Ripe for change: preserving our future by transforming agricultural systems

A person sifts through dry soil
A person sifts through dry soil
In the last 150 years, nearly half of the most productive soil has disappeared. Photo by FORREST CAVALE on Unsplash.

The global food industry is leaving $2 trillion dollars on the table. Or more specifically, in landfills and exhausted fields, in deforested areas and nutrient-clogged waterways.

This is part two of two articles focused on the astounding economic benefits of improving food production practices, including farming practices, energy use, and improved systems outlined in Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed To Reverse Global Warming.

Project Drawdown was founded by author and environmentalist Paul Hawken in 2014 to “map, measure, and model the most substantive solutions to stop global warming, and to communicate those findings to the world.” Hawken gathered a qualified and diverse group of researchers to identify, research, and model the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change. If the group’s recommendations are followed, global greenhouse gas emissions could be rolled back within thirty years.

Drawdown features significant economic benefits of improving food production practices in their 100 solutions to reverse climate change. Global adoption of carbon storage practices will yield a lifetime savings of more than $10 trillion, far above the $777 billion it would cost to transition.

Here at Transparent Path, we’ve identified that nearly half of these solutions are directly involved in the food chain, and these can be addressed and improved without any new inventions — with many more ingenious solutions emerging all the time.

In Part Two of this series, we’ll look at agricultural practices, and improving soil health on a large-scale.

The FAO estimates that world food production must rise 60% to keep pace with demographic change, yet climate change puts this at risk. According to the IPPC, crop yield declines of 10–25% may be widespread by 2050 due to climate disruption. However, a 2008 UN study on the productivity performance of organic and “near organic” agriculture in Africa found that average crop yields increased by 116 percent (128 percent in East Africa specifically), with a corresponding increase in household food security.

Nutrient-rich soil stores carbon better than degraded, overworked soil, and healthy soil helps farms stay productive. Consumers can help by supporting farmers and ranchers who engage in sustainable practices like sustainable agriculture and composting.

A car drives ahead of a massive dust storm, known as a “black blizzard,” in the Dust Bowl era.
A car drives ahead of a massive dust storm, known as a “black blizzard,” in the Dust Bowl era.
Dust bowl, Texas Panhandle, TX, March 1936. Photo from the Library of Congress.

One of the lasting images for farming collapse is the Dust Bowl, one of America’s greatest natural disasters, which occurred between 1931 and 1939 and caused millions of people to flee the region. This avoidable catastrophe affected nearly 75% of the United States and included 100 million square miles in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. Some areas lost as much as a foot of topsoil to the winds.

In the 1930s, climate change brought extended drought and unusually high temperatures. The great prairies that supported tens of millions of bison were converted from grassland to cropland using unsustainable farming practices, and by the end of the nineteenth century, less than 1,000 bison remained. This had a long-term negative impact on the soil. Deep plowing and monoculture grain crops depleted organic soil and reduced microbiological diversity, and farmers left their soil bare between crops.

The once-healthy, life-giving soil was unable to withstand the drought, and without the prairie grasses to hold it in place, fertile topsoil blew away in the dust storms, known as black blizzards. Enormous clouds of dust deposited mounds of dirt on everything, even covering houses. Dust suffocated livestock and caused pneumonia in children. The average dust bowl farm lost 480 tons of topsoil per acre.

We could see this same pattern repeat unless we make immediate shifts in farming practices and land use. As climate change provides the catalyst for more frequent weather extremes, we’re increasingly seeing the impact of the degradation of our soil resources on our farms and in our lives.

During the past century, through an input-dependent, industrial agribusiness model, commercial farming has mined the life and resilience out of our soil. A landmark study of the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data comparing 43 different vegetables and fruits found “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half-century. This declining nutritional content was connected to the agricultural practices designed not to improve nutrition, but size, growth rate, or pest resistance.

Worldwide economic losses from soil erosion are estimated to be $8 billion annually, and as a result, global annual agricultural production of food is reduced by 33.7 million tons. In the United States, the average soil loss in 2015 from wind alone was an alarming 1.91 tons per acre, in addition to the 2.71 tons per acre lost to water erosion.

Aerial photo of industrial monocropping
Aerial photo of industrial monocropping
Industrial monocrop farming in Warendorf, Germany. Photo by no one cares on Unsplash.

Modern agro-ecosystems, which rely on ever-increasing intensification, have weak resilience. Generating three centimeters of topsoil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years. About a third of the world’s soil has already been degraded. We are losing around 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming. But it’s more than just the soil.

During the “Green Revolution” in the 1950s and 1960s worldwide crop yields rose rapidly, particularly in the developing world which is most susceptible to bearing the brunt of the negative aspects of climate change. Productivity is now stagnating in many regions of the world, with 24%-39% of the yield plateauing or outright declining in recent years.

Relying on big commercial agribusiness interests for food production causes many environmental problems. Waterways are polluted with runoff filled with excessive fertilizers and pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers are fast destroying the soil biota and its nutrient-recycling potential. Irrigation water is being used faster than rain can replace it, which is exacerbated in recent years with increasing temperatures and shifts in rainfall due to climate disruption, causing massive depletion of groundwater.

Billions of acres of farmland have been abandoned because of soil degradation. Biodiversity is suffering from widespread monocropping, with many traditional plant varieties lost and the death of beneficial insects and wildlife due to lost habitat and overuse of chemicals.

Industrial agriculture is itself under threat because it has been systematically degrading the human and natural capital on which it relies. 210 species of herbicide-resistant weeds have been identified, and more and more pests, viruses, fungi, bacteria, and weeds are adapting to chemical pest management. This creates a dangerous flywheel effect: increasing resistance leads to increased pesticide use, increasing costs for farmers and leading to further environmental degradation, which in turn requires additional doses of nutrient application to keep squeezing productivity out of the soils.

Meanwhile, food systems are responsible for up to 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions — and are therefore driving the climate instability that is itself the greatest threat to future agricultural productivity. A major chunk of these emissions come from large-scale monocultures and industrial animal feedlots in the global north, and from the loss of carbon sinks in the global south as land is cleared — often to make way for maize and soybean monocultures to export as animal feed.

A man loads a donkey with harvested palm oil fruit in Costa Rica
A man loads a donkey with harvested palm oil fruit in Costa Rica
Palm oil fruit at Cargando furuta de Palma Africana; Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Photo by Lon&Queta on Flickr.

Tropical regions cover only 40% of the world’s surface area but host approximately 80% of its terrestrial biodiversity. The tropical world’s economy is growing 20% faster than the rest of the world and is home to 40% of the world’s population, and 55% of the world’s children under the age of five years old.

Tropical forest is being lost at alarming rates, with 2017 being the 2nd-worst year on record. While growing food for local consumption is the core of tropical agriculture, cash crops grown for export and profit drives 80% of tropical deforestation and billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. The most significant agricultural drivers of deforestation include soy, palm oil, and cattle ranching.

Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of beef, provides close to 20% of the total global exports which are projected to keep increasing. In 2018, the country shipped 1.64 million tonnes of beef, generating $6.57 billion in revenue. The burning of the Amazon made headlines this year, with an 84% increase in fires from 2018. Smoke from the Amazon fires turned the skies of the capital city of São Paulo Afternoon as dark as midnight. The vast majority of the fires were set by loggers and ranchers to clear land for cattle.

It’s not just the Amazon that’s on fire. Indonesia is experiencing raging, out-of-control forest fires as a result of slash and burn deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations, sending air quality levels plummeting across Southeast Asia and drastically increasing emissions that aggravate global warming.

Even without the fires, current methods of palm oil production often cause the destruction of carbon-rich forests and peatlands. When just one hectare of forest is cleared to grow oil palms, the quantity of carbon released is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon produced by 530 people flying from Geneva to New York. Ponds of wastewater at palm oil refineries release immense amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Between 1990 and 2015, 71% of peat forests have been lost in Indonesia, Borneo, and Malaysia. In many cases, the forests were replaced by palm oil plantations. Malaysia and Indonesia contribute over 85% of total global palm oil production, and in Malaysia, over 70% of agricultural land is used to cultivate oil palm. Over the past few decades, palm oil use has exploded because the trees require only half as much land as other crops, such as soybeans, to generate a given amount of oil.

Palm oil is a cheaper, versatile ingredient in many processed goods, in everything from instant noodles to ice cream, lipstick, and laundry detergent. Labor abuses are widespread. Prices are linked to the crude oil market and palm oil is a key export commodity of Malaysia and Indonesia. Up to half of the European Union’s palm oil consumption went to power cars and trucks and the European Union passed an act earlier this year to phase out palm oil from renewable fuel by 2030 due to deforestation concerns, causing palm oil prices to fall.

Cows graze in a forest on a silvopasture plot
Cows graze in a forest on a silvopasture plot
Cattle grazing in a silvopasture. Photo by USDA NRCS Texas on Flickr.

We can fix this, sustainably

Making current cropland more productive is one of the most direct ways to improve farmer livelihoods and halt deforestation and is critical to global food security at all sizes of farms. Much of the research on this issue shows that there are sustainable systems that can reduce deforestation and land degradation, and increase profitability. Recent studies show that it takes as little as three years to see a return on investment in improving existing agricultural land.

Silvopasture (solution #9 on the Drawdown list) is a traditional practice that integrates trees and pasture into a single system for raising livestock and is an effective way to reduce methane emissions from livestock while diversifying farmers’ incomes. With worldwide adoption, silvopasture could reduce carbon emissions by 31.2 gigatons in addition to protecting farmers from the unavoidable impacts of climate change like extreme flooding and drought. It could increase their financial gains by $699 billion by 2050, with an ROI 15 times the amount invested realized over 30 years.

Instead of pursuing a one-way, extractive approach to modern agriculture in which farms are seen as isolated, industrial machines, regenerative agriculture (solution #11 on the Drawdown list) focuses on the production of high quality food and the improvement of the surrounding natural ecosystem. With the use of cover crops, compost, crop rotation, and reduced tillage, more carbon can be sequestered than is currently emitted, tipping the needle past 100% to reverse climate change. The 30-year financial returns of global ROI are projected to be 33 times the amount invested for deploying regenerative agriculture techniques.

Farms that focus on soil health are experiencing year-on-year yield increase. Anson Farms, a big commercial soybean and corn operation in Indiana and Illinois, spends about $100,000 on cover crop seeds on their 6200-acre arable farm, saving $57,000 on fertilizers and increasing profits by $107,000. Leontino Balbo’s Native Farm in Brazil has reported a 20% increase in sugar cane yield; thousands of Indian ZBNF farms measuring boosts in many different crops such as a 36% increase in groundnuts; the Japanese integrated duck-rice model invented by Takao Furuno led to a 20–50% rice yield increase as well as a tripling in revenue.

Today, 89% of cultivated land, or about 3 billion acres, is planted with annuals. If lands were converted to perennial staples, such as tropical staple tree crops (solution #14 on the Drawdown list) a 5x increase in ROI of could be realized over 30 years and save over 20 gigatons of carbon by 2050. These trees require less fuel, fertilizer, and pesticide (if any at all), and there is virtually no tillage after planting. They are more resilient to extreme climate and weather conditions and can grow in areas where annuals cannot. For example, the enset tree, the “false banana” of Ethiopia, can survive for up to seven years in a drought by going dormant, then revive when the rain returns.

Conservation agriculture (solution #16 on the Drawdown list), is an annual crop production system that provides biosequestration via crop rotation, cover cropping, and reduced tillage. The economic benefits of conservation agriculture include improving production efficiency with less labor, reduction of costs for fuel, machinery operating costs and maintenance, and reduced labor cost. Recent Iowa State research shows that when farmers adopt basic cover cropping techniques, they can eliminate 90% of their chemical fertilizer and 95% of herbicide applications — reducing the need for expensive inputs in a time of low margins on commodities. Globally, the 30-year financial returns of global ROI is projected to be 56 times the amount invested for investments in conservation agriculture practices.

As of 2010, nearly 70% of the world’s agricultural land is in a moderately or severely degraded state, and more is lost each year due to poor soil and water management and other unsustainable farming practices. Farmland restoration (solution #33 on the Drawdown list) can help reverse this trend and provide an opportunity to improve farmers’ livelihoods, food security, ecosystem health, and carbon sequestration. Restoration can be done via conservation agriculture, replanting native vegetation, or the introduction of regenerative farming methods. The 30-year financial returns of global ROI are projected to be 18 times the amount invested to restore degraded, abandoned land.

Managed grazing (solution #19 on the list) involves either decreasing the number of animals per acre or moving livestock to fresh paddocks of forage to allow for previously grazed paddocks to regrow. The benefits of managed grazing include more stable production during poor growing conditions like drought, greater yield potential, reduced need for supplemental feed, decreased erosion and weeds, increased soil health, increased biodiversity, reduction of animal parasites and diseases, and happier animals. In Wisconsin, dairy farmers averaged $200 more per cow than confinement dairy farms. The 30-year financial returns of global ROI are projected to be 15 times the amount invested.

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Fresh-picked potatoes. Photo by Agence Producteurs Locaux Damien Kühn on Unsplash.

Another key to better farming and land-use practices and combatting exploitation in the food supply chain is transparency. In the case of palm oil, the recent effort to create a sustainable industry, backed by major European buyers of palm oil and using RSPO certification, was undermined by the lack of ability to regulate standards and enforce compliance.

Groups like the Palm Oil Transparency Coalition (POTC), which includes Tesco, Marks & Spencer, and Walgreens Boots as members, rely on a “pre-competitive coalition” to remove deforestation and exploitation from the palm oil production sector. This type of agreement allows a group of competing companies to come together to develop a solution for a problem that they all share, and from which none of them would gain a competitive advantage. In addition, using a solution like Transparent Path, which uses IoT sensors and real-time data stored in a public ledger, would make data manipulation nearly impossible.

Paul Polman, when he was the CEO of Unilever, noted that many agribusinesses are looking to future-proof their supply chains because they recognize that “the way we produce our food and use our land drives massive environmental destruction … and [is] causing devastating natural-capital losses.”

This is our Mars Mission at Transparent Path: to help incentivize food producers, suppliers, transporters, and consumers to support existing solutions to address food security, the growing climate crisis, and environmental collapse. Project Drawdown, the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, is our guideline in creating these incentives by incorporating them into our ProofScore™ transparency ranking scorecard.

ProofScore is essentially a FICO score for transparency, in which the more food producers and supply chain partners share (non-proprietary) origin, logistics and transport conditions data with partners and consumers, the higher their ProofScore. By including Project Drawdown categories, which also map to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we can also incentivize positive change towards the more resilient, future-proofed food supply chain required to feed a growing global population.

More information can be found at xparent.io.

Written by

I am the Chief Storyteller for Transparent Path, a food traceability startup combining IoT sensors, digital packaging, and a blockchain data ecosystem.

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