Ecological Farming Practices Needed to Achieve New Climate Targets

Farm irrigation
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Farmers are responsible for much of the world’s land use and associated climate emissions, and are key partners in the global effort to reduce the environmental impact of human activities. As climate leaders in Paris at the 21st Session of the Conference of Parties (COP21) near a final decision on an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, farmers across the globe are creating innovative solutions to ecological challenges every day.

A new interim report from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgFood) reveals the true worth of eco-agri-food systems, helping policymakers to better understand the complex links between ecosystems and food.

Alongside COP21, the 2015 Global Landscapes Forum (GLF Paris) meeting explored indigenous land rights, agroforestry, international trade and biodiversity, and tenure rights around the world. At GLF Paris on December 6, 2015, researchers from TEEBAgFood presented results from the new report, which included many feeder studies that identify policy options for supporting more sustainable practices in agriculture. By assessing economic tradeoffs and long-term environmental impacts, these studies have contributed to a better understanding of the most effective incentive mechanisms in the food system.

According to a study by Dr. Harpinder Sandhu, for instance, the economic value of ecosystem services—the benefits that humans derive from nature—could exceed the global costs of pesticides and fertilizers even if adopted on only 10 percent of farmland.

And research from Trucost shows that organic farmers obtain significantly higher margins (ranging from US$1750 to 4536 per hectare) compared to conventional farmers (US$1585 to 2560 per hectare). Trucost is an organization that provides data to business clients to help firms understand their economic dependencies on natural capital, and was a key partner in more than one of the feeder studies that informed the interim report.

According to Trucost, there are many opportunities for positive environmental externalities from agriculture, despite the severity of current impacts. For example, the system of rice intensification (SRI) could cut environmental costs of rice farming in India by 25 percent while simultaneously increasing profits by 18 percent. And in Brazil, holistic grazing management, where cattle are penned in smaller paddocks to allow grassland to recover elsewhere, could reduce environmental costs by 11 percent due to increased carbon sequestration. Other feeder studies have focused on inland fisheries, maize, agroforestry, and palm oil through partnerships with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Trucost, and the World Agroforestry Center.

The interim report—featuring compelling data from these metanalyses—precedes a series of other reports that will present 1) scientific and economic foundations to address core theoretical areas of biodiversity, ecosystems, and agricultural externalities; 2) policies, production, and consumption to focus on policy evaluation for topics such as food waste and food safety; and 3) synthesis to extract key messages and recommendations from the findings of the core reports, addressing a broad readership.

All of the publications will contribute to a better understanding of the economic tradeoffs between agricultural productivity in the short term and ecosystem productivity in the long term, aimed at incentive mechanisms that can facilitate a livable future.

“There’s a cost to implicitly valuing the services nature provides at zero, or close to zero, or not factoring in how farming practices impact the land, the people that work it, and communities,” says Alexander Müller, TEEBAgFood study leader. “We’re incorporating the voices of stakeholders along the entire food chain, from farm to fork, as well as policymakers and those already involved in the movement towards a true cost accounting of food.” 

The Global Alliance for the Future of Food, which is a coalition of foundations facilitating food system change, was one of the key funders for the interim report. “We can’t afford taking a business-as-usual approach any longer,” says Guillermo Castilleja, Chair of the alliance. “How we produce, distribute, and consume food will need to change if we want to address pressing global challenges like climate change, how to feed a growing population, and access to good food for all.”

These studies of true cost represent a new research focus for many food and agriculture organizations. FAO is also working to account for the full costs of food waste across the globe. Food Tank recently released a new TCA report, “The Real Cost of Food: Examining the Social, Environmental, and Health Impacts of Producing Food.” And the Sustainable Food Trust works to develop solutions to food system problems through leadership and collaboration, communications and citizen engagement, and research and policy. As climate negotiations wrap up, it remains to be seen whether world leaders will consider the nexus of food, environment, and human health within global agreements.

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