Transitioning to a sustainable food system is more important than ever before. What role does agriculture play and how can the agrifood industry accelerate a just transition?
The farming challenge
Agriculture is at the heart of our food system; as our population grows, so too does our dependence on it to feed and nourish us. In order to meet this growing demand, it is estimated that agriculture will need to produce 60% more food globally by 2050 (1).
However, agriculture, forestry and other types of land use are currently responsible for almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions (2). This is primarily from deforestation and emissions from livestock, soil and nutrient management (2).
On top of these emissions which contribute to climate change, our global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, with agriculture alone being the identified threat to 86% of species at risk of extinction (3). Current agricultural practices also account for approximately 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally (4) and are responsible for huge areas of land and soil degradation.
Carbon sequestration in soil has been suggested as a prospective way of mitigating the increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (5). Soils are among the planet's largest reservoirs of carbon (5), meaning they can hold carbon and prevent it from entering into the atmosphere. However, one-third of farmland has been degraded (1) due to factors such as over-farming, over-cultivation, over-grazing and forest conversion (6). This land degradation affects the carbon content of the soil and associated agroecosystems (5).
When biodiverse landscapes such as forests are converted into farmland, important nutrients are removed, preventing the recycling and replenishing of organic material, and reducing the amount of carbon the soil can store by up to 75% (7). Agricultural land management practices can disturb soil structure, leaving it vulnerable to wind and water erosion, and damaging the complex systems which exist below ground (7). Ultimately, this can accelerate surface runoff and soil erosion, loss of organic matter and fertility, loss of soil biodiversity and disruption in cycles of water, organic carbon and plant nutrients (7).
How can agriculture be sustainable?
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), for agriculture to be truly sustainable it must meet the needs of present and future generations while ensuring profitability, environmental health and social and economic equity (1). In other words, agricultural practices must transition to become more sustainable without leaving anyone behind. This is even more important when you consider that two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor depend on farming for their livelihood (8). This means that productivity growth in agriculture can have the largest impact of any sector on reducing levels of poverty (8).
Therefore, with climate change already threatening people and the planet, transitioning to sustainable agriculture is crucial.
Farm to Fork, SDGs and sustainable agriculture
The European Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy sets ambitious goals to accelerate the transition to sustainable agriculture. From reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the sector by 50%, to dedicating 25% of agricultural land to organic farming, the Strategy positions agriculture as key to the achievement of the European Green Deal by 2030.
The Strategy also highlights the ‘untapped potential’ of the circular economy in agriculture, where farmers can create new, sustainable business opportunities in markets such as renewable energy, bio-based fertilisers and chemicals, and waste valorisation (9).
The Farm to Fork Strategy comprehensively addresses the challenges of sustainable food systems and recognises the inextricable links between healthy people, healthy societies and a healthy planet. The Strategy is also central to the Commission’s agenda to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
With this in mind, and with 2021 representing the first UN Summit dedicated to food systems and agriculture positioned as key to ‘protecting communities and natural habitats’ in the COP26 goals (10), there is clear recognition of the need for action by nations, policymakers and stakeholders across the whole food value chain.
Accelerating the transition to sustainable agriculture
Due to the size and complexity of the challenge, there is no single solution for accelerating the transition to sustainable agriculture. Collaboration is paramount and there are several elements that can be implemented to increase the sustainability of farming.
Here are 5 key ways which can accelerate the transition to sustainable agriculture:
- Leverage research and innovation
- Implement regenerative practices and nature-based solutions
- Provide training and education, from farm to fork
- Increase transparency and traceability
- Encourage cross-sector collaboration
Research enables us to better understand the challenges facing farmers, providing evidence about which solutions are needed. Innovation is then used to create scalable solutions that support farmers and accelerate the transition to sustainable agriculture.
From the roll out of robotic devices to monitor conditions of crops and livestock to the use of satellite data and AI, sustainable agriculture innovation is diverse and is attracting large investments. RisingFoodStars alumni Trellis, for example, uses an AI platform, harvest data and weather trends to predict and recommend actionable insights for farmers and agrifood sector stakeholders. The insights are designed to help users minimise profit losses and waste as well as preserve valuable resources.
On an episode of the Food Fight podcast, Trellis Co-founder and CEO Ilay Englard explained that “the goal is to help manage trade-offs and understand how decisions we make today are going to affect the future, especially in dynamic systems like agriculture.” (11)
This digitalisation of agricultural processes is also being embraced by other members of the RisingFoodStars programme. Farmforce for example, an agritech IT company, has created a data collection mobile app for field staff on farm sites. The data feeds directly into a platform to give an extensive overview of the entire sourcing operation and offers easier management of complex supply chains, enhanced traceability, reduced fraud and impact management. Farmers can also access the digital footprint for financial transactions, and are able to manage certification.
Hear more from Anne Jorun Aas, the CEO of Farmforce, in this Food Fight podcast episode.
Innovation can also redefine agriculture as we know it. RisingFoodStars such as Aleph Farms and Mosa Meat, for example, are working to create an entirely new form of sustainable agriculture: cellular. By growing meat directly from animal cells in labs, these scaleups have created methods to produce meat that require less land and water than conventional meat, emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions and do not require animal slaughter.
These innovations have been gaining traction, with actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio recently announcing his investment in the two startups in September 2021. "Mosa Meat and Aleph Farms offer new ways to satisfy the world's demand for beef, while solving some of the most pressing issues of current industrial beef production," he said. Read more in Food Navigator.
“Agriculture is our greatest chance for delivering on our commitments under the Paris Agreement, and inclusive innovation will be the key enabler for a just transition to net-zero, nature-positive food systems.”
Dr. Andy Zynga, CEO of EIT Food
The European Commission defines nature-based solutions as “solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective and simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience.” (12)
Restoring agricultural land not only seeks to avoid harm, but actively restore nature and reverse previous damage. One example of this could be regenerative agriculture, which works in harmony with nature to promote practices designed to reverse the negative impacts of conventional agriculture and regenerate the soil.
Regenerative agriculture aims to improve soil health and increase biodiversity, and is based on the following principles:
- Minimising soil disturbance
- Minimising the use of chemical inputs
- Maximising biodiversity (both above and below ground biodiversity, including microbiome)
- Keeping the soil covered with crops as long as possible
- Adapting to the local environment.
These are put into practice under a general, guiding principle of integrating all the farm’s operations as far as possible.
“Given that farming is now the majority land user on planet Earth...what we do on farms will be absolutely critical to restoring the ecological balance that we once had. Regenerative farming does what it says on the tin; it regenerates what we have lost.”
Patrick Holden, Founding Director of the Sustainable Food Trust
Training and education across the food value chain is also important, from educating consumers about the farm to fork journey through devices such as the FutureLearn course ‘Explore how farmers produce food sustainably’, to inspiring farmers to test new technologies on their farms.
Validating new products and services for agriculture in real conditions can sometimes be challenging. Farmers might be hesitant of potential losses due to climate or market situations and therefore find it challenging to be involved in testing new solutions. By joining training initiatives and networks, farmers can meet with other industry stakeholders to develop skills and test new technologies.
The Regenerative Agriculture Revolution, for example, offers innovative farmers in Southern and Eastern Europe a comprehensive training programme that helps them learn about and then apply the principles of regenerative agriculture on their farms. In 2020, on top of creating educational content, the programme taught 90 farmers in Spain and Italy how to transition their farms to regenerative agriculture. It also welcomed 35 farms onto a three-year regenerative agriculture transition programme, guided by EIT Food’s regenerative agronomists.
EIT Food also designed the Test Farms programme, an initiative that links startups with farmers who want to test their prototypes in the field in Eastern and Southern Europe. Startups can validate the functionality or the market acceptance of their solution and farmers can gain access to the newest innovations that can improve their everyday work and make agriculture more sustainable and efficient. “The programme contributes to making agriculture more sustainable and producing food that is safe for the consumer,” said Henryk Jeremiasz, a beetroot farmer from Poland.
Improving transparency means consumers can play a more active role in accelerating the transition to sustainable agriculture. With clearer information about the sustainability of their food, consumers can make more informed decisions about what they buy and prioritise brands that focus on sustainable agriculture, for example.
Despite farmers being identified as the most trusted group in the food system (13), the EIT Food Trust Report 2020 revealed that consumers want farmers to be more approachable and offer more opportunities to visit their farms (13). This would enable consumers to see first-hand what farmers are doing to transition to more sustainable practices. Consumers also felt that large farms in particular need to be more transparent and honest and show what they are doing to minimise the negative impact their processes and practices could have on animals and the environment (13).
Clear environmental labelling could help to increase transparency and traceability. There are currently 147 commodity-specific, production method-specific ecolabels in circulation across Europe. These give a range of information related to environmental impact, and this can be confusing for consumers. Findings from the EIT Food Trust Report further support this - people feel confused and not helped by the current proliferation of labels (13).
To improve this, EIT Food is working with independent, non-profit organisation Foundation Earth to create an environmental label which will enable consumers to compare products, and make informed choices based on the environmental impact each product has. It will also incentivise more sustainable production and practice by food producers, and can be used by retailers to promote environmentally conscious brands.
“As the end users in the food value chain, [consumers’] needs, wants and ideas are integral at every step of the innovation process, and a closer relationship between consumers and the key actors in the food sector is essential if we are to create a food system which is better for both our health and the planet.”
Saskia Nuijten, Director of Public Engagement and Communication at EIT Food
These solutions all rely on collaboration. The agrifood industry needs to work together in diverse networks and partnerships, sharing knowledge, expertise and perspective, to ensure we are all able to transition to sustainable agriculture.
The European Carbon+ Farming Coalition, for example, is an initiative bringing together organisations and stakeholders representing every step of the food value chain under an effort to decarbonise the European food system, while maximising other benefits such as soil health and farmer resilience. EIT Food joined the initiative in May 2021, which was catalysed by the World Economic Forum’s CEO Action Group for the European Green Deal.
“With the UN Food Systems Summit, COP26 and CBD COP15 happening in 2021, there is a strong momentum to transform food systems. Multistakeholder coalitions, such as the European Carbon+ Farming Coalition, have the power to accelerate this transition by enabling market-based systems that value climate, nature and social outcomes, and support the livelihoods and resilience of the farmer.”
Sean de Cleene, Member of the Executive Committee; Head, Food Systems Initiative; World Economic Forum
Finding the right balance for a sustainable future
Despite the diversity of solutions, it is clear that all actors in the food value chain need to work together towards the common goal of accelerating the transition to sustainable agriculture.
Dialogues at events such as UNFSS and COP26 show there is a global recognition of the need for change and the examples described here spotlight just a few of the ways in which the agrifood industry in Europe is responding to this call for action.
We know we are all in this together, and it is only by working together we can find the right balance of solutions which make our agrifood industry truly sustainable.
To keep up to date with the latest sustainable agriculture innovations and projects, find out how you can get involved.
- EIT Food: Farming for a better climate: five examples of regenerative agriculture done well
- European Commission: Sustainable agriculture in the EU
- FAO: Sustainable Development Goals: Sustainable Agriculture
- IPCC: Agriculture, Forestry and Other Types of Land Use (AFOLU)
- UNEP: Our global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss
- World Bank: Water in Agriculture
- FAO: What is Soil Carbon Sequestration?
- WHO: Climate change: Land degradation and desertification
- Natural History Museum: Soil degradation: the problems and how to fix them
- World Bank: Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and productivity growth in agriculture
- European Commission: Farm to Fork Strategy
- COP26: COP26 Goals
- EIT Food: Food Fight Podcast: Has modern farming failed?
- European Commission: Nature-based solutions
- EIT Food: EIT Food Trust Report 2020