Can sustainable agriculture address global food security?

– Farmers in emerging markets are increasingly embracing sustainable agriculture

– Technological innovation is allowing farmers to grow produce more efficiently

– Regenerative agriculture aims to curb carbon emissions and increase yields

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 also reducing its carbon footprint.

The drive for sustainable agriculture has gained impetus in recent months, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which curtailed exports of maize, wheat and cooking oil from two of the world’s key producers – raising broader concerns about global food security.

Supply constraints are being 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 smallholder incomes.

While many countries have moved to shore up supply chains and improve agreements with suppliers, some are also looking towards sustainable agriculture.

Definitions vary, but sustainable agriculture broadly refers to farming that is sustainable on an environmental, social and economic level. It usually involves a host of practices that are focused on preserving soil fertility, preventing water pollution and protecting biodiversity, and can involve measures such as rotating crops, planting cover crops and eliminating tillage.

Sustainable agriculture uses up to 56% less energy per unit of crop produced and emits 64% less greenhouse gas per ha, according to a June 2021 report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

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

Sustainable agriculture in emerging markets

Although developed economies – most notably, France – lead the way in sustainable agriculture, emerging markets are increasingly adopting such practices.

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

Omnivore has invested heavily in the space since 2012, providing finance to start-ups that offer financial technology 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 agricultural equipment utilised in micro-irrigation systems. Using artificial intelligence and the internet of things (IoT), the company has installed soil moisture sensors across more than 16,000 ha of farmland in India to conserve water.

Another Omnivore beneficiary is BioPrime AgriSolutions, which develops sustainable, tailor-made biological crop inputs to enhance yields.

Elsewhere, in March the World Bank approved a $180m 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 this figure reaching as high as 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 teamed up with Hamburg-based agri-tech company &ever to open a commercial indoor vertical farm just outside Kuwait City.

Spanning 3000 sq metres, the farm uses IoT sensors to digitally control seeding, germination, harvesting, temperature, humidity, emissions and air flow, using 90% less water and 60% less fertiliser than traditional farming.

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

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

Regenerative agriculture

While incorporating many of the principles of sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture goes 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 renders soil 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 emissions and increase profits. However, the study cautioned that farmers would need four years on average to realise these benefits and would ultimately lose profitability during the transition.

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 fertilisers, as well as the ability to sell to more lucrative end markets.

To this end, last year food and beverage giant Nestlé launched a regenerative agriculture plan to invest $1.3bn over five years to help 500,000 farmers and 50,000 suppliers around the world improve soil organic matter and 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 coffee and cocoa varieties, and is co-investing in their adoption by farmers in an effort to assume some of the costs and risks of the transition.

At the multilateral finance level, the Inter-American Development Bank is supporting projects to regrow pine and cacay trees in Colombia. It is hoped that the project will increase yields of pine resin and cacay nuts, thereby giving indigenous farmers new income streams while helping to reverse deforestation.

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

In Peru, the World Wildlife Fund runs 10 fieldwork projects in the Madre de Dios region to promote regenerative agriculture techniques among local farmers. In addition, more than 200 farmers in Madre de Dios are participating in the Alliance for Regenerative Ranching in the Peruvian Amazon, which aims to make ranching more sustainable by implementing an agro-ecological system that allows soils to recover without undermining livestock productivity.

The programme builds technical capacity and understanding of practices that interspace cattle farms with wooded areas to provide a buffer against deforestation. Farmers then have the benefit of earning additional income from harvesting products and ingredients that the Amazon naturally produces.

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