Agriculture in the 21st Century: New Landscapes for People, Food and Nature

Increasing population and consumption are placing unprecedented demands on agriculture and natural resources. Today, approximately a billion people are chronically malnourished while our agricultural systems are concurrently degrading land, water, biodiversity and climate on a global scale. We can all agree, regardless of our background, that feeding everyone while maintaining the Earth’s ecosystems are critical goals. But how can this be done?

We know that agriculture plays a key and direct role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 2) to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. However, to meet the world’s future food security needs, we need to make sure agriculture is also central to strategies to address other SDGs on poverty, water, biodiversity, sustainable cities, sustainable energy, and climate change.

Indeed, a new paradigm of inclusive agriculture green growth is needed, and this can be achieved through four actions: considering agriculture a key contributor to multiple SDGs, not just SDG 2 on zero hunger, building cross-sector coalitions, transforming our financial systems, and advancing research and education. Through these four steps, we can not only feed the 9 billion amply, but also do so in ways that sustain our ecosystems, empower local communities and build more resilient cities.

Roles for Agriculture in the 21st Century

The first role for agriculture is sustaining ecosystems, thus shifting agriculture from a source of degradation to a driver of restoration and ecosystem health. This is critical for several reasons. Today about 40% of all livable land area in the world is dominated by crop agriculture. Agricultural expansion is by far the leading cause of tropical deforestation. If we include grasslands used for ranching and pastoralism, agriculture dominates 80-90% of livable land area. Far more wild species depend on agricultural and forest landscapes than are present in protected areas. If these landscapes are not managed to support plant and animal diversity, many species will not survive. Furthermore, most of the world’s most important watersheds are largely under agricultural use. If they are not managed to produce ample clean water, then it won’t be available for people, industry, agriculture or nature.

Over the past four decades we have witnessed the development of numerous agro-ecological practices that achieve “intensification without simplification,” which work with natural systems. Not only can these new systems conserve ecosystem processes while improving long-term productivity, they can help shift agricultural landscapes from a net source to a net sink of greenhouse gases.

Sustaining ecosystems calls for more than action at the plot and farm scale. We need to expand our frame to look at whole landscapes, and how the soil, water and vegetation resources used by the many different land stakeholders can be managed in a more coordinated way. Because of pressures on our resources, efforts to organize such integrated landscape management initiatives are proliferating around the world.

Scientific advances are rapidly improving the potential of new agricultural systems and agro-ecological management at landscape scales. We are at the dawn of a new era of scientific innovation for agricultural systems: more sophisticated studies of the root biome of crops and grasses are showing new ways to manage rhizobium and catalyze rapid plant growth, and suppress pests and diseases. New methods for tracking movement of specific molecules through the watershed are enabling targeted management of agricultural wastes. Improved understanding of plant physiology and plant-ecosystem interactions is accelerating domestication and yield improvement of new shrub and tree species that could be incorporated into farming systems. There are numerous other innovations emerging to make more biodiversity-, water- and climate-friendly agricultural systems. This becomes more important also in light of new scientific findings about the cooling function of forests and other ecosystems.

Secondly, agriculture will play a central role in locally-led development. For more than 50 years, the major directions for agricultural development have been set in national capitals and in the board rooms of major food industry and agribusiness companies. During this century, we must see a move towards designing agriculture as a foundation for locally-led development, context-specific and local stakeholder led. This is critical to note, because there is growing demand to shape agricultural development in a more democratic way, to fit local priorities on land use, use of agricultural inputs, priority crops and ecosystem management. States and municipalities, along with community- and farmer-based organizations, are making greater claims to shape their own development processes. Farmers show resistance to external control in value chains, as they want to ensure their own food security before exporting products, to protect their own resources.

Thirdly, agriculture has a fundamental role to play as a partner in sustainable city-regions. Strong local leadership is not just emerging in rural regions – cities are becoming key catalysts for change in agriculture. This is critical considering that two thirds of the global population is projected to live in cities by 2050 – though large rural populations remain, especially in Africa. City leaders are realizing they cannot fully rely only on commercial actors to feed their inhabitants. In Addis Ababa and South Delhi, for example, over three quarters of households are food insecure. Distant markets are regularly disrupted, and there is growing interest to access local sources for at least a strategic share of the food supply. So rather than just seeing farming regions as anonymous suppliers of food, there is a growing understanding of their mutual dependence with rural regions.

Moreover, cities are recognizing their responsibility to support biodiversity conservation and address climate change, as well to seek resilient sources of water and food, and maintain other essential ecosystem services. These are all areas that rely on partnership with peri-urban and rural areas. There are numerous examples of innovative urban-rural partnerships all over the world, also recognized in the new Milan Urban Food Policy Pact.

Building Cross-Sector Coalitions at All Levels

Global policy commitments, and their application at the local level, will be drivers of inclusive agriculture green growth. Leaders across all sectors need to engage to mobilize sustainable food systems, and at all levels: UN agencies should act at the international level; inter-agency coordination should be ensured at the national level; and, last but not least, at the local level, multi-stakeholder landscape initiatives should be built and/or strengthened, creating linkages with agri-business supply chains.

Transform Financing for Land-Use

Achieving inclusive agricultural green growth requires action by the finance community – public, private and philanthropic – which should establish financial mechanisms to fund agricultural investments that sustain ecosystems, support integrate local investment programs, finance rural-urban partnerships, and fund integrated landscape management. An example of this new way of financing change is the Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility, which has been established for Indonesia, and may soon be replicated in other countries. The Facility channels private sector funding to small-holders and other key actors in landscapes that improve agricultural productivity in ways that are sensitive to environmental and social conditions. By focusing on productivity increases on existing agricultural land, including on degraded land, the Facility supports new public policies to protect and restore high conservation and carbon value lands, including natural forests and peatlands. To truly support sustainable landscapes, public policy and incentives must support coherence across land uses and stakeholder needs throughout landscapes.

Mobilize New Research and Education

The challenge of sustainable food systems is for the 21st century what the moon shot and computers were for the 20th. We are entering a new era of science that will help shift agriculture from net emissions to net sink, from major energy user to energy provider, from major threat to biodiversity to major habitat for biodiversity. We need new knowledge and education systems that effectively link specialists together to understand and impact complex biological systems. Functional landscapes require stakeholder-engaged socioeconomic systems.

This transformation has already begun, and we invite all countries, citizens, and the private sector to be a part of building the agriculture we need to fit the challenges of this century.

This article is based on a course on sustainable land use taught by Tim Christophersen at the Partnerships for Action on a Green Economy (PAGE)' Academy in Turin, Italy, in October 2016 and was first published in March 2017 in the IISD SDG Knowledge Hub.

Tim Christophersen, Chief Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit a.i., UN Environment

Seth Shames, Director of Innovations in Policy and Markets, EcoAgriculture Partners

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