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An aerial view of a tractor sowing seeds in Sichuan, China. Image: VCG via Getty Images.

Interventions: Sustainable Agriculture Production

Agriculture must be radically transformed for environmental, food and nutrition security to be reconciled. Richard King outlines some of the existing and emerging opportunities to shift production towards more sustainable and equitable outcomes. 

Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources

Collection: Food, Climate & Nutrition: Delivering Win-Win-Win Solutions

11 Jun 2018  •  13 min read

Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources

The environmental footprint of agriculture must shrink dramatically. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution must be curtailed, soils restored, greenhouse-gas emissions cut and land use contained, preferably reduced to accommodate more afforestation and reforestation. Individually, each one of these presents a formidable challenge. But they must be done simultaneously while also increasing and diversifying food supply in a manner that supports the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of poor farmers and agricultural labourers.

Some opportunities to foster sustainable and equitable food and agricultural production systems are outlined below under five broad themes: Develop, Diversify, Decouple, Adapt and Close Loops. Potential example projects are suggested under each but the intention here is not to be prescriptive but to give an indicative sense of a wide range of potentially fruitful options.

Develop

Accelerate diffusion of decentralized renewable energy generation. There are two primary purposes here. First, to reach remote smallholders faster than is possible with large-scale utility infrastructure, permitting them to boost their productivity and leapfrog existing farm-management practices. Second, applied at a scale to larger, more energy-intensive farms, factor markets and supply-chain operations, this could also contribute to the necessary decarbonization of the agricultural sector. Any such deployments would also need to be supported by concomitant investment in service markets and rural infrastructure writ large to sustain an enabling environment in which new energy technologies and on-farm value-addition activities can flourish.

Example interventions:

  • Demonstration projects for zero-carbon industrial farms or climate-controlled horticultural greenhouses.
  • Partnering with vertically integrated food manufacturers or agribusinesses to roll out renewable energy solutions throughout the entire supply chain, including for smallholder suppliers and out-growers.
  • Establishing a new fund specifically for deploying renewable energy for productive use in agriculture.

Develop climate-smart conservation agriculture that sustainably improves total resource productivity. Conservation agriculture approaches preserve and regenerate the natural resource base on which they depend. Investing in agricultural approaches that maximize the productivity of all resources used – natural as well as economic – results in a more efficient use of resources and better environmental outcomes.

Example interventions:

  • Campaigns against production subsidies without imposition of environmental conditions.
  • Establishing and supporting local movements to develop alternative markets for diverse, locally produced food.
  • Establishing and supporting local initiatives to develop restorative agriculture and agroforestry on degraded and deforested lands.

Reduce market inefficiencies through disseminating disintermediating technologies. Inexpensive and increasingly ubiquitous smartphone technologies offer the potential to develop service-based platforms that, if supported to reach critical mass, could disrupt incumbents and have a transformative impact on inefficient and opaque market operations in developing country food systems. These technologies might facilitate new sharing-economy arrangements among smallholder farmers (e.g. on-demand hiring of harvest or processing machinery), address market-information asymmetries by providing geo-specific weather, price or extension information, and facilitate improved organization among farmers. In more developed markets, these and other technologies, such as distributed ledger blockchains, could also improve the robustness of supply-chain transparency initiatives, reducing the emotional distance between consumers and producers, while enabling the former to meet their food-provenance preferences on a more reliable basis. For example, confidence in the provenance, safety and environmental impact of food choices may be increased by enhanced abilities to demonstrate that meals contain no vegetable oil responsible for deforestation or beef only from grass-fed cows raised on land unsuitable for arable farming.

Example interventions:

  • Establishing start-up funding and capacity-building mechanisms for disruptive big-data solutions for smallholder farmers.
  • Convening a multi-stakeholder initiative in targeted commodity markets to pilot a supply-chain wide blockchain platform for end-to-end radical transparency.

Improve land-tenure security to increase investment and enhance land stewardship. Investments in supporting long-term ecosystem services and land stewardship are far more likely to emerge where the landowner has a secure and unambiguous claim on the land. Remote-sensing could aid governance and enforcement approaches in areas with few existing records or low monitoring capacity.

Example intervention:

  • Fund a transparent, gender-sensitive and land-titling and monitoring framework in a key developing country including necessary technology platforms.

At Bukura Agricultural Training Centre in Kenya, farmers recieve weather information via texts. Image: Thomas Imo via Getty Images. 

Diversify

Diversifying foods and locations to reduce the vulnerabilities and detrimental environmental and health outcomes that stem from over-dependence on a few staple energy crops grown in a few breadbasket regions. Positive contributions in this area might include investing in sustainable agricultural production in food-insecure countries, supporting research and development into orphan crops – regionally important but not significantly traded globally and disregarded by research networks – and making bio-fortification and climate-resilience enhancements to all crops and feedstocks.

Diversifying landscapes. Homogenous production systems within a locality are not supportive of biodiversity or positive economic outcomes, nor are they resilient in the face of shocks. Positive contributions in this arena might include promoting cultivation of traditional, varieties and mixed farming systems in developing countries or investing in other agriculture-based public goods and biodiversity-enhancing ecosystem services.

Example interventions:

  • Campaigns and advocacy to repurpose agricultural subsidies to incentivize crop diversity and provide ecosystem services.
  • Research and development to support crop improvement among traditional varieties and orphan crops in developing countries.
  • Local campaigns to promote traditional diets, traditional varieties and crop diversity in developing countries.

Decouple

Foster innovations in scaling up land-sparing foods. Alternative sources of protein, including cultured meat, imitation meat and insects, and new horticulture techniques such as hydroponics and aquaponics offer the potential to reduce the land footprint of food production and to improve natural-resource efficiencies more generally by reducing consumption of wasteful animal products.

Example intervention:

  • Private-sector commitments among food manufacturers, food retailers and meat processors to reduce the prevalence of slaughter meat in their portfolios and increase sales of alternative proteins.

Explore the potential of land-sparing biofuels and negative-emissions technologies. Desirable climate-mitigation pathways and food-security imperatives dictate that we can ill-afford to give over large swathes of land to bioenergy. In addition to the carbon-sequestering potential of natural infrastructure, this suggests more needs to be done to understand, develop and appropriately deploy alternative land-sparing solutions such as algae-based biofuels, direct air capture and artificial photosynthesis (hybrid water splitting–biosynthetic system).

Example interventions:

  • Establishing a high-profile innovation prize to incentivize research and development of promising land-sparing technologies while drawing public attention to the issue.
  • Making land-free negative-emissions technologies a public focus of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

A drone is used to spray pesticides on a farm in Bozhou, central China. Image: AFP via Getty Images.  

Adapt

Deploy new technologies to support adaptation and insurance of farming practices. Advances in remote-sensing and machine-learning technologies could be utilized to plan and execute precision farming practices, insurance and social-protection strategies, better matching adaptation responses to changing agro-ecological and meteorological conditions and effectively transferring risk from producers.

Example intervention:

  • Establishing a PPP weather-indexed ‘early warning’ insurance scheme that uses machine learning and remote sensing to anticipate declines in forage and crop cover in drought-prone regions of the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. This could provide payouts in advance of livelihood and nutrition impacts, allowing affected communities to manage the consequences.

Close loops

Micro-dosing agricultural inputs facilitated by precision-agriculture technologies. Precise application of optimal quantities of nutrients and pesticides/herbicides is a highly efficient means of minimizing the application of and over-reliance on, inputs but there has been limited success in scaling up such solutions. Deployed at scale through the application of new technologies, this technique could reduce agricultural pollution, resource burdens and the potential of toxic contaminants entering the food chain.

Example intervention:

  • Working with partners in China and India where fertilizer application is most excessive, to establish solutions in pilot sites that can be rapidly scaled up and replicated and adapted across regions.

Reduce post-harvest losses from crop spoilage and thereby reduce the overproduction that occurs to compensate for the expected losses. This may be through extending the shelf life of crops (e.g. via biodegradable coatings or genetic improvements) or automation. Promising approaches might include using robots for handling produce, sensors and internet-of-things devices to monitor storage conditions and product quality, and improving the cost effectiveness of advanced cold-chain storage technologies.

Example intervention:

  • Financing deployment of novel technologies in East African high-value horticultural cool-chains.

Develop circular agricultural economies by reconnecting nutrient loops through reduced agricultural runoffs and collecting livestock manure to recycle nutrients back into the soil; capturing and reusing the energy and nutrient potential of organic agricultural wastes either through anaerobic digestion or aerobic composting (e.g. using waste as feed for larvae for animal feeds); valorizing food-manufacturing waste streams by creating new supply chains such as turning fibrous peels into papers and fabrics and fostering business-to-business platforms and linkages that permit selling lower-quality produce that would have otherwise been wasted.

Example intervention:

  • Establishing closed-loop agricultural demonstration zones in three regions with varying agro-ecological conditions and farming systems.

Support development of new food-production models in desert regions. Hitherto unproductive and under-utilized land in desert regions could be brought into production by investing in techniques and technologies to utilize new forms of cheap, zero-carbon distributed energy. These may include using solar energy to extract and desalinate seawater from below ground for irrigation and regulating greenhouse temperature and humidity for optimal food-production conditions. Green ammonia (utilizing renewable energy to produce fertilizers) could enhance crop yields and enable load balancing for electricity grids.

Example intervention:

  • Demonstration project utilizing renewables for fertilizer production and controlling greenhouse climates.