Industries in Depth

We can feed the world in a sustainable way, but we need to act now

We can increase soy production without further degradation of the planet Image: COFCO

Lyu Jun
Chairman, COFCO
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

To feed almost 10 billion people by 2050, while at the same time preserving the natural resources that sustain food production, is possibly the greatest challenge that human civilization has ever faced. When we add in population growth, malnutrition and climate change, the ethical imperative for action is unequivocal.

However, the commercial case for sustainable production and consumption is lagging behind the moral one.

The long-term success of the agribusiness sector relies on the natural resources and ecosystem services that keep the efficient food production circle going. Climate is an important component of this equation. Rising temperatures, changing weather patterns and increasing frequency of extreme weather events associated with climate change will significantly impact crop yields and challenge our capability to feed a growing global population. The repercussions on businesses in terms of profit, reputation and investment will be catastrophic. In this context, forests are the most cost-efficient way to keep the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases in check. Forest conservation is a critical element to safeguard future agricultural production and food security.

Agricultural supply chains are vast and complex. From farm to dining table, many actors work to ensure efficient operations. As a result, forest conservation requires collective and coordinated action, taking into account governance, financing, local communities and consumer behaviour. This complex interplay of issues and actors is clearly evidenced in Brazilian soybean production. While we have witnessed a few successful initiatives towards sustainable soy, how can we progress from here to an industry-wide transformation?

Soy: the magic bullet in food security?

As the world’s most efficient protein crop (contributing up to two-thirds of total livestock feed), soy has the potential to balance the world’s food security / sustainability pendulum. Indeed, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization calls for its production to double by 2050.

Meanwhile, this small bean has been heavily criticized for its part in deforestation and the associated impact on indigenous communities, especially in the Amazon. Collaborative efforts like the Soy Moratorium, an agreement to prohibit trading soy derived from Amazon land deforested after 2008, have turned the tide on soy-related Amazon deforestation. Collective efforts now need to be extended beyond Amazon to other equally fragile soy production regions, such as the Cerrado.

 The annual deforestation rate in the Amazon: this has declined significantly since the early 2000’s
The annual deforestation rate in the Amazon: this has declined significantly since the early 2000’s Image:

Partnership beyond the Amazon

Despite having a much lower profile than the Amazon, the Cerrado is a rich biome that covers 21% of Brazil. With soy production set to grow significantly in the next few years, the industry, its supply chain partners and other stakeholders must take coordinated action to ensure this growth is sustainable and responsible.

One approach could be to further encourage soy cultivation on pastures already cleared for cattle farming. Over 25 million hectares of such land exists in the Cerrado. With the right incentives for farmers, including compensation for no deforestation, we may prevent further conversion of virgin forests and native vegetation. The Cerrado Working Group is working on this by bringing soy traders, consumer companies, financial institutions and civil society organizations towards a viable incentive plan. We look forward to reporting on progress on this in the coming months.

Another promising initiative is the Tropical Forest Alliance. With over 150 partners from government, business and civil society, it is driving action on the ground, notably in Mato Grosso, the biggest soy-producing state in the Cerrado. By facilitating public-private collaboration, we see great opportunities to directly connect supply chain companies with sustainable food producers.

Collaborative initiatives like these are what the Cerrado needs. But the clock is ticking and dialogue rapidly needs to become concrete action.

From dialogue to action

Efforts against deforestation would gain significant momentum if more emerging market players in both producing and consumption countries get behind sustainable commodities.

Businesses, governments, civil society, producers and consumers all have a shared responsibility when it comes to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals for food security and sustainability. Together we can scale up deforestation-free and sustainable commodity supply chains. Let’s use this opportunity in Davos to take this collaboration forward.

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Related topics:
Industries in DepthNature and BiodiversityFood and Water
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