In a world facing interrelated crises, the need to transition towards more sustainable agricultural practices is imperative. Agriculture uses almost half the world’s vegetated land and is responsible for up to a quarter of annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Land-use change related to agriculture is culpable for almost 90% of global deforestation and pesticide pollution is a major threat to biodiversity worldwide. The systems that we depend on for our daily sustenance are destroying the foundation of our societies: the natural ecosystems all species need to survive. With the world population growing and world food demand set to increase by more than 50% by 2050, how can we produce our food in a way that sustains both people and the planet?
1. Transition to regenerative agriculture
Regenerative farming is a holistic approach that focuses on nurturing the land rather than exploiting it. By employing techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation, reduced tillage and integrated livestock management, regenerative farming promotes soil health and biodiversity. A report from the IUCN found that a 50% adoption of regenerative farming across Africa would lead to 30% reduction in soil erosion and up to 60% increase in water infiltration rates by 2040.
Healthy soil leads to increased capacity to absorb carbon, meaning that through regenerative practices agriculture can transform from being a major source of GHG emissions to one of the greatest carbon sinks. And regenerative does not mean less productive, as many people believe. A recent study in India found that farms using natural inputs not only matched chemically intensive methods in yield but even surpassed them with an average increase of 11% – all while maintaining greater crop diversity.
2. Integrate nature into farming
Nature is the foundation of food production. At least 75% of the world’s crops depend on pollinators; soil biology is the basis of almost every farming business. Integrating natural elements into farming practices, such as planting hedgerows, creating ponds, and establishing green corridors, supports local biodiversity while creating resilient natural infrastructure. These green havens attract pollinators, natural predators, and beneficial insects, reducing the need for harmful pesticides.
By mimicking natural ecosystems, farmers can create self-sustaining, harmonious environments that are both productive and ecologically diverse. As farming is context-specific, the integration of nature-friendly practices can best be supported through outcome-based goals instead of only focusing on implemented techniques.
3. Let local communities lead
Rural depopulation threatens cultural heritage, impacts environmental sustainability, and contributes to polarisation. With dwindling employment opportunities, many people are forced to move from their ancestral homes and migrate to cities for work. In some countries like Spain, more than 80% of rural municipalities have experienced population loss. Agricultural development based on regenerative and integrated practices requires year-round employment and can increase stable job opportunities in rural areas. By supporting a regenerative agricultural transition, we not only encourage sustainable farming practices but also promote economic stability within local communities.
4. Blend Indigenous wisdom with modern science
Many Indigenous cultures have cultivated the land respectfully and sustainably for generations, preserving valuable knowledge about plant varieties, natural remedies, and agricultural techniques. Practices found within regenerative agriculture – intercropping, agroforestry, composting – are rooted in indigenous knowledge. Integrating indigenous wisdom with the latest scientific advancements is key to continuing to discover innovative, nature-friendly farming methods. By honouring the practices of indigenous peoples and combining them with modern technology, we can create a synergy that benefits both the environment and humanity.
5. Embrace sustainable farming policies
Government policies play a pivotal role in shaping the future of agriculture. By incentivising sustainable practices, offering subsidies for nature-friendly initiatives, and regulating the use of harmful chemicals, policymakers promote a widespread shift towards sustainable agriculture. A study by CGIAR found that it is key for policymakers to provide technical assistance, prepare for a long-time horizon, and create an enabling environment through infrastructure and market prices. Farmers entering a transition face risk in the first years, so providing financial support is key to alleviating any burdens and accelerate the transition to a more sustainable food system.
Food transition to tackle interrelated challenges
Making food production more sustainable provides a combined solution to many interrelated challenges. Through the implementation of regenerative practices, we can restore areas of biodiversity, create more nature habitats, sequester carbon, and develop local economies. The future of this transition relies on our ability to work in harmony with nature, allow local communities to lead, and create an enabling environment by providing financial and political support to farmers.
For those of us working in this sphere, it can sometimes feel like this is an insurmountable challenge. But, it’s one that can be solved through collaboration and a long-term vision – like that laid out in our 4 Returns framework. As agriculture is such a dynamic industry, any changes made today could already lead to positive developments tomorrow. We’ve seen that as transitions gain motion at the landscape level, meaningful impacts for nature and community start to emerge right from the beginning. The willingness and knowledge are there, now we just have to act together.