By the OpenAg Symposium series 3 September, 2021 How can agriculture combat climate change, improve biodiversity and address food security issues in the 21st century?
Improving the food system is about more than simply producing more food. We need to produce both more and healthier food, while doing so in an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable way. Professor Sir Charles Godfray, Director of the Oxford Martin School, gave a keynote address at the inaugural OpenAg Symposium ‘Food Futures in a Changing Climate’ on September 3rd at the University of Oxford on three facets of current food systems: the challenges being faced, possible solutions, and the key actors for implementing solutions.
CHALLENGES IN REALISING AMBITION Increases in population size will increase demand for food, but the Malthusian prediction of an inevitable exhaustion of available resources is no longer justified. With an increase in awareness of (and access to) reproductive health services, and greater investment in women’s education, global population growth is likely to slow and eventually plateau, with positive consequences for the demand for food. 1. As national populations become wealthier, meat consumption is projected to increase – presenting several environmental challenges. Even if the global population stabilises, changing diets are likely to increase food consumption and the demand for protein. 2. The challenges ahead are numerous: competition for arable land and how it is used, loss of topsoil, and higher water stress, all directly or indirectly associated with climate change. Additionally, civil unrest and strife pose important challenges that may affect the food supply and the equitable distribution of food. Although great strides have been made to achieve the zero hunger goals, much of this progress will be reversed if areas under conflict increase. 3. Global climate changes and extreme weather events will continue to impact food production with increasing frequency. Our food systems must be reshaped around adaptation to instil resilience and ensure that climate impacts are considered. Clark et al., 2020 indicated that even if fossil fuel emissions were completely eliminated, emissions from the global food system alone would make it impossible to limit global warming to 1.5°C and difficult even to achieve the 2°C target.
THINKING THROUGH SOLUTIONS 1. Modification of diets: Springmann et al., 2018 showed that two of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the agriculture sector result from the production of animal products and staple crops. Consumers must make difficult choices regarding their diets, particularly in developed nations where higher meat and dairy consumption is typical. Dietary options must provide adequate nutrition – not merely sufficient calories – to consumers. Unsustainable and highly processed foods tend to offer poorer nutrition, and sometimes contribute to higher rates of metabolic diseases within the population. 2. Incorporate sustainability standards into the yield. Economic difficulties and design trade-offs (e.g. food miles, plastic packaging, refrigeration) will need to be carefully considered in order to reduce food waste. Technology will play an important role in enabling sustainable intensification.
3. The food system is globalised and needs to work for everyone. Food exports are increasingly used as instruments of diplomatic influence over food insecure states. Improving food governance is vital to ensuring equitable distribution of the world’s food.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE? 1. Consumers must be empowered to make the right food choices. One technique being trialled is a food labelling scheme, where the environmental effects from the production of the food appears on the label, in the same way calorific values are currently displayed. However, this is only likely to be effective with people who are already motivated to eat sustainably – and it may increase the stress of food selection for others. Hence, we cannot assume that environmentally-focused labelling, education and awareness schemes are silver bullets. The consumer is also able to contribute by changing the social environment in which the government and private sector act. 2. Civil society can be a part of the solution by taking a strong stance on food sustainability issues. The food industry responds to the demands of consumers. The rise and success of sustainably-sourced foodstuffs and new alternative protein sources demonstrate that the profit motive drives innovation that, combined with consumer uptake, can lead to the rapid scaling of more sustainable food products. 3. Government policy must help facilitate beneficial changes in the private sector, which efficiently allocates resources and produces the food we consume. In the UK, the role and autonomy of the government in setting environmental and food policy has increased since Brexit, and the potential for public money supporting public goods in the environment strategy is significant for shaping the future of the UK’s food system (cf.UK National Food Strategy: The Plan, 2020). In conclusion, there are many challenges that lay ahead for the future of food systems, considering climate change. However, there are many solutions that give cause for optimism. Good food is the foundation of a healthy life, so the future impacts of climate change on the food system must be tackled proactively and comprehensively.
References Clark, M. A., Domingo, N. G., Colgan, K., Thakrar, S. K., Tilman, D., Lynch, J., ... & Hill, J. D. (2020). Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5 and 2 C climate change targets. Science, 370(6517), 705-708. Springmann, M., Clark, M., Mason-D’Croz, D., Wiebe, K., Bodirsky, B. L., Lassaletta, L., ... & Willett, W. (2018). Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature, 562(7728), 519-525.
#1 WHAT IS THE MOST EFFECTIVE ROLE OF AGRICULTURE IN COMBATTING CLIMATE CHANGE WHILE PROTECTING SOCIOECONOMIC INTERESTS?
Based on the latest IPCC report, there are three relevant issues which provided the setting for this panel session: 1) the effect of increased frequency and intensity of drought on agriculture, especially in drier parts of the world, 2) extreme heat thresholds that are projected to be exceeded more often, resulting in loss of yield due to impacts on phenology, and 3) methane emissions from rice and livestock which are contributing to the 0.5 degree methane-related component of the 1.2 degree temperature rise since the pre-industrial era. This panel discussion explored the relationship between agriculture and climate change, specifically on how the agricultural sector can mitigate climate change and extreme weather events while keeping socioeconomic interests front of mind.
receive a greater share of the value created. Simplicity and transparency can also lead to lower levels of food waste caused by overproduction. 3. Digitisation: Progress must be made in the ‘digitisation’ of agricultural services. Digitisation is necessary to link the consumer more directly with the producer, shortening communication lines and allowing for information exchange. Digital services are especially valuable to smallholder farmers, who often benefit greatly from online communities that enable faster sharing of knowledge and best practices.
1. The panel noted the importance of diversification of agricultural lands in mitigating the effects of extreme weather events, although this is often difficult for smallholder farmers to practice. Regenerative agriculture, which can be adapted to different farm sizes, might offer a more viable and more accessible solution. The panel reflected on the practice of crop rotation, and how it may lead to greater yields and more resilient landscapes. The importance of investing in soil health and new cover crops was also discussed as a method of improving the effectiveness of regenerative agriculture.
4. Investing in Information: While progress is being made in the production, transportation and storage of food, digital tools and access to reliable information limits the potential for increasing the efficiency of the agri-food chain still further, especially in the developing world. With smart-phone penetration and internet access growing, there is a need for greater investment in building tools and platforms which host and share relevant information for farmers, off-takers, and distributors alike. Provided investment in infrastructure continues, digitalisation offers the quickest and most reliable tool for improving economic linkages, which in turn can improve access to markets.
2. Microfinance and microinsurance: The panellists highlighted that although results from sustainable changes in agricultural practices often take time before they are evident, farmers must remain profitable in the interim. Paying farmers to “farm carbon” is one way to incentivise a transition to more sustainable agriculture. Another issue which must be tackled is improving value chain simplicity and transparency and to ensure farmers
5. Increased access to markets and capital give farmers a greater ability to invest in sustainable practices and soil health so that they can maintain the long-term yield of their land. Poorly-formed government policies that encourage the expansion of agricultural production through land clearing or that incentivise overuse of the land must be replaced with those that promote the preservation of the Earth’s long-term natural capital.
Having discussed the role of regenerative agriculture, the need for improved digitisation and the complexity of carbon markets, the panel concluded with the question of who is responsible for delivering the above: is it governments, the private sector or NGOs? Who has the authority and capabilities , and lastly, how can the ball be set rolling to address different facets of climate change?
#2 PRIORITIES FOR POLICYMAKERS IN ADDRESSING THE COMPLEXITY OF LAND USE AND BIODIVERSITY INTERACTIONS What are the synergies and trade-offs between food, biodiversity and climate The panel discussed the three interrelated levers for change in the food system as identified by the Chatham House report, all of which contribute to climate change mitigation, as well as reducing pressures on biodiversity. 1. First, diet, which must shift to reduce demand for animal products and to waste less food. For example, if the US population exchanged beef consumption for beans, an area of land equivalent to 42 per cent of US crop land could be freed up for restored ecosystems and sustainable farms, contributing up to 74 per cent of the emissions reduction goals for the US, as well as improving human health. The second lever was prevention of agricultural expansion into undegraded areas, and restoration of degraded areas. The third lever calls for reforming agricultural practices to support biodiversity, by reducing the need for unsustainable inputs and increasing their efficacy. 2. While there are synergies between ensuring food security, supporting biodiversity and mitigating climate change, there are also areas of tension and trade-offs. For example, food security in developing countries is a priority, and maximising yield might take precedence over other measures to safeguard biodiversity. 3. Another trade-off is the cost of food. Food must account for its true environmental costs in order to incentivise better practices, but this would be difficult in countries where a large portion of household income is already spent on food.
How can we effectively translate global frameworks to local impact? 1. The implementation of global targets is complicated by regional variability. For example, a target for limiting nitrogen (‘N’) inputs and losses into freshwater systems must consider that in Denmark, hundreds of kilograms of N fertiliser are applied per hectare annually, whereas in Nigeria the figure is only ~50kg per annum. 2. A recent report by the World Resources Institute asserts that approximately $400 billion USD of government subsidies worldwide could be repurposed to encourage ecologically restorative farming techniques, which are low emitting, restore ecological functioning and support greater biodiversity. These
include planting trees amongst crops or livestock, cover-cropping and avoiding tillage. While the general notion of mobilising subsidies to incentivise farmers towards ecological restoration can be applied broadly, different metrics should be used in different contexts to measure the impact of agricultural subsidies. 3. The case of Grupo Scheffer, their farms adopted techniques to minimise mechanical compaction of the soil and the use of synthetic chemicals, replacing them with biological inputs, while maintaining the use of GMOs because this requires fewer inputs. The hardest phase is initially convincing farmers to adopt these practices, but the experience of Grupo Scheffer demonstrates that farms can be both sustainable and profitable.
Recommendations for addressing the tradeoffs between food, biodiversity and climate 1. Repurposing subsidies to correct incentives for regenerative practices. 2. Enable markets for ecosystem services i.e. to pay farmers for the public benefits such as water purification and carbon sequestration that arise from restoring ecosystem functioning on degraded land. 3. Target small farmers: The design of existing subsidy policies have a history of excluding participation by smallholder farmers, and preferentially benefiting industrial farms. This must be avoided when re-writing policy to repurpose current subsidies. 4. Enable systems to measure progress: This entails an assurance of high-quality data of the specific locality of concern. Remote sensing technology, as well as fielddata, will play a role in this. 5. Collaborations between industry stakeholders have been effective. For example, a group of larger buyers agreed not to purchase from farms which have operated on Amazonian land since 2008, even if the land was cleared legally. This has kept pressure on farmers to limit deforestation, and demonetised the market value of that land. 6. Taxes are key in disincentivising farmers from growing crops that use more N fertiliser, for example, pushing farmers towards more sustainable methods.
References Benton, TG. Bieg, C., Harwatt, H Pudasaini, R. and Wellesley, L. (2021) “Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss” Chatham House Ding H., A. Markandya, R. BARBIERI, M. Calmon, M. Cervera, M. Duraisami, R. Singh, J. Warman, and W. Anderson. (2021). “Repurposing Agricultural Subsidies to Restore Degraded Farmland and Grow Rural Prosperity”. Washington DC, World Resources Institute.
#3 WHICH TECHNOLOGIES CAN TRANSFORM THE AGRIFOOD CHAIN AT SCALE TO ADAPT TO CLIMATE CHANGE’S IMPACTS?
There is growing investment in the agricultural sector which has created great potential for lasting change, although the effects are not yet being significantly felt by farmers in developing countries. This investment can drive change while avoiding the historical mistakes of agricultural technology which encouraged unsustainable practices. Investment must also acknowledge the different needs that smallholder farmers in developing countries have compared to farmers in developed countries. To drive lasting change, ambitious partnerships between the private and public sector are needed.
Is there an agri-tech revolution occurring? Why now? What form is it taking? 1. The panel noted that investment in agriculture is only just catching up to the biotechnology revolution that began in other sectors almost 20 years ago, and may be spurred by greater interest in the food-system as well as the pandemic re-emphasising the potential for biotechnology to solve important problems.
Can technological innovation solve food system problems? 1. There are large inefficiencies in how agriculture is currently practiced, with inappropriate pairings of crops to the climate and environment of the area. Digital infrastructure can curb these inefficiencies, rather than keeping on with molecular crop breeding fixes, we should focus on information services to share bestpractice and distribution efficiencies. 2. Continuing to enhance existing crops is important, but new demands must also be met - for example, increasing the carbon sequestration capabilities of crops, and facilitating the shift away from meat and dairy to plants while maintaining nutrient and protein quality. Biotechnologies must be accelerated, scaled, and – crucially – made resilient to climate change. Larger developments, such as converting unproductive urban spaces into vertical farms, are also part of the solution.
Agtech and private investment
2. The panel discussed that the impact of agri-tech in developing countries has been limited due to barriers faced in countries where there is a much higher proportion of smallholder farms (e.g., India), where smartphone penetration and access to knowledge is limited. Focusing agri-tech on the creation of digital platforms that smallholders can access, e.g., interfaces similar to popular apps like WhatsApp and YouTube which smallholder farmers already know how to use and access might be the way forward.
1. ‘Patient capital’ which does not depend on fast returns but prioritises transformative change of the food system over profit is needed. The Green Revolution was achieved with relatively limited public sector investment and draws the attention of private sector groups which have the ability to engage in longer investment horizons. The panel emphasises the importance of partnerships between the private and public sector (e.g. Oxford/ AstraZeneca), but notes the lack of political will for such partnerships.
3. It was discussed that farmers may not be experiencing the transformative impact of agri-tech yet, even in wealthier, developed countries, and the surge of agri-tech investment is only evident when looking at the investment by venture capital. But this is still significant. Although digital technologies were not how agriculture developed in the past, the investment has the power to lead developing countries on a more sustainable trajectory.
2. The price of agriculture is global, but the investment is regional. Mergers do not necessarily create innovation, in fact they often suppress it, driving out innovators unable to compete. Expansion of agriculture must include the support for smallholders to grow sustainable, nutritious food.
#4 AFTER SWEEPING AGRICULTURAL REFORMS AND REACTIONS IN 2020, WHAT WILL INDIA’S AGRICULTURAL SECTOR LOOK LIKE IN 2030? Over the past year, the Indian agricultural sector has gone through tumultuous times including civil unrest. On the flip side, India has experienced high production/yields from the agricultural sector, an unintended consequence of migration from urban to rural areas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The framing of this panel discussion was to unpack the future of India’s agricultural sector, considering this new information.
Viability of agricultural livelihoods 1. Considering the many structural problems within Indian agriculture, such as low return/profits from production (with the exception of 2020), decreasing food prices, and competition in the post-harvest market – the viability of agricultural livelihoods is often called into question. The panel, however, highlighted the fact that a large proportion of India’s population is still engaged in the agricultural sector, and the evidence that reversed migration to rural areas due to the COVID-19 pandemic has restarted agricultural activities. 2. The aspirations of the younger generation in India in relation to farming was discussed. With higher educational attainment, India’s youth are more reluctant to work on farms, with the wish to forego the struggles of previous generations. So, the future of the agricultural sector in India might see a further growth in non-farm related activities, such as seasonal migration to urban areas as labourers, in periods when farming has ceased. In addition, the panel highlights the generational inheritance of farmland and further division of resources amongst family which reduces production and endangers generations who must depend on smaller pieces of farmland. The viability of farming as a livelihood therefore lies in the diversification of jobs on the farm. 3. For farming to be viable and taken up by the current youth, the agricultural industry must prioritise job satisfaction, making use of the youth’s education and thereby enabling a sense of satisfaction with the day’s work, and conferring an association between the farming profession with higher status and worth.
Indian agriculture and the environment The key issues plaguing the current Indian agricultural sector include reduced ground water availability, salinity (both coastal and inland), excessive use of chemical fertilizers, and increasing drought. 1. The panel highlighted that the biggest environmental problem in the agricultural sector in India is the choice of crops, using the example of the sugarcane crop which is water intensive and yet is grown in the drier parts of Maharashtra, due to various political and historical reasons. 2. In addition to the right choice of crops, the panel discussed community-based farming projects which harness local knowledge as an example of sustainable agriculture in India. However, one of the main issues of community-based farming which must be urgently addressed is gender, specifically the role of Indian women as farmers.
Feminisation of Indian agriculture 1. The panel discussed that many agricultural activities are carried out by women, while men migrate to urban areas. Women tend to grow vegetables and lentils on the farm as sustenance for their family. Knowledge of diversification of crops and crop rotation is available via the women. Women are therefore essential in the exchange of traditional and local knowledge with the innovations of academics/scientists, which has the potential to contribute immensely to sustainable farming in India. 2. The panel noted the importance of recognising women under the definition of ‘farmer’. Indian women farmers have limited access to credit and are not included in inheritance related laws. Indian women are also the traditional primary caregivers of the household, a role which includes providing children with nutrition. Developing policies which reduce the enormous burden of responsibility on women, such as feeding children in schools, are therefore crucial. The panel concluded this discussion by reinforcing the necessity of supporting women’s individual and collective agency, which will result in climate change adaptation.
To ensure a viable future for agriculture, farmers, academics, and scientists must come to work together towards a shared goal of sustainable food production, such that traditional knowledge of various Indian agricultural practices is recognised and valued.
CONFERENCE RAPPORTEURS: Trisha Gopalakrishna, DPhil candidate at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford Jamie Walker, 3rd year MBiol candidate at the Department of Biology, University of Oxford RESOURCES: Visit http://openag.some.ox.ac.uk/videos to watch the panel discussions in full. Disclaimer: This is a working report that may be subject to revisions based on feedback.