What we can do to reclaim farmland
Agriculture is responsible for ensuring that future generations have enough to eat. Farmers must make the most of every option for food production.
Thursday, April 28, 2022
We are currently in the middle of a devastating humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, with the war triggering a global food crisis that will hit some of the world's poorest countries the hardest. Even before the war in Ukraine, the UN had warned that hundreds of millions of people around the world are threatened by starvation. Therefore, one of the greatest challenges of climate change is likely to be providing the world's population—which will have grown to ten billion by 2050—with healthy, nutritious and widely available food, while at the same time significantly reducing the impact of agriculture on the climate.
Agriculture is responsible for about 23 percent of global pollutant emissions and is the main cause of deforestation and habitat loss. It was a major point of discussion at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP 26), and rightly so. However, just as many agricultural practices contribute to climate change, so does the impact of climate change also make work even more difficult for farmers. Drought, floods, heat waves, polar vortices—forms of extreme weather caused by climate disturbances—and new climate-related risks, such as migrating pests and diseases, are putting global agriculture and food production under greater pressure than ever before. If the world continues to shy away from radical changes in agriculture—and if the agricultural industry, investors and governments continue to put off working toward such changes—the problems will only worsen, since food demand is likely to rise by about 50 percent in the next thirty years.
One of the most effective measures in improving the agricultural situation is to restore degraded farmland that has become unusable. Over the past forty years, climate change and unsuitable farming methods have made more than a third of arable land unproductive. Decades of overgrazing, incorrect use of chemicals and fertilizers and lack of crop rotation have led to a lot of soil depletion.
When farmland becomes unproductive or unusable, people often turn to unspoiled habitats for food production, which only exacerbates environmental problems further.
If we can find techniques and methods to replenish depleted soil, we will be taking a massive step toward solving the global crisis. Environmental organizations, the agricultural industry and its investors, as well as international organizations such as the United Nations, are now working on promoting measures to restore farmland. Traditional, tried-and-tested methods such as catch cropping are being reconsidered, in addition to farming methods that lead to healthy soils. Farmers are also encouraged to apply the latest findings in the field of agricultural science and work with applied research, digital tools and sustainable farming methods.
For farmers, it is often cheaper to clear land rather than make it productive again.
The knowledge and technology might be available, but this is only one part of the bigger picture. It is often cheaper to simply clear areas rather than make soils productive again. The issue is not so much about the solutions themselves but rather that farmers need financial incentives in order to kick-start this transformation. From smallholders with small plots of land to agricultural groups who grow millions of tons of produce across thousands of hectares, all of our food producers are business owners. Therefore, solutions need to be both ecologically and economically viable.
In Brazil, our two organizations—The Nature Conservancy and the Syngenta Group—are working with ranchers, farmers and other interested parties on a plan to rehabilitate one million hectares of depleted pasture in the Cerrado, a vast savanna rich in flora and fauna. This regional project, called Reverte, aims to promote more efficient and sustainable livestock farming on existing pasture and the cultivation of soya and other crops on depleted but recultivable pasture.
So far, 31,400 hectares' worth of farmland has already been put forward to participate in the Reverte project, which has a strong business model and promises farmers an attractive return. We are also working in collaboration with Embrapa, a state-run Brazilian agricultural science institute, and Itaú BBA, one of the leading banks in Latin America. With these partners, we are able to support the multi-year program by suggesting new methods, providing technologies and additional machinery and offering the farmers involved affordable loans — these are the foundation stones of the Reverte project. According to our estimates, the project requires a two-billion-dollar investment in order to meet the one-million-hectare target.
Freshwater and biodiversity conservation
We must intensify and develop the promising efforts being made in this area. One approach would be to establish further international cooperation dedicated to restoring arable land, while at the same time putting an end to deforestation and the transformation of natural habitats so that agricultural productivity increases in a way that is eco-friendly and economically viable. A new coalition of this kind has already been formed: The project is called Innovative Finance for the Amazon, Cerrado and Chaco (IFACC). The aim is to significantly increase investment in sustainable livestock and soybean production in the Amazon Basin, the Cerrado savanna and the Gran Chaco (a plain that spans parts of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia).
Other partners of the new IFACC initiative include the UN Environment Programme and the Tropical Forest Alliance. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, IFACC partners pledged three billion dollars in loans and investments (the total target has been set at ten billion dollars), with an expected investment of one billion by 2025. This money will go toward supporting farmers who want to switch to more sustainable agricultural practices.
By using land more sustainably, we will be able to preserve natural landscapes across the critical ecosystems of Latin America, the sub-Saharan savannas, the Eurasian Steppe and the plains that remain uncultivated in North America. The native plant life stores large quantities of CO2 and protects biodiversity, which helps to preserve the essential balance between natural conservation and human development. Curbing the effects of global warming while also meeting the food needs of a rapidly growing world population is a huge challenge. With new approaches, such as the restoration of degraded farmland, we can begin to apply some solutions to this problem.
Jennifer Morris is CEO of The Nature Conservancy, a not-for-profit environmental organization.
Erik Fyrwald is CEO of the Syngenta Group, an international agricultural technology company based in Basel, Switzerland.
This article was first published in the Weltwoche of 20 April 2022.
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