Sustainable agriculture could be the key to global food security

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions and broader environmental concerns, many countries are looking to improve the efficiency of agriculture while reducing its carbon footprint.

The drive for sustainable agriculture has gained momentum in recent months, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which cut exports of corn, wheat and cooking oil by two of the world’s major producers, raising wider concerns about global food security.

Supply constraints are exacerbated by climate concerns. A recent heat wave in India and Pakistan – which saw temperatures reach nearly 50°C – killed dozens of people and caused significant damage to crops and incomes for smallholders.

While many countries have taken steps to strengthen supply chains and improve supplier agreements, some are also moving towards sustainable agriculture.

Definitions vary, but sustainable agriculture generally refers to farming that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. This typically involves a host of practices focused on preserving soil fertility, preventing water pollution and protecting biodiversity, and may involve measures such as crop rotation, planting coverage and elimination of tillage.

Sustainable agriculture uses up to 56% less energy per crop unit produced and emits 64% fewer greenhouse gases per ha, according to a June 2021 report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

Although more sustainable methods require higher labor costs, UNEP estimates they have the potential to create up to 30% more jobs than conventional farming, and noted that Sustainably produced products generally have higher selling prices.

Sustainable Agriculture in Emerging Markets

Although developed economies, notably France, are at the forefront of sustainable agriculture, emerging markets are increasingly adopting such practices.

In April, Indian agri-tech venture capital firm Omnivore launched a $130 million fund – with up to $30 million in investment from the US International Development Finance Corporation – that will focus on supporting start-ups that make agriculture in India more resilient, sustainable and profitable.

Omnivore has invested heavily in the space since 2012, providing funding to start-ups that offer fintech services, business-to-business marketplace platforms and post-harvest technologies to increase efficiency and sustainability.

One such start-up is Fasal, which provides growers with precision farming equipment used in micro-irrigation systems. Using artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT), the company has installed soil moisture sensors on more than 16,000 ha of farmland in India to conserve water.

Another Omnivore beneficiary is BioPrime AgriSolutions, which develops sustainable and tailor-made organic agricultural inputs to improve yields.

Elsewhere, in March, the World Bank approved a $180 million loan to support water governance, improve irrigation services and implement water-saving irrigation technologies in Morocco.

The innovations included in the project, which aims to support 16,000 farmers, are seen as key to addressing water scarcity in the country.

With MENA countries importing half of their food – and that figure reaching up to 90% in the GCC – the region has been a leader among emerging markets in terms of adopting sustainable agricultural solutions.

In 2020, Kuwait’s NOX Management partnered with Hamburg-based agro-tech company &ever to open a commercial indoor vertical farm just outside of Kuwait City.

Covering 3,000 square meters, the farm uses IoT sensors to digitally control seeding, germination, harvesting, temperature, humidity, emissions and airflow, using 90% less energy. water and 60% less fertilizer than traditional agriculture.

This comes as regional media reports that Kuwait is accelerating the development of a sustainable agricultural project. Half-completed in June, the farm aims to reduce the use of fresh water in agriculture by using treated water and to improve the efficiency of various farming practices through technology upgrades.

The project will also use solar-powered greenhouses, develop six lakes for sustainable aquaculture and build an agricultural waste recycling unit.

Regenerative agriculture

While incorporating many of the principles of sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture takes it a step further by rehabilitating the environment to a state where it can naturally regrow food on its own.

By increasing soil biodiversity and organic matter, regenerative agriculture makes soils more resilient, and therefore able to withstand the severe weather impacts of climate change.

According to a 2021 study by Bain & Company and Nature United, transitioning to regenerative agriculture could help farmers halve their emissions and increase their profits. However, the study cautioned that farmers would need four years on average to realize these benefits and would ultimately lose profitability during the transition.

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Another study, by the Ecdysis Foundation, found that farms with regenerative practices were 78% more profitable than conventional farming, thanks to lower input costs for seeds and fertilizers, as well as the ability to sell in more lucrative end markets.

To that end, food and beverage giant Nestlé launched a Regenerative Agriculture Plan last year to invest $1.3 billion over five years to help 500,000 farmers and 50,000 suppliers around the world. to improve organic matter and soil fertility. The project aims to help farmers retain water and improve drainage, protect and restore biodiversity, and sequester carbon.

The company is also developing more environmentally friendly crops, including higher-yielding varieties of coffee and cocoa, and co-investing in their adoption by farmers to bear some of the costs and risks of transition.

At the level of multilateral financing, the Inter-American Development Bank supports projects for the regeneration of pines and cacays in Colombia. It is hoped that the project will increase yields of pine resin and cacay nuts, providing indigenous farmers with new sources of income while helping to reverse deforestation.

Elsewhere, smaller-scale projects are using regenerative approaches to tackle deforestation and reduce carbon emissions and pollution.

In Peru, the World Wide Fund for Nature runs 10 field projects in the Madre de Dios region to promote regenerative agriculture techniques to local farmers. In addition, more than 200 Madre de Dios farmers participate in the Alliance for Regenerative Livestock in the Peruvian Amazon, which aims to make livestock farming more sustainable by implementing an agro-ecological system that allows soils to recover without affect livestock productivity.

The program builds technical capacity and understanding of practices that combine cattle farms with forested areas to provide a buffer against deforestation. Farmers then have the benefit of earning extra income from harvesting produce and ingredients that the Amazon naturally produces.

By Oxford Business Group

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