Five food and agriculture experts share their plans for safeguarding our crops for future generations.
With queues at food banks, produce rotting unpicked in fields and empty supermarket shelves, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown both that too many people live below the breadline around the world and our food networks are stressed to their limits.
Last year was incredibly difficult for those working in the food industry. But, where there is uncertainty there are also opportunities, and the pandemic has encouraged many of us to take stock of what we do. If we could reimagine our global food system, is there a way to make it more resilient should there be another global crisis? And if so, can we fix some of the other problems with agriculture, like mitigating its climate impact, at the same time?
Those were the questions we posed to five experts and industry leaders in the fields of food security and sustainability. They identified a common theme – farmers, and the choices we make alongside them as consumers, will have a meaningful impact on climate change. And in turn, better farming will improve global health.
Farmers are important custodians of much of the world’s land. They manage “almost three-quarters of the land in England, producing food for people today and protecting land for the next generation”, says Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the UK’s Environment Agency. Globally, half of the world’s habitable land is currently used in agriculture. “A lot of responsibility for managing these issues falls on their shoulders, they need more support from wider society to make good decisions and keep going.”
Howard Boyd identifies extreme weather – being made worse by climate change – as an example of how farmers are pushed to the limit. The UK, for example, experienced its wettest February on record in 2020, followed by the sunniest spring. In California and Australia, wildfires decimated enormous areas of parched land.
When land is cleared of forest, the water level rises and draws salt to the surface (Credit: Getty Images)
“The climate emergency will increasingly shift us from one extreme to the other, and water, whether too much, too little, or its quality, will be a big concern,” says Howard Boyd.
While the effects of drought on soil quality and risk of wildfires are more obvious, too much water brings its own problems. Increases in rainfall contribute to more pollution from farms washing into the wider environment, particularly in the dairy sector. The solution, says Howard Boyd, needs to be multidisciplinary, including financially incentivising sustainable farming practices, creating habitats for nature recovery and establishing new woodland.
“When we think about innovation, we usually think about new technology, but I’m hoping to see a more integrated approach with the natural resources we already have,” says Howard Boyd. “The Environment Agency works with farmers to tackle the root causes of pollution and to help environmentally sustainable, and profitable, agriculture.”
For those farmers working in drier climates than Britain, climate change is resulting in land degradation – the quality of the land being farmed is decreasing. Land degradation affects almost half of the world’s population, as soil erodes away and nutrients are depleted. The challenge for farmers is to reverse this trend while feeding a growing population.
“We are still degrading more land and we are still harvesting more water, so where are we going?” asks Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
“There is no continent in the world that is spared by climate change, by land degradation, by drought and by degradation of ecosystems,” he says. “Africa is probably the largest continent in terms of the amount of land that is affected by land degradation. But if you go to Asia, because of the size of the population, you have more people in Asia affected by land degradation than anywhere else in the world.”
Women plant saxal to stem the spread of desert in Gansu Province, China (Credit: Getty Images)
The good news is that there are solutions to land degradation, too, says Thiaw. “We can still restore degraded land into productive land.” Thiaw is inspired by high-tech offerings in other sectors, including the use of blockchain to track goods across the world, but believes land degradation could be solved with the comparatively low-tech “regenerative agriculture”.
This style of agriculture encourages the use of cover crops ensuring the land is covered with one crop or other the whole year – and areas of tree cover, both of which help to prevent soil erosion by wind or rain, maintain water and help to sequester carbon in the ground through their deep roots.
“We don’t think it is enough to sustain the topsoil that we have now – we think we need to regenerate it because the world has lost about a third of its topsoil,” says Jeff Harmening, president of food producer General Mills. “And only the first few feet of soil on the Earth are responsible for all the food we produce.”
General Mills has set a target of transforming one million acres of farmland (an area a little larger than Yosemite National Park) using regenerative agriculture by 2030. It might sound like an enormous area, but there are 915 million acres of farmland in the US alone. For regenerative agriculture to have a transformative effect, it will need buy-in from masses of farms.
“One company the size of General Mills is big enough to make a difference but it is not big enough to make the difference,” says Harmening. “It is just a start but it is a good start and a big start to prove the theory of the case. If we do not get started now we are not going to like the result. We really can’t wait.”
Future global pandemics, similar to what we are living through now, could be more likely because of some existing farming practices. “The intensification of agricultural production has come with unsustainable exploitation of natural resources,” says Pierre Ferrand, an agroecologist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in the Asia-Pacific region. “This combined with the increasing impacts of climate change and global uncertainties, exposes communities to more hazards. Large-scale livestock production has been driving natural habitat loss and has pushed the agricultural frontier into wilder and less-arable lands, potentially contributing to creating the conditions for viruses circulating, mixing and spreading to humans.”
Forest is cleared in Laos to make room for rice fields (Credit: Getty Images)
Agroecology is the specialism of looking at farming’s place in the natural world to reduce its impact on biodiversity and improve the quality of crops. Ferrand says it is getting more and more traction in the Asia-Pacific region – mostly because it has already experienced past zoonotic disease outbreaks such as the Sars outbreak in 2003 and the H5N1 bird flu in the 2010s.
The Asia-Pacific region is home to nearly 75% of the world’s small-scale family farmers, fishers and livestock producers, who between them generate 80% of the region’s food. “It is very important to acknowledge it since they have been playing a critical role during the pandemic as ‘front liners’ supplying fresh food to urban centers,” says Ferrand.
Family farmers will continue to play a very important role in the future, he says. “Family farmers are about much more than just production, they are also about stewardship – stewardship of the soil, seeds, biodiversity and human-animal interactions that make up a family farm – which is a fundamental dimension to consider in order to prepare for the next global food crisis.”
However, there is a problem looming in the not-too-distant future if we keep putting so much responsibility at the booted feet of farmers: farming is an increasingly unfashionable job.
It’s one thing making farmers custodians of our land, but what happens if no one wants to do the job? “I think that farming has a very, very bad image problem,” says Kimbal Musk, co-founder of urban farming company Square Roots. “If you’re talking about corn, if you are talking about soybeans no one wants to do that – it’s a really miserable business.”
Square Roots repurpose shipping containers as salad farms (Credit: Square Roots)
Musk hopes that he can make farming more attractive to young people by answering two of their major concerns with the job: firstly, that farming is remote and labour-intensive work and secondly that much of it is done unsustainably. Corn, for example, is one of the most important agricultural products in the US, yet 40% of the harvest goes towards biofuels in the form of ethanol. Biofuels, already a niche fuel, will soon be replaced with electric motors, says Musk. The rest of the harvest largely goes towards animal feed with only a small fraction making its way into the diets of Americans (in the form of high-fructose corn syrup – hardly a healthy food).
Young people are motivated by meaningful jobs, says Musk, and at the moment agriculture doesn’t seem to offer that. “If you are a young person and you want to work in farming that’s just a terrible, horrible, horrible job,” he says.
But Square Roots is offering an alternative in the form of indoor farms in the centre of Brooklyn and Grand Rapids Michigan. At Square Roots, young farmers are given their own modified shipping container in which they can grown healthy foods, like kale, herbs and salads. Much of the work can be done from home using an app that updates the farmer in real time with information about the climate inside their container. Younger farmers much prefer this lifestyle, says Musk.
“We have 10 positions for young farmers and I think we have had over 2,500 applications over the past couple of years for those positions,” says Musk.
Whether it is high-tech, app-powered, urban farms, or family businesses handed down through generations, the people who produce the food we eat have an opportunity to arrest climate change, and consumers, in turn, can shape that through the choices they make. If we all make the right choices, we might avert the next global crisis.
This article is part of a multimedia series Follow the Food by BBC Future and BBC World News. Now in its second series, Follow the Food investigates how agriculture is responding to the profound challenges of climate change, environmental degradation, rapidly growing populations and the Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought new challenges to our global food supply chains. Follow the Food traces emerging answers to these problems – both high-tech and low-tech, local and global – from farmers, growers and researchers across six continents.