After a year dominated by the war in Ukraine and backsliding on green commitments, the Egypt-hosted COP27 summit is the year’s last chance to bring climate change back to the fore. This latest installment of the United Nations’ annual climate conference is highlighting, on one hand, the vulnerability of developing countries in the global South, which have been rattled by particularly harsh extreme weather events; and on the other, the insufficient climate adaptation and “loss and damage” funding being provided by the global North.
Despite tentative signs of progress, richer and less vulnerable countries remain largely hesitant to foot the global climate action bill, even though they are responsible for the lion’s share of global warming-inducing emissions. Climate change is notably exacerbating food security challenges in the global South, and with loss and damage funds lagging behind, agricultural sector stakeholders must cooperate to develop and roll out innovation solutions, such as those presented by regenerative agriculture, to boost food production while accelerating the green transition.
A perfect food insecurity storm
A wide range of challenges, from climate change-driven natural disasters to the war in Ukraine and a rapidly growing global population, have coalesced to create a perfect storm for food insecurity.
By 2050, the world’s population is projected to shoot up by roughly 25% to 9.7 billion people, with much of this growth coming from climate-vulnerable developing countries in Africa and Asia highly dependent on Ukrainian and Russian agricultural exports to feed their citizens. This dependency has been exposed by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which caused millions of tons of Ukrainian exports to be held up for months, as well as a 22% year-on-year drop in the area of sowed agricultural land in Ukraine. For the 50 million people living in the Horn of Africa, already coping with the worst drought in forty years, this one-two punch has pushed the region to the brink.
The combination of climate, geopolitical and demographic pressures has created an urgent need to boost production while minimising the farming sector’s environmental impact. However, traditional “intensive” agriculture geared towards maximising production at the expense of soil health and biodiversity – with practices including indiscriminate chemical fertiliser and pesticide use and excessive tilling – is fuelling the problem. The agricultural sector currently consumes 70% of the world’s fresh water and accounts for nearly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Why regenerative agriculture is part of the solution
To escape this “vicious circle,” an innovative new approach is needed to make agriculture part of the solution instead of the problem. Among the most promising models being touted by the global community is regenerative agriculture, which offers a sustainable way to meet soaring global food demand. Regenerative agriculture is an innovative farming system that combines age-old ecologically-friendly practices such as crop rotation, managed livestock grazing and low-to-no tilling with the digital monitoring and optimisation technologies of precision agriculture to restore ecosystems and soil health while boosting yields and cutting key inputs like water and fertiliser.
Crucially, healthy soil bolsters farm ecosystems’ resilience to flooding and drought while mobilising the sector’s “mitigation potential” via carbon capture. And beyond the environmental and food security benefits, regenerative agriculture provides a much-needed economic boon to the sector, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Vivid Economics estimating that it could generate $70 billion for African farmers and help create five million jobs by 2040.
For regenerative agriculture to have a truly transformative effect, it must be rolled out on a wide scale. This requires financial and technical support and R&D investment from the private sector and governments to make the system a viable option for farmers, particularly the 33 million smallholder farmers in climate-vulnerable Africa – home to one-quarter of the world’s arable land that nevertheless accounts for a mere 10% of agricultural production.
For example, Switzerland-based agricultural science company Syngenta has worked with over 1,500 farms that have adopted regenerative practices in recent years, which have benefitted from an average yield increase of 15% while cutting GHG emissions by one-third and sharply reducing fertiliser and pesticide use. But to leverage these types of solutions to help African farmers adapt to climate change, certain implementation barriers must be overcome.
Similarly, Canadian fertiliser company Nutrien Ag Solutions has thrown its hat into the ring, investing heavily in the development of digital farming tools and recently joining the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative (MRCC) – along with companies such as PepsiCo – to support farmers implement regenerative practices. This initiative has helped seven participating farmers apply these methods on over 14,000 acres to cut more than 8,800 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, agri-food giants like General Mills and Nestle are taking major steps in regenerative agriculture, with the former developing and offering technical training courses for farmers and the latter sharing upfront investment costs with them, as well as mobilising its scientific experts to develop higher-yielding coffee.
Loosening governments’ purse strings
To complement these private sector initiatives, governments need to promote regenerative practices with innovative subsidies and tax incentives targeted at key agricultural inputs. Farmers in countries such as Kenya and Zambia have begun using regenerative methods to boost yields in the face of droughts, the latter with the support of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), but individual governments – particularly in industrialised countries – will need to ramp up investment to deliver the necessary change in time.
With climate change pushing the world to the brink, COP27 is throwing the global South’s disproportionate climate burden into the spotlight at the right moment, but concrete solutions are urgently needed. Regenerative agriculture offers many of the answers to current challenges, but the industrialised North will need to accelerate investment to maximise its potential to fuel the green transition while guaranteeing food security and livelihoods.
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