Of all the people who can play a pivotal role in curbing climate change, there is one critical group whose perspective is often missing from this crucial global conversation: farmers.
Currently, agriculture is a major factor in the environmental equation—contributing 12% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and using 70% of all available freshwater. And yet, an estimated 828 million people went hungry in 2021.
If anything, the hunger problem has grown worse—particularly given the negative impact the war in Ukraine has had on the global food supply. And hunger isn’t just a problem overseas. Recently, the Biden Administration held the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, meant to aid the millions of Americans afflicted with food insecurity and diet-related diseases.
In short: We need world agriculture to be even more productive—not scale back. In fact, over the coming decades, farmers will face a mounting challenge: producing enough food to affordably nourish a world population that is expected to approach 10 billion by 2050, even while dramatically reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment.
What’s more, as farmers aim to produce as much as 60% more food by 2050, they will be grappling with the devastating impact that climate change is already having on their operations—through unprecedented weather extremes, climate-related migration of pests and blights, and declining access to formerly reliable sources of fresh water.
Climate change is front and center this week at the World Food Prize Borlaug International Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa as leading climatologist, agronomist and former farmer Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig receives the 2022 prize for her pioneering work in modeling the impact of climate change on food production worldwide. As a longtime sponsor of this event, we at Syngenta congratulate Dr. Rosenzweig and appreciate her decades of research that are proving to be so significant right now.
If we want to reverse climate change and eradicate global hunger, it’s imperative that we give farmers a seat at the table in this environmental conversation—and find new ways to support them with innovations, government policies and global partnerships that make climate-smart farming practices both scalable and economically viable.
Regenerative Agriculture is a critical piece of the puzzle
One of the most promising avenues for transforming farming is known as “Regenerative Agriculture”. It’s a science-based approach that prioritizes the nurturing and restoration of soil health and biodiversity—with the dual goals of combating climate change and enhancing farmers’ yields and profitability.
Regenerative agriculture practices include no-till farming, continuous crop rotation, cover crops and carefully managed livestock grazing. Another important component is “precision agriculture”—the use of cutting-edge technology and data analytics to optimize yields and minimize the need for chemicals.
Many farmers have discovered that regenerative agriculture can be both economically and environmentally beneficial. It allows farmers to save money on supplies like the diesel fuel required for intensive tillage, and it creates a virtuous cycle in which increasingly healthy soil produces more consistent yields. Regenerative agriculture also sequesters carbon—removing it from the atmosphere, where it contributes to climate change, and locking it in the soil, which increases water absorption and decreases the need for chemicals like nitrogen-based fertilizer.
As with any major change, however, the transition to regenerative agriculture can be risky for farmers, requiring an inevitable period of trial and error. Regenerative agriculture requires new types of equipment, new ways of working and—to maximize its impact—new digital tools and technologies. Because soil and climate conditions vary widely, the specific practices that generate high yields for a farmer in Idaho, for example, can’t simply be replicated by a farmer in Indonesia.
Compensating farmers for their environmental contributions
Farmers are businesspeople, so we must help them make a living from the essential work they’re doing for our planet. This means policies that subsidize and assist farmers as they transition to regenerative agriculture and that continue this support as the research and development around it evolves. In the U.S. and the E.U., regenerative farmers are not sufficiently compensated for their work on behalf of the environment.
Supporting farmers also means developing innovative tools and solutions that allow them to minimize chemical use, maximize yields and prioritize soil health, using real-time data and advanced analytics. One example is Syngenta Group’s Cropwise digital platform, which farmers are already using to manage nearly 200 million acres. Cropwise allows farmers to track detailed agronomic data and make informed decisions about everything from seed selection to crop protection to harvest timing.
We can also help farmers monetize their environmental contributions by building a successful market for agricultural carbon credits. Measuring carbon capture, certifying farmers’ contributions and ensuring that carbon markets operate fairly will require cooperation among the companies, governments and non-profit sectors. We have a long way to go: A 2021 Purdue University survey of commercial-scale row crop producers found that while 39% were aware of opportunities to be compensated for carbon sequestration, only 1% have entered into such contracts.
We’re all in this together
Syngenta Group is also part of the Imagine Food Collective, which brings together more than two dozen CEOs in food and agriculture to accelerate climate-friendly solutions and practices. That includes big global companies that more typically compete—not collaborate. And we are teaming up more often with universities and other research organizations, creating a valuable brain trust devoted to sustainable agriculture solutions and independently verified results. One example is a partnership with universities and research institutes in Denmark, to investigate how different farming systems can help meet climate, soil and yield objectives in different types of terrain.
A few years ago, it would have been unusual to see major agricultural corporations joining forces with one another, and with environmental organizations, in this way. But the challenge of curbing climate change while increasing food production requires a stark departure from business as usual.
Farmers are the ultimate stewards of our land, but they can’t transition to sustainable and regenerative practices on their own. By giving them a seat at the table in the climate conversation—and the tools, financing and technical assistance to profitably implement best practices—our global society has a shot at feeding the world and preserving it, too.
Erik Fyrwald is CEO of the Syngenta Group.
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