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Growing the world we want: Farming as a global solution to the nature and climate crises

27 April 2023
By Just Rural Transition

Growing the world we want: Farming as a global solution to the nature and climate crises

This Earth Day we should celebrate the potential for farming to be a powerful force to restore nature and safeguard our climate, as well as recognize the need to support farmers to make this happen.

Our planet is at a turning point. The nature and climate crises are affecting every nation on Earth. If current trends continue, rising temperatures and plummeting biodiversity will likely have catastrophic consequences for climate, nature, and food security. Every industry needs to examine its impact and find a way to be part of an equitable future, where humanity thrives alongside healthy ecosystems.

Farming represents an unparalleled opportunity to help us grow the world we want. As stewards of the land, farmers can work with nature to create more resilient and sustainable food systems that safeguard biodiversity, capture and store carbon, nourish healthy soils and yield nutritious food. All services the whole of society urgently needs.

There remains a long way to go. Right now, our food systems emit around a third of global greenhouse gases, and agriculture is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. If current trends continue, emissions from agriculture will increase by 58% and 56 million more hectares of land will be converted from natural habitats to farmland by 2040.

In a vicious cycle, the climate crisis driven by these emissions is itself threatening agriculture and our food supplies. Climate change has already wiped out an estimated equivalent of seven years’ worth of agricultural productivity gains. Our over-reliance on a handful of crops is also leaving us open to ‘plant pandemics’ and global crop failures. With few exceptions, those most vulnerable to these dangers are the poorest farmers in the Global South – those who contributed the least to the crises and who are worst-equipped to deal with their consequences.

How do we make the transition?

Change is urgently needed, and many farmers around the world are already adapting and transitioning towards more sustainable, resilient practices. But we must recognize that farmers cannot bear the burdens alone. They need support from governments, businesses and civil society: ultimately, we all have a role to play in a just transition to sustainable food systems.

Using universal principles centred around equity, inclusion and sustainability, we must work to remediate historical damage and regenerate our natural ecosystems, supporting those who are expected to change, prioritizing the most vulnerable and ensuring that all voices – especially the most marginalized – are heard. Nature protection, food security, social justice and resilience need to be the basis from which a diversity of solutions emerge.

Many of these solutions are not tech-heavy techniques requiring unobtainable investment. Many, such as crop rotation, agroforestry and secure land tenure rights, have existed for centuries. This Earth Day, we take a look at just a few of the nature- and climate-positive practices that are being used around the globe.

Agroforestry from Brazil to Spain

Our love of a morning pick-me-up has led to a growing demand for coffee. But intensive coffee plantations have serious drawbacks. Pests thrive in the monoculture environment and removing trees causes soil degradation and erosion, forcing farmers to rely heavily on toxic herbicides and fertilizers.

In contrast, an agroforestry system, such as the Amazon’s Apuí Region Agroforestry Project, is much more like the diverse forests where coffee plants originally come from. The trees grown among the coffee bushes host a wealth of wildlife, enrich the soil with nutrients and provide windbreaks and shade, protecting the soil from erosion and enhancing resilience in the face of the climate crisis. The native trees planted to rehabilitate the Apuí Project plantations are also used by farmers to produce oil, fruits and nuts for extra income, creating resilient and sustainable livelihoods.

In Europe, another agroforestry system has been yielding similar benefits for decades. Dehesas are farms where trees, native grasses, crops and livestock are managed together for the benefit of both food production and wildlife. In these wooded pastures – which cover around 2.3 million hectares in Spain and 0.7 million hectares in Portugal – a variety of livestock are kept at low densities for their complementary characteristics: cattle to graze the long pasture and produce beef; sheep for short grazing, clearing scrub and providing Merino wool; and pigs, which feed on the abundant acorns that grow on the native holm oaks and are used to produce high-quality Iberico ham. Dehesas might also produce oil from olive trees and honey from the bees that thrive among their rich variety of plant life.

Nurturing soils in Morocco

Morocco’s arid climate and variable rainfall make agriculture especially vulnerable to drought. In these conditions, conventional tilling – the practice of turning over and breaking up the soil – has led to severe erosion, which is now the greatest threat to food production and security in the country.

In recent years, however, the Moroccan government has been working to promote ‘no-till’ farming, where seed planting or fertilizer application is done with minimal disturbance of the soil. Long-term research has shown that no-till techniques reduce soil erosion, improve the soil’s moisture-holding capacity, increase its organic carbon and enhance crop yields by at least 30%. Since reduced tilling also means a reduction in long hours of heavy machinery use, this practice can also reduce fossil fuel use on farms by up to 60%.

Sustainable rice

Rice is a concerning crop when it comes to the climate crisis. The waterlogged fields it is usually grown in emit methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 30 times more potent than CO2. Its production also uses vast amounts of water, accounting for 24–30% of all the world’s freshwater withdrawals.

Yet simple changes in rice cultivation have been shown to significantly mitigate these damaging impacts. Discovered by accident in Madagascar in the 1980s, a technique known as the ‘system of rice intensification’ dictates that the plants are given organic matter as fertilizer, kept alternatively wet and dry rather than waterlogged, and grown further apart, which minimizes competition between the plants and gives them more oxygen.

These simple measures have been shown to reap astounding changes, with yield increases, decreased use of seed, water and chemicals, and increased farmer income consistently reported. In a three-year World Bank study of 50,000 farmers using the system in 13 West African countries, results showed a 56% rise in yields in irrigated areas, an 86% increase in rain-fed areas and an average 41% increase in farmer income. Backed by strong investment partnerships across both public and private sectors, simple, sustainable solutions like this can transform rice production.

These examples are a tiny sample of the sustainable methods that farmers across the globe have been using to improve sustainability. They give us a glimpse of the innovative solutions that can and do help lead us towards a just transition to sustainable food systems. For the sake of our planet, our climate and ourselves: the time is now.