Harvesting opportunities for health, wealth and climate stability in regenerative agriculture

Farming and food represent the production and consumption cycles of the same global system. This system is under growing pressure as the global population grows and climate change threatens productivity and current supply and demand.

Farming is a land-based activity with a huge carbon footprint. But if it is part of the problem, it is also a major part of the solution. Farming and forestry are the major industry sectors that capture and sequester CO2 from the atmosphere.

True-cost accounting is beginning to put a price on agriculture’s contributions to climate change, pollution, land degradation and public health but further transformation is urgently needed across all parts of our agrifood systems,  particularly on soil, water resources and food waste. 

Regenerative agriculture has never been more important, as we strive to reverse the historic tendencies of past centuries to sustainably feed a world of nine billion by the middle of this one. 

As agriculture currently stands, a redistribution of economic value is needed to catalyse innovation without seeing food prices rise, more value in the agrifood value chain needs to go to farmers enabled by shorter value chains. 

We need a change in our diets, namely reducing animal proteins, produce and consume more vegetal ones, reduce imports and deforestation. This is a prerequisite for our health but extremely difficult to reach due to many cultural barriers.

Applying circular economy principles across supply chains is vital. Food is wasted at all stages as it travels from farm gates to our plates, there is a huge focus on consumers currently but they represent only a third of the waste in the system. 

Another aspect of food transformation is sourcing more local, seasonal food. Organic is no longer the main and only focus. Consumers wish to be in control of what they eat. But this is not simple: What type of food can be sourced locally and seasonably in a sustainable way?

The new regeneration game

We need a new climate-smart agrifood system, recalibrated on regenerative principles. This new trend will drive the global transformation we need in the next three decades. Regenerative agriculture is ecologically restorative and designed to enhance carbon sinks.

Agriculture can play a key role in ecology as demonstrated by many initiatives and innovations – take permaculture, for example – and can do more than simply preserve the quality of life.

Agroecology combines innovation and tradition to put ecological science at the heart of farming. Regenerative or symbiotic principles can be applied to increase biodiversity in soils, in rural landscapes; natural systems have an amazing capacity to generate the resources they need.

A good example of this is coral reefs that develop in places without a lot of nutrients. But once they gain a foothold, through symbiosis principles, they manage to create some of the richest and most diverse marine ecosystems.

Corresponding examples in agriculture include agro-forestry and rhizobium (re)introduction to denuded soils. Regenerative agriculture hinges on the reversal of certain trends of modern industrial agriculture, which have been based on exploiting resources and instead to start re-creating them.

What a regenerative agriculture revolution might look like

Any transition by the agrifood sector must meet SDGs and implement the Paris Agreement. There must be a balance between real-world solutions  entire systems change, because no solution will scale effectively without facing systemic barriers. 

Helping cities reconnect to their surrounding rural territories is one way to take this approach, moving from a focus on just organic to become local – one approach that EIT Climate-KIC is facilitating.

Many cities in Europe are interested to be better connected, to source their food and biomass locally, for example, through agroforestry activities, and to benefit from ecosystem services of their rural areas. In many cases, they see also societal opportunities, rural activities being of interest for instance to the migrants they accommodate on their territories.

Closing the loop between food waste and carbon storage in agricultural soils is another critical aspect of how regenerative agriculture is developing – and one that EIT Climate-KIC drives with its CSA Booster programme. This could be converting waste to biochar and energy and back to agricultural soils or implying the principles of aquaponics in agricultural lands and not merely in greenhouses.

Green/vegetal protein programmes, whereby algae or insect based sources of protein in animal feed can replace the need for swathes of land required for soy can have a wider impact, alleviating deforestation. Making the connection of both issues will support the scaling up. The rise of blue protein trends in aquaculture is also encouraging.

A UN-backed report from 2015 suggests environmental degradation and loss of ecosystem services cost the global economy €9 trillion. Land degradation has reached a “critical” level across the globe, with 75 per cent of land degraded (projected to increase to 90 per cent by 2050) and is undermining the well-being of three million people, according to a more recent report. A new world atlas of desertification shows an area half the size of Europe is being degraded every year at a cost of tens of billions annually to the global economy.

As US President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote in 1937: “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”. Eighty years later, other nations of the world are also beginning to understand the urgency and scale of the systemic land-based innovation now required to combat the threats of climate change and food security.

Transformation of the €6.8 trillion global agrifood sector will require huge investments. There is currently huge growth in precision agriculture enabled by ICT and big data and in vertical farming championed by entrepreneurs like Kimbal Musk. Investor interest in the sector is already growing. US billionaire investor Jim Rogers told the Financial Times, “I think that farming is going to be one of the most exciting professions in the next 20 years.”

Regenerative transformation of our global agrifood systems offer huge near-term opportunities to affordably close the ‘emissions gap’ at the heart of the Paris Climate Agreement. Unravelling decades of ‘productionist’ agrifood policies with new innovation and investment will also have a positive impact on job creation and economic resilience, as well as human health and biodiversity. It is time to harvest this low hanging fruit.

Daniel Zimmer, Director Sustainable Land Use, EIT Climate-KIC spoke on the topic at the annual Trento Festival of Economics in a session titled ‘Smart and green; agriculture of the future’.  Follow him on Twitter @danzim13. You can read more about the work of EIT Climate-KIC’s Sustainable Land Use team here

 
Location
Italy
Related Focus Area
Sustainable Land Use
Related Goal
Goal 5: Reform food systems
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