Ian Masias/IFPRI

Restoring agriculture to transform food systems

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

COVID-19 may have forced the 50th anniversary of Earth Day to be commemorated online last year, yet millions of people participated in calls to action. As we begin to look beyond the pandemic, however, it's vital to remember that we cannot go back to business-as-usual as far as our planet is concerned.

Against the backdrop of Earth Day 2021's theme of 'Restore Our Earth', a new report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) urges us to invest in nature-based solutions for sustainable food systems. With a clear acknowledgement of the zoonotic origins of the pandemic, the Global Food Policy Report 2021 charts a course for food systems beyond COVID-19 – systems that achieve healthy diets for all while acknowledging the intertwined relationship between agricultural production and ecosystem health.

Getting to grips with our eco-agri-food system

Agro-ecosystems are the largest terrestrial ecosystems in the world, occupying 34% of all land on the planet, but they are also the primary driver of environmental degradation – agriculture withdraws 70% of freshwater and is responsible for most recent losses in biodiversity globally. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the extent to which intensified human–wildlife interactions linked to habitat loss can lead to the emergence of deadly new zoonotic diseases. Key to reversing these dysfunctional trends is a reconceptualization of food involving the concept of eco-agri-food systems. To be able to draw on critical ecosystem services and functions such as pollination, soil fertility, nutrient cycling and biological pest control, we need to consider entire value chains. This means accounting for all externalities, not just during production. It also means expanding our goals beyond agricultural productivity and economic growth.

An appreciation of how biodiversity contributes directly and indirectly to agriculture, and thereby to our wellbeing, leads to the possibility of all food producers – from smallholder farmers to larger agribusinesses – to work toward more 'nature-positive' production that meets food needs and protects, maintains and restores ecosystems. This requires us to make a mental shift from simply 'sparing' land to conserve biodiversity in protected areas to 'sharing' land to restore and regenerate biodiversity in, within and around food production. Agroecological practices such as integrated pest management and agroforestry systems, in combination with clean energy technologies, wastewater treatment, reduced packaging and certification programs, strengthen each link of a holistic value chain. In concert with a public advocacy campaign to boost demand-led production of a more diverse, healthy diet, this kind of 'systems thinking' could prove vital to tackling the interrelated challenges presented by the Sustainable Development Goals specific to food and nutrition security.

Agroecological approaches are also expected to contribute significantly to hydrological integrity and climate change mitigation across landscapes. In this context, a recent series of UN Food System Summit Independent Dialogues for Southern Africa, Central Asia, Egypt and Pakistan focused on the importance of water security for food system transformation, and the tradeoffs involved. As Dr Mark Smith, Director General of the International Water Management Institute, explains, "There are tensions across sectors – and potentially complementary sectors such as agriculture, energy and environment – compete for water and undermine each other. Finding ways to manage the water-energy-food nexus will be key then in ensuring a sustainable supply of water to the food system."

From nature-negative to nature-positive food systems

Managing a mosaic of agroecological landscapes needs the active engagement of all stakeholders, across both formal and informal mechanisms. A good example of a multistakeholder platform is the Nairobi Water Fund, which aims to improve the allocation of water in the Upper Tana Watershed, but it is essential to build and maintain trust. Crucially, regulations that penalize 'nature-negative' actions such as polluting waterways or cutting down trees do not get to the root of the problem. Rewarding and supporting 'nature-positive' actions by farmers as well as corporations incentivizes them to change their behavior and, more importantly, their mindsets.

To enable payment for ecosystem services, regulations, financial rewards and nature-positive norms are essential, along with technical support. India's Promise of Commons Initiative, which aims to secure community rights over commons and strengthen collective action for responsible local governance of resources while providing technical and financial resources for restoration activities, is a great case study – to date it has worked with 83 non-governmental organizations across 29,221 villages to restore 8.71 million acres of common lands. The initiative's grassroots impact is demonstrated by findings that household incomes have increased on average by 30–50% over a period of 3 to 5 years. This has allowed most households to increase their investment in food, education, health, housing and agriculture. Ultimately, this has contributed to increased resilience to the shock of the pandemic, as seen in a lower incidence of risky coping strategies such as eating seed stocks or taking out loans.

Getting us all on track for transformation

The findings of the UNFSS Independent Dialogues will flow into this year's Food Systems Summit in September, which will generate action to drive measurable progress toward the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Covering the same terrain as the IFPRI report, the Summit is framed by five interlinked Action Tracks with synergies and tradeoffs to be weighed up in the delivery of game-changing solutions at scale. Action Track 3, which CGIAR's Water, Land and Ecosystems program is intimately involved in, aims at boosting nature-positive production for human, animal and environmental health through the protection of natural ecosystems, sustainable management of food production systems, and restoration of agricultural lands. As with the Independent Dialogues, the contribution of public stakeholders – particularly from the farmers who feed us – has been critical, with over 1,200 ideas put forward to transform food systems in just six months of engagement. On Earth Day 2021, the success of these public consultations reminds us how we all have a stake in the future of our food systems, and that all of us need to pitch in to restore agriculture to restore our Earth, for "a planet where humans work with nature, not against it."

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Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners.

WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including: ACIARDGISFCDOSDC, Sida and others.