continued in 2022 to advance programming to generate verified carbon offsets and insets. In Nutrien’s Canadian Carbon Program pilots, established protocols are used for improved nitrogen management and maintaining soil organic carbon in an inset pathway. Nutrien’s Sustainable Nitrogen Outcomes program in the U.S., launched in 2022, is designed to achieve emissions reductions associated with the use of nitrogen fertilizer through the implementation of whole-acre solutions that enable growers to reduce nitrogen rates while managing for increased yields. The carbon equivalent outcomes generated in this program can be validated and verified for carbon monetization into the voluntary offset market or used for supply chain insetting.

Both programs are designed for easy implementation for growers, with streamlined eligibility requirements, a short-term contractual agreement, outcome-based incentive payments, as well as data management, analytics and sustainability performance reporting through Agrible, Nutrien’s digital sustainability platform.

A whole-acre solutions approach will support a program that has the capability to generate high-quality carbon outcomes for both voluntary and regulated carbon markets. Although global carbon markets and protocols for agricultural systems remain immature, through direct engagement with growers, Nutrien and value chain partners have advanced capabilities to support expansion that is focused on a practical and science-based approach. Learn more about our work in this space here.

The path forward

The food security challenge is massive, and the impacts are global. However, by moving fast, holding everyone accountable — including consumers, governments and industry — and considering the pieces of the puzzle, we can ensure the long-term viability of our food systems and the entire agriculture industry.

The entire value chain needs to be engaged to create a resilient and sustainable food system that meets today’s needs, while preparing for future demands.

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