• With Madagascar facing the first climate change-created famine, it is time to ask how we can empower farmers to speed the transition to net-zero, nature-positive food systems.
  • Farmers are the most important stakeholder for this transition and the system must prioritise their needs and challenges, and create fair economic opportunities for them.
  • The World Economic Forum’s 100 Million Farmers platform aims to help transition one in every five farmers to create a tipping point for the sector.
  • The Forum's annual Sustainable Development Impact Summit, 20-23 September, includes a focus on sustainable food security.

Picking up that ripe avocado in a supermarket in Western Europe, we rarely think of the farmer who brought this seed to life, and even less so about how our modern food and agriculture systems are both a driver and victim of climate change and nature loss. But we are sleepwalking our way into this crisis. Madagascar today faces what is the first ever climate change-created famine in modern history. It is time to wake-up and see all that is at stake with irreversible consequences.

Agriculture, which today is responsible for approximately one-third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 80% of tropical deforestation, can also be the solution for fighting and adapting to climate change. Farmers and primary producers – who are the stewards of that land – have a critical role to play in helping the world transition towards a net-zero, nature-positive and equitable future.

The question then is: how can we realign incentives and shift systems to accelerate this transition which puts farmer livelihoods at the centre?

Farming as usual is no longer an option

Food and agriculture systems, and the way they use natural resources, are large drivers of our current climate and biodiversity crises.

This is not only an ecological crisis. Today, $400 billion per year is lost in productivity due to the degradation of 52% of agricultural production land. It is predicted that further land degradation could reduce global food productivity by 12%, thereby increasing food prices by 30% over the next 25 years. Put simply, this could mean that an average American would spend an additional $780 on food every year. Poorer countries, where people are already spending up to 50% of their income on food, compared with 7% in the US, would be much harder hit. Business as usual is no longer an option.

In addition to ecological and economic fallout, land and soil degradation, and unpredictable, extreme weather patterns are creating humanitarian challenges. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of migrants from Central America to the US increased fivefold, coinciding with a dry period that left many without enough food. Madagascar is currently experiencing a terrible famine and unimaginable suffering. And for the first time in modern history, it has been solely caused by climate change.

Image: Poor & Nemecek (2018); UN FAO; UN AQUASTAT; Bar-On et al. (2018)

The science and evidence are clear. We need to transform our agricultural practices not only to reduce their impact on climate and nature, but also to become more resilient in the face of unavoidable change. We need to transition towards net-zero, nature-positive and equitable food systems.

The good news is that agriculture can be part of the solution to the current ecological and climate crises. Regenerative agriculture, for example, could reduce agriculture sector emissions by nearly 50% over the next one to five years in the US, while creating as much as $4 billion in economic value. Other solutions include agroforestry, precision agriculture and green ammonia.

Agriculture could also be crucial to economic growth and could be key in the post-pandemic recovery. Growth in the agriculture sector is two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the poorest compared to other sectors. Some 65% of poor working adults globally make a living through agriculture.

However, if this is to work, we need to put farmers who work hard to produce our food at the centre of the conversation. In the US, for every dollar spent on food, only 7.8 cents goes to farmers. For farmers to invest in sustainable food production practices, we need to work with them, understand their needs and challenges, finance the transition, and provide fair economic opportunities.

100 Million Farmers

Recognizing this, the World Economic Forum has recently launched its 100 Million Farmers platform to facilitate government leaders and private stakeholders around the world to take action to transform the food systems in several ways.

First, it is a collaborative action platform. The time for change is now, we need to move from talk to action. Further research and frameworks are valuable, but the platform’s model is built to start testing and applying these models in collaboration with farmers. Bringing public and private stakeholders across the food supply chains to pre-competitive spaces will unleash the power of shared innovation and overcome key challenges to scale with an increased certainty and buy-in for the solutions proposed.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Second, it will seek to create alignment behind a shared global narrative and ambition, while still being rooted at the national and regional level. It will do so by catalysing multistakeholder place-based coalitions in key regions that will incentivise the farm-based transitions relevant to local needs and ensure local ownership.

Third, it will break the silos between the food, nature and climate agendas, which are too often considered separately. The role of food and agriculture systems in solving the climate crisis is still largely absent in nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. Many countries still consider agriculture and environmental concerns separately, which helps explain the persistence of subsidies and incentives that promote harmful behaviours, like the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides. Bringing food systems on the map of the solutions considered to address climate change, nature loss and social inclusion, will allow us to address potential trade-offs between those agendas and increase the likelihood of meeting the inter-related goals of climate, nature, land-degradation and food security.

Finally, but most importantly, it will work with and for farmers. Farmers will be active stakeholders in the place-based coalitions, and an active voice in shaping the shared narrative and they will be at the forefront of representing the food agenda in high-level events. This is why the platform is seeking to develop solutions that incentivise 100 million farmers to adopt regenerative and climate-smart practices. But it will also provide consumers with the awareness and visibility needed to support and demand these practices.

The time for change is now – we have so much to gain and so little to lose. If we are to be successful, we must harness the power of public-private collaboration along the entire value chain, develop a set of recognized science-driven, economically relevant practices, and keep the farmers, with their insights and experience, at the centre of the journey.

A version of this article first appeared on GreenBiz.