The Global Imperative for a Healthy Sustainable Planet

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) establish targets for achieving inclusive economic growth, social development and natural resource conservation and biodiversity by 2030.

Sustainable agriculture practices and technologies contribute to many of the 17 SDGs by helping to end hunger and malnutrition, reducing post-harvest loss and food waste, mitigating climate change, providing clean energy, preserving biodiversity and promoting good health and gender equality.

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Sustainable agriculture must satisfy human needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base; sustain the economic vitality of food and agriculture systems and improve the quality of life for farmers, ranchers, forest managers, fishers, agricultural workers and society as a whole.1

Satisfies human needs
Enhances environmental quality and the natural resource base
Sustains the economic vitality of food and agricultural systems
Improves the lives of agricultural producers as a whole

But achieving these interconnected goals is a growing challenge, particularly in the face of a changing climate and pressure from growing global food and agriculture demand.

Agri-food production systems impact the natural resource base and are the source of nearly one quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  The majority of agricultural emissions are from deforestation and land use change (the conversion of forest to croplands or livestock grazing lands), and from methane emitted from livestock, along with poor soil management.

Agriculture is also impacted by climate change. Recent models show that with a 2° Celsius increase in global mean temperature (the temperature ceiling for a climate-safe planet), yields are expected to decrease, on average, 14 percent for maize, 12 percent for wheat, 6.4 percent for rice and 6.2 percent for soybeans.2

Climate change also brings rising threats from the growing assault on crops by insect pests. When average global surface temperatures increase by 2° Celsius, models indicate the median increase in yield losses due to pest pressure is 46 percent for wheat, 19 percent for rice and 31 percent for maize.3 The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fifth assessment report confirms this strong linkage between warming and increased threats to agriculture from pests and disease.

Degraded soils, lack of clean water for agriculture and human consumption, failing crops and livestock and rising temperatures lay the groundwork for food crises and economic and political instability.   Conflict, migration and drought are tightly interwoven and must be viewed through the lens of sustainability.

The Business Case for Climate and Sustainability Leadership

In addition to reading the market signals favoring climate-friendly products, producers are increasingly aware that climate change is a leading risk factor to the environmental and economic viability of their operations. As climate changes alter production practices, current business models may become irrelevant, creating uncertainty for an industry that thrives on stability and long-term planning.

Yet, the need to address and mitigate climate change also provides new business opportunities for producers, retailers, investors and entrepreneurs in the agri-food value chain.

A growing number of farmers will need crops that have greater heat, drought and pest tolerance; livestock farmers will need genetically improved breeds; farmers will need innovative agricultural mechanization and precision systems to apply crop nutrients and crop protection more efficiently; and all participants in the agri-food system will need better information and decision-support to best grow, store, process, transport and deliver products to consumers in a low-carbon way.

The following stories from Latin America, the United States and Africa demonstrate how agri-food systems are transforming to meet the global sustainability imperative for a healthier planet.

Land Sparing, or Land Sharing? 

Growing evidence points to how productivity helps conserve more fragile soils, lessens pressure to convert forests for agriculture production and reduces greenhouse gas emissions while providing more food.6 When combined with policies and practices that limit agricultural expansion, high-yield intensive farming appears to be more environmentally friendly than strategies that require more land.7

Such systems include improved crop genetics, no-till or minimum-till practices that prevent soil erosion and use of machinery equipped with precision-systems to efficiently apply crop nutrients, crop protection and water for irrigation.  Climate-smart, sustainable intensification strategies can help spare land conversion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Healthy Agricultural Systems: A New Model for Agriculture and the Environment in Latin America

Because of its enormous potential to increase agricultural production while satisfying rising demand for food and keeping pantries stocked the world over, Latin America is critical for global food security over the next few decades.  Already an agricultural powerhouse, the continent provides 60 percent of the world’s imported soybeans, 44 percent of imported beef and a third of the corn that countries buy from abroad.

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Crop Innovation Supports Climate-Smart Agriculture in Latin America

Latin America is home to nearly one-third of the world’s arable land and fresh water, making it a vital global agricultural breadbasket in the coming decades. The region is already a leading contributor to the global food system; Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay (ABPU) together are the largest net exporters of food and agriculture products in the world.

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Sustainable Production Systems for Rice and Pork

Agricultural production in the United States continues to evolve as consumers, investors, farmers and agribusinesses seek lower-carbon operations and better soil and water quality on farms and in watersheds.

By setting goals for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, water use, soil erosion, land and energy use, and by entering into conservation partnerships, rice and pork farmers are making continuous improvements in stewardship and sustainability.

Stewardship for Sustainable Rice and Wildlife

Rice is the world’s most widely consumed grain, sustaining nearly half the global population.  Nearly half of the rice produced in the United States is exported; with 3.15 million acres under rice production (2016), rice growers are stewards of wetlands used by North America’s waterfowl and 32 other at-risk species.

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Can Pork Be Produced Sustainably? Yes!

Private-sector investment, innovation and scale is helping more farmers and ranchers shift to lower-carbon production systems. Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor, led the protein industry as the first to announce an ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction goal throughout its entire supply chain. By 2025, Smithfield will reduce its absolute GHG emissions from its 2010 baseline by 25 percent, or four million metric tons, equivalent to removing 900,000 cars from the road.

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Technology and Data Help the Planet: The Era of Precision Conservation

Precision agriculture is the use of data and technology to increase the productivity and profitability of agricultural operations, including crops, livestock, aquaculture, dairy forests and orchards. Precision agriculture is also a powerful tool that helps producers shift to precision conservation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Farmers use tractors, combines and sprayers with global positioning system (GPS) devices and precision guidance satellite receivers that enable them to navigate for sub-inch accuracy in the field. Using equipment such as in-field monitors and sensors, farmers and farm service providers can record data on temperature, rainfall, soil conditions and plant growth, capturing information for analysis and to generate models that help them make good decisions about operations and investments.

Integrated software that contains data about their operations helps farmers precisely apply crop nutrients, control weeds and pests and add water only where it is needed for maximum yield and at lowest cost.

Remote sensing is widely used along with satellite imagery to collect data; unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) also collect data and are used to generate maps and assess crop health.

Precision systems enable each farmer to manage and track, year after year, progress towards maximizing the productivity of each field, while placing less productive areas into conservation or creating refuges for pollinators and wildlife.

For livestock operations, sensors on the animals can alert ranchers to the presence of a disease before it spreads throughout an entire herd. Livestock monitors check animals for breeding cycles and disease and track the amount of food and water consumed. Using their own data, precision systems help farmers raise healthier animals and manage grazing lands for sustainability goals. Farmers also invest in automated and computer-controlled barns that provide consistent temperatures and readily available feed and water.

In forest operations, remote sensing images can measure tree height and canopy information, as well as tree diameter and biomass as part of a carbon sequestration strategy. Estimating timber volume allows forest managers to make better decisions about where and when to harvest trees.

As a whole, precision systems can monitor, manage and optimize irrigation, farm vehicles, livestock, greenhouses and stables, aquaculture, forests and storage of crop and livestock products; such integrated systems can reduce energy, labor, and make the best use of scarce natural resources.

Artificial Intelligence: A More Precise Green Revolution

The next revolution in precision agriculture has arrived.  New technology is customizing the already efficient gains in modern agriculture to move to individual plant and animal precision management.  In crop production, this exciting development is being made possible by applying the advanced technology of artificial intelligence to farming equipment by industry leaders such as John Deere.

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Can AgTech Go Global?

The need for agri-food systems technology (AgTech from farm to fork) is greater than ever, and growing investments are beginning to make an impact by picking up the pace of innovation and disrupting the business-as-usual approach. AgTech startups are changing the face of agriculture by rapidly developing new products and services that respond to the consumer demand for novel foods, delivered quickly and rapidly as well as meeting consumer interest for sustainable production.

Investment in AgTech start-ups boomed in 2017, with $10.1 billion in funding.  But the clear majority of this funding (45 percent) was targeted to eGrocery (online stores and marketplaces for sale and delivery of processed and un-processed products to the consumer) and restaurant marketplaces (online tech platforms delivering food from a wide range of vendors), that tend to be located in developed country markets.

Precision agriculture and information technology does have the potential to be scale-neutral and can be customized for use in many countries.  A core requirement for extending such innovation more widely is to increase the availability and reliability of broadband access for farmers and producers who live in rural areas, enabling them to connect within their operations as well as to global markets in real time.

Bringing More Data and More Sustainability to Smallholder Farmers

In many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, smallholder farmers have a particularly hard time accessing information that would help their growing practices and help them supply markets with their goods. Yet, smallholder farmers produce nearly 80 percent of food for their communities and countries and need new technologies to help them learn, grow and market their food, while lowering the impact of production on the natural resource base.

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Improving Livestock Productivity through Big Data

Digital technologies (large sets of data that are often geo-referenced turned into models that help farm decisions) can help smallholder farmers and revolutionize their operations.  To demonstrate how big data can transform research and farming, the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture was created to convene partners and demonstrate potential through inspiring projects.  The six-year (2017-2022) initiative is accelerating and promoting the best use of data for developing country smallholder farmers.

Exciting collaborative projects from the Platform include Livestock Data for Decisions that aims to identify and address the data needs of Ethiopian dairy sector stakeholders. The study will inform recommendations on how modelling and data analyses can support livestock sector development and productivity in target low and middle-income countries.

India is the single largest dairy producer in the world, thanks to a “White Revolution” in dairy farming that began in the 1960s. Some 75 million dairy farmers on average care for between three and ten cattle.  India’s dairy value chain is ripe today for improvements in sustainability and productivity that can be brought through digitization.  Private-sector and other venture capital investors are seeking to improve India’s dairy industry with big data aimed at small dairy producers.

With investments from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Omnivore Partners, among others, Stellapps Technologies is developing digital products, apps and other dairy services for farmers and dairy chain participants in extreme rural areas of India that were previously unreached.

The Stellapps digital dairy platform uses sensors, automation and machine learning to improve milk production, procurement and cold chain logistics for the Indian dairy industry. As the platform improves and more investors join, the goal is to expand globally to help more dairy industries and dairy farmers in the developing world become sustainable and productive businesses.

Apps for Kenyan Farmers

Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture has recognized the need to get data and advice into the hands of farmers. The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) has invested in and launched 14 mobile applications in 2018, helping dryland farmers, chicken producers and farmers who grow seeds, as well as farmers producing avocado, banana, cassava, maize, guava, cowpea and potato.  The apps are downloadable from Google Play on smart phones over internet connections.

These apps help farmers identify and prevent crop pests and disease, and get advice for livestock rearing, weather and climate change, land preparation, timely planting and harvesting, and market prices. Technical experts are now expanding the services by translating the apps into additional local languages.

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