Forests and agriculture | Opinion

The future for food – make the commitments and spread the risk

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Innovation Forum’s Ian Welsh reflects on some of the main talking points that emerged at the recent spring future of food conference series

The recent future of food events threw up the usual mix of innovation, frustration, solutions and debate. While online events can never be as engaging as meetings held in person, holding them remotely enables greater access for experts who wouldn’t necessarily be able to travel for to attend. Being able to include growers directly in the conversations, for example, adds significant depth to the credibility of the conclusions. 

Here, in no particular order, are some points and themes that emerged from the two conferences.  

Public policy 

In terms of public policy, two points stood out. Firstly, the US re-joining the Paris climate accord and the general sense of urgency from the Biden administration on environmental matters and, by extension, the agriculture sector. And, secondly, the EU’s Green Deal and the Farm to Fork programme is potentially very interesting. 

Linked to this, of course, is that much of agriculture still requires some degree of public subsidy. If this is the case, is there potential to use this better to encourage new regenerative practices? In other words, should governments make subsidies reflect ecosystem services – and have public money with better strings attached. 

The road to net zero

There were many discussions at the two events on carbon. Natural carbon sequestration, carbon pricing, carbon capture and storage, voluntary measures versus regulations – there’s a consensus that it’s very important, but how it’s going to work effectively at scale is still unclear. Tools are emerging to help for sure. But while it may be easy for CEOs to announce carbon commitments, the how in making that happen can be extraordinarily complex.  

For farmers, when thinking of the route to net-zero emissions a big challenge is that agriculture is seen as the potential mop-up solution for everything else. On the contrary, every sector must play its role in cutting emissions – no one can offset their way to net zero. 

Regenerative agriculture does feel like being more than just the latest buzzword – particularly as many techniques are not new – and there is consensus that they do represent a clear path to properly cutting inputs and impacts, and not negatively impacting yields. An interesting point around regen agri at scale is while there is potential for developing new markets for additional produce beyond the core commodity being produced, this in itself brings the challenge of finding and accessing these markets. 

Spreading the risk away from farmers 

A point many made was that farmers carry too much of the financial risk in many value chains. A key role for the finance sector is to find smart solutions that essentially de-risk change. Blended finance solutions, including funds that allow for aggregating projects seem to have a lot of potential. However, blended finance is typically very complex and takes a long time to bring together. 

Tenant farmers face the problem that their landowners are always looking for the maximum cash rent for their land – so when implementing change, upfront costs are not helpful or indeed in some circumstances possible. 

In sum, it’s clear that the challenges farmers face are vast. The change that they want to implement takes time, but it is hard to do this when every year is different. At the same time buyers demand that every growing season represents an improvement – a challenge exacerbated by climate change.  

Brand commitments and solutions 

There has been a blitz of food sector business commitments. Oxfam’s latest Shining a Spotlight report, that builds on the earlier Behind the Brands campaign, shows that while companies may have impressive and earnest targets set, the real challenge is, unsurprisingly, translating them into what happens on the ground. Making the global relevant at the local is not easy. The need for common language is clear – and there’s a consensus emerging that use of the Sustainable Development Goals combined with science-based targets is a baseline here.

There have been interesting conversations about transparency: it does feel like there has been common journey going from making no disclosures to disclosing everything to now disclosing or communicating what’s relevant. A sort of transparency materiality seems to have emerged. 

While there is widespread acceptance of the need for system change, it’s important to remember that the current system is only doing what it was designed to do, which is deliver shareholder return. While activist shareholders can perhaps shift the needle, if we need wholescale reform, how can it be achieved? There’s a lot of work to do in this area for sure. 

And, when thinking about impact reduction, there really isn’t an alternative to following the tried and tested route of mapping and monitoring, then thinking about traceability, reporting and verification. In other words, putting in the hard work necessary, remains essential.  

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