The food and agriculture sector accounts for a rising 30% of our carbon footprint, presenting an urgent need to reframe land and reinvent farming. In a net zero world, land will need to sustain inter-cropping, livestock, pasture, biodiversity, water services, carbon sequestration and more. But as we strive for just transitions that leave no one behind, what are the implications of making these shifts?  

 Forum’s Director of Global Programmes, Caroline Ashley, explores.

This article was originally published on BusinessGreen.

There is something very fundamental brewing in the food and agriculture sector, perhaps hiding in plain sight. It's about the need to reframe land and reinvent farming.

I consider food and agriculture to be at least two decades behind the energy sector in its transition. The slow pace of decarbonisation in food means it will actually be a growing share of our carbon footprint. The problem though is not just one of pace, but approach.  

Despite efforts to address specific challenges such as deforestation, few have yet realised that we need a totally different approach to how we manage our land and what counts as ‘farming'. In a net zero world, land will not be used for mono-cropping. It will sustain inter-cropping, livestock, pasture, biodiversity, water services, carbon sequestration, recreation and educational services. And farmers will be stewards of land, not producers of a specific crop. They will have multiple sources of income, including carbon credits, ecosystem service payments and sales of goods and services. Their very identity may change – from ‘I am a maize farmer’, or ‘I am a cocoa-farmer’, to ‘I am a steward of land’. In addition, the essence of living in harmony with nature, not depleting it, will be valued too. 

The data tells me this shift is unavoidable

Two hugely significant reports have come out recently. The first - the incredibly depressing IPCC report, highlighted that urgent action is needed now, across all sectors not just energy. There is no question that to address the climate crisis we have to focus on how we produce food, and that does not mean just assuming that production in controlled environments or labs feeds us all. It's about the soil.

The second significant report is from Oxfam, drawing our attention back to land. Oxfam points out that, mathematically, if all the current carbon offsets planned in net zero commitments were achieved through reforestation and planting - which is the only proven technology that exists - it would require all the farmland on the planet. Yes, all! A land area five times the size of India. While that clearly is not feasible, the implication is clear: demand for land is going to skyrocket. So too will tensions and competing claims. Trade-offs between different users and uses of land are unavoidable.  

Two huge implications stand out from this.

  • One is that as carbon markets and nature-based solutions emerge, we need to ensure they are shaped by the rights of land-holders. The poorest farmers and dwellers should not be losing their land but gaining a huge opportunity to build their livelihood in these new markets. Their rights and views need to be the foundation of the system, if we are to ensure a just transition.
  • Secondly, we need to get on with rethinking how we produce food, to integrate carbon sequestration, ecosystem services, and production into a revolutionised food economy.

What's blocking this transition in food?

The recognition of this fundamental reframing does not seem to be happening: when we speak to food companies, too many are looking at GHG emissions per cow, or sustainability of one specific crop, not total emissions across a farm or landscape. The focus is in the wrong place. 

The conversations are in the wrong place too. In palm, soy, cotton, and a host of sector initiatives, sustainability progress is moving but with an isolated sector lens. As Peter Stanbury - senior associate at Innovation Forum - points out, multi-cropping farmers struggle to even sell coffee and peppers to the same company, because corporate procurement teams work in silos. The complex future farming systems will need farmers to be able to easily access multiple markets at once.

Dairy and beef conversations are ‘meat vs no meat'. Yet the answer lies in having some livestock to play the ecological role that wild roaming buffalo played, breaking up the substrate for seeds to bed, providing nutrients and moving on. A ‘reducetarian' world is clearly essential but this needs to be based on ecosystem-specific solutions and new, more joined-up approaches to land management decisions.

"Where farmers do want to shift to regenerative farming, they often lack the transition finance, value chain partners to bear the risks and upfront costs, or access to markets that distinguish their produce."

Some of the latest trends don't help either. Nature-based solutions are developing as a 'wild west' with risks of a land grab rather than part of a regenerative approach to land and livelihoods. I shiver when I hear big companies setting 'incentives' for farmers to transition rather than investing in whole new livelihood pathways that farmers can shape for themselves.

Where farmers do want to shift to regenerative farming, they often lack the transition finance, value chain partners to bear the risks and upfront costs, or access to markets that distinguish their produce.

And finally, there are deeper issues at play too, about power and paradigms. Indigenous or native approaches to land have not only embraced more complex and long-term approaches to productivity and soil health, but have built on a different emotional or spiritual relationship to the land; a relationship that is readily dismissed by our current mono-cropping intensification mindset. The wisdom of those who work the land is not valued in our current systems, where farmers are price-takers. There is no doubt that transforming to a messy multi-cropped regenerative way of farming will be - to put it bluntly - frustrating and disruptive for companies that currently rely on big bulk and lowest cost for sourcing. Frustrating. Costly. Challenging. A hit on profits. But not as calamitous as a 3˚C-warmed world. 

There is huge potential though. There is an upsurge of interest in regenerative agriculture, landscape approaches, and recognition of indigenous practice, although this is not yet mainstream. Managing land at multiple levels, from a single farm to a landscape, will require the best blend of socio-cultural-political-ecological-economic perspectives that humanity can achieve.  

If we are serious about ensuring that food and agriculture is part of the solution rather than driving the problem, all players in the sector will have to work on these tough challenges. As a first step we need a coherent vision of what a regenerative land use system looks like, how to get there, and recognition of the change and inter-related complexities at hand.