An open conversation at COP27 in Egypt on how multistakeholder partnerships can tackle the global food crisis through regenerative agriculture
By: Gianpiero Menza, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT/CGIAR
and Miklós Veszprémi, Consultant, Ernst & Young
Representatives from CGIAR, World Farmers’ Organization, CropLife, Corteva, and EY participated in a panel at the Food and Agriculture Pavilion at UNFCCC COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt on November 8, 2022. They discussed how multi-stakeholder partnerships can address the crises of food insecurity and soil degradation in the context of climate change. Some of the highlights of this conversation are recorded here, as well as the next steps they are planning.
The global food crisis
The global food crisis has reached fever pitch. The long-term trend of rising hunger since 2014 has been precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing conflicts, which knocked out of the market 1/3 and 3/4 of the world’s grain and sunflower oil exports, respectively. The resulting inflation is deadly for food import-dependent countries. Today, 10% of the world population is hungry, while half a million are suffering from famines. In addition, the most food insecure regions are at the same time often those threatened most by violence and climate change, including Syria, Yemen, Haiti, and South Sudan – a real polycrisis of a frightening extent in the making. As bad as this all sounds, 2023 is slated to be worse. Come next winter, grain silos will not have been filled properly, while high energy prices this year will have inhibited the production of fertilizers, thus lowering output, while the Ukraine war is preventing the normal sowing of seeds.
Meanwhile, the world’s soils are degrading rapidly. The FAO’s Deputy Director-General, Maria Helena Semedo’s remark that the world’s soils could be gone within 60 years is well known. Today, 1/3 of the world’s soils are degraded – a process that is proceeding 40x as fast as they are being regenerated. Why is that occurring? On the one hand, climate change plays an important role. Each degree of warming, through the plethora of effects that that change entails, is expected to decrease crops yields by up to 25%. With 2 degrees of warming, the water availability for irrigation may be as much as 20% lower. On the other hand, unsustainable agriculture practices are taking a strong toll. The green revolution through the triple technologies of the reversing plough, fertilizers, and pesticides has contributed immensely to global food production, but at the price of agriculture as a whole now being responsible for 26% of the world’s emissions, 50% of land and 70% of fresh water use, accounts for 94% of the world’s mammal biomass (excluding humans). The several billion people that have become dependent can no longer rely on unsustainable agriculture in the age of just-in-time logistics collapsing due to geopolitical instability and climate change wreaking havoc with the crop’s growing conditions.
Regenerative agriculture as a solution
A potential solution to both challenges – as well as a powerful contributor to the fight against climate change – presents itself in regenerative agriculture. They include reduced or no tillage, which protects the soil structure and beneficial organisms, preventing decomposition and release of CO2. Cover crops stop erosion and retain nutrients, as do employing greater species diversity, planting species with deeper roots, and intercropping. Applying biochar or compost and integrating animals, e.g. through mob grazing, further increases all these benefits. The potential for the fight against climate change is clear: the top meter soil stores at least twice as much carbon as the above-ground plants and atmosphere combined. If that can be increased by as little as 0.4% per year, which the French government’s initiative started at COP21 “4 per 1000” seeks to achieve, all else being equal, the world would transition into draw down, effectively halting increases in climate change. Although stakeholder may be using varying definitions of “regenerative agriculture”, individual practices typically included in it can contribute to building an agricultural system that is more resilient and productive in the face of climate change (e.g. improved water retention, a common outcome of regenerative agriculture practices, can support increased drought resistance).
The value of multistakeholder platforms
An application of regenerative agriculture at scale has to tackle all those challenges at once. The participating organizations boasted several examples of how farmer-centric multi-stakeholder collaboration can be successful. For example, the Corteva/Land O’Lakes Venture37 alliance supports women smallholder farmers with their sustainable agriculture efforts by providing education and resources, but in a way that builds on their traditional methods and integrates their feedback in program design. On a larger scale, their collaboration with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation similarly leverages land management practices in the U.S. prairies, but introduces tools to measure how biodiversity and soil health are being improved, while providing incentives to help ranchers to become part of the effort. CGIAR’s Accelerate for Impact platform is a venture space for bridging science and entrepreneurship. The idea is to support scientists to bring ideas to market faster, but also work more closely with strong innovation ecosystems. EY has launched the Regenerative Agriculture Breadbasket Initiative to tackle the both short- and long-term trend of rising food costs and soil degradation. It builds on the successful private/public sector collaboration methodologies pioneered by the WHO in the COVID-19 response, successful feasibility studies in East Africa, as well as EY’s remote sensing technologies to monitor crops and soils at scale. The initiative is being kicked off in early 2023 with some of the partners included here.
Regenerative agriculture is always first local
The optimal agricultural techniques for a given location are often already known, which is why finding the best solutions is often a matter of uncovering networks of local knowledge. As the list of regenerative agriculture techniques illustrates, regenerative agriculture must always be local and adapted to where it is implemented. In local and indigenous knowledge lies the potential for not only understanding the particularities of the location, but also (re-)introducing the native species best adapted to the conditions in question.
Smallholder farmers are key to success
A large-scale application of regenerative agriculture will fall or fly based on smallholder farmers’ acceptance. No matter how many farms are directed toward regenerative practices, the vast amount of land will be in smallholder farms. An approach is needed that is bottom-up, demand-driven, inclusive, and relevant. In other words, smallholders must be consulted and then, they should be the ones driving the implementation of the practices. But to do so, they must have clear incentives to implement regenerative agriculture and be fairly treated by the process. They must gain access to all the same inputs on the same terms. Insurance will be crucial to generating the trust necessary to transition in the case of transitions that take longer than they can afford to finance despite long-term higher productivity.
Institutions should help build the network
The FAO, CGIAR, CIRAD, WFO, and others have a role to play in bringing together the stakeholders and ensure representation of even the least conventionally powerful ones. But in addition, efforts must be made to adapt policy in such a way that it enables solutions to be implemented and innovations to occur. Policy must ensure access to the requisite resources and facilitate the smooth transport of the agricultural production out once it has been grown.
Animals should play a role
Building on the core practices of regenerative agriculture, the separation of crops from livestock cannot be sustained in most grasslands – especially not in those of East Africa where animals have been part of grass ecosystems for millions of years. Herders must be as much part of the solution as farmers. The traditional enmity between the two can be circumvented by creating relevant incentives to work together. Again, however, coordination will be essential. Regenerative agriculture benefits from animal integration, For example, silvo-pastoral systems can yield multiple ecosystem benefits, but if combined indiscriminately with crop production, can lead to food-feed competition. The key here, again, are multi-stakeholder platforms that can adequately integrate the knowledge of experts of the various practices to be combined.
Developing a coalition
As this event suggested, the solutions and expertise to successfully implement regenerative agriculture at scale are already in the system but must be brought together. Enabling environments, partnerships, and social equity will be critical to implementing an agenda where regenerative agriculture contributes to addressing the current multiple crises of soil degradation, hunger, and climate change. A series of workshops will be convened in 2023 between some of the stakeholders to further explore the risks, benefits, and opportunities of regenerative agriculture. The goal will be to build a coalition of partners that can concentrate the knowledge, organizational, financial, and other resources to roll out regenerative agriculture on a large scale.
The event at COP27
The global scale and complexities of food insecurity calls on states to prioritize the policy actions needed through multi-stakeholder dialogues. Representatives from the public and private sector put forward policies for food systems transformation through regenerative agriculture and climate action. More information.
- Juan Lucas Restrepo, Alliance/CGIAR (Welcome and Introduction)
- Alessandro Cataldo, EY (Keynote and Moderator)
- Anjali Marok, Corteva (Panelist)
- Ana María Loboguerrero, Alliance/CGIAR (Panelist)
- Gianpiero Menza, Alliance/CGIAR (Panelist)
- Romano De Vivo, CropLife International (Panelist)
- Nelson Godfried Agyemang, Coalition of Farmers Ghana (Panelist)