The Nature of Agriculture: Why Food Systems Must Be Part of a Solution for People and Planet

The Reset the Table essay series is published weekly, describing today’s challenges to global food security and proposing U.S. government responses.

The next administration will face unprecedented challenges—a global pandemic still surging, a deeply divided populace, an unequal economy, social injustice, systemic racism, and climate change. As we look to unite as one country, there is also a sense of related urgency to address how humanity must heal in balance with our planet. We must restore our broken relationship with nature to sustain the resources we depend on, stabilize our climate, and empower the next generation to thrive.

While the pledge by the next administration to recommit to the Paris Agreement on day one is laudable and welcomed, the critical loss of biodiversity is inextricably linked and should be elevated and integrated into a climate agenda. We are losing the war to protect nature, and as a result, we are losing our most precious resource on Earth: life itself. The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) 2020 Living Planet Report shows an alarming decline in global wildlife and freshwater populations since 1970, averaging 68 percent and 84 percent, respectively. Serious declines are an indicator that nature is unravelling and that our planet is flashing warning signs of systems failure.

To affect positive change for climate, nature, and people, re-envisioning robust, regenerative, and resilient food systems should be a priority agenda for the next administration. Food systems are fundamental to ensuring the 10 billion people living in the world in 2050 have access to safe, healthy, nutritious food. For hundreds of millions of people around the world, agriculture is a source of livelihood and their cultural connection to their environment.

“To affect positive change for climate, nature, and people, re-envisioning robust, regenerative, and resilient food systems should be a priority agenda for the next administration.”

At the same time, the evidence is clear that agriculture is one of the primary drivers of climate change and the loss and degradation of nature. Animal agriculture in particular has a vast environmental footprint. Agriculture is a significant contributor to global emissions, especially methane and nitrous oxide, limiting our capability to keep our planet from warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius. Globally, over half of the world’s arable land and over 70 percent of freshwater are used to produce agricultural products, primarily livestock, feed for livestock, and biofuels. Agriculture is a significant source of pollution from the runoff of fertilizers and chemicals as well as agricultural waste. Groundbreaking global studies have clearly implicated agriculture as the primary driver of land conversion, which is in and of itself a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the primary cause of natural habitat and biodiversity loss.

And yet, agriculture can be part of the solution for nature and climate. But we must act now to dramatically shift how we produce, transport, market, and consume food. Failure to do so will only continue the negative feedback loop that will threaten the viability and productivity of the agricultural systems we depend on to feed and nourish ourselves.

The next administration should take action toward a robust, regenerative, and resilient food system in its policies and programming in the United States and abroad. Our goals domestically and globally are the same: delivering safe, healthy, and accessible nutrition for all; supporting thriving rural families and communities; addressing climate change; and sustaining biodiversity and nature. Some recommendations that cut across a domestic and global agenda include:

Eliminate deforestation and land conversion in agricultural supply chains. We must act now to halt conversion of native habitat and deforestation in our food, fuel, materials, cosmetics, and clothing commodity supply chains

For decades, nongovernmental organizations, including WWF, have been working together to call on companies to halt deforestation and conversion in their raw material supply chains by standing up certification platforms that aim to incentivize and transparently disclose production and sourcing of sustainably managed commodities, such as the Round Table on Responsible Soy, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. While these are important efforts, most are voluntary measures. Certification approaches are not necessarily harmonized between commodities or geographies, and measures are not uniformly implemented and enforced by all supply chain actors. As a result, voluntary measures are not sufficient to conserve critical landscapes, which are still being converted at alarming rates. Companies are making bold commitments through the Science Based Targets initiative for GHG reductions, but more should be done to protect nature and biodiversity.

Recently, as part of the EU Green Deal and after over a decade of deliberations, the European Union is working to roll out a plan to address its role as the world’s largest economic bloc and consumer of more than one-third of all globally traded commodities associated with deforestation. The United States should take note and do its part to enact responsible measures to stop further conversion of critical habitat due to agriculture at home and abroad.  

Align policies and incentives to scale regenerative and resilient agricultural systems in the United States. A fundamental goal of the next Farm Bill should be to redirect federal farm support to incentivize and deliver food systems that meet national objectives and priorities related to nutrition, food security, agriculture and rural economy, climate, and conservation. Farmers and ranchers need robust and reliable safety nets to mitigate risk, especially in challenging times. Federal support should be realigned to help deliver safe, affordable, and healthy food while protecting our environment and strengthening producer viability, local communities, and farm resilience.

In the United States, this could mean incentivizing regenerative agricultural practices throughout Farm Bill programs. Conservation programs and compliance efforts—federal requirements that tie commodity and crop insurance to support natural resource management and conservation of soils, wetlands, grasslands, forests and freshwater resources—should be significantly strengthened and applied broadly. In one example, the SodSaver provision, which protects grasslands from tillage by reducing federal crop insurance premiums on land converted from native prairie, should be mandatory for all states.

We must reexamine the incentives that drive biofuel production, particularly ethanol. We must also eliminate food loss and waste, which is a huge inefficiency in our food system. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have already set a federal interagency strategy to reduce food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030. We need to eliminate all food waste to ensure that the resources sacrificed to produce our food are not squandered.

Adopt more ambitious national dietary guidelines. We need to work across nutrition, agriculture, environment, and socioeconomics to fully implement shifts in U.S. diets to improve outcomes in human and planetary health. Eating in accordance with the current national Dietary Guidelines, which are jointly developed every five years by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), would take Americans a long way toward achieving positive outcomes for human health and the environment. More ambition is needed in future guidelines to integrate the latest science and to account for impacts of our consumption on the planet.

Promote and fund a coordinated “One Health” approach. One Health, a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that works at local, regional, national, and global levels to address the interconnections between people, animals, and their shared environment, is needed to better predict and prevent future pandemics. We will never be able to completely eliminate human interaction with wildlife or the risks associated with animal agriculture. Global livestock production is projected to increase in coming decades to meet the nutritional needs of over 800 million people. One Health initiatives aim to mitigate risks of human-animal interaction and already exist in several U.S. federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, USDA, National Park Service, EPA, and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). But these efforts need to be fully funded, strengthened, and better coordinated.

U.S. leadership is also needed in international networks, including the One Health Commission, and in the tripartite collaboration between the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, World Organization for Animal Health, and World Health Organization to coordinate global activities to address health risks at the animal-human interface. We should leverage these platforms to expand and strengthen diagnostic and global surveillance systems, support international organizations focusing on animal disease, improve coordination, prioritize resources, strengthen capacity on the ground, and drive adoption of biosecurity measures appropriate for livestock production to decrease the risk of spillover, especially in regions that are zoonotic disease “hotspots.”

Integrate nature and climate into the global agriculture development agenda. Addressing global food security, nutrition, and resilience, especially given the significant repercussions from Covid-19, remains of paramount importance and should continue to be a core component of the U.S. international development strategy. At the same time, climate and nature should be elevated and integrated into our development agenda from the beginning. We cannot leave the consideration of the impacts of agriculture and food systems on nature and climate as an afterthought. A twenty-first century approach to agricultural development must mainstream nature and climate into food security and resilience interventions, just as we have done for nutrition and gender.

“It is not enough to design programs to adapt and be resilient to climate change. Programs should also be designed to work within planetary boundaries, or we risk driving short-term gains at the expense of long-term failure.”

The shift in the strategy at USAID, through the creation of the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, and agency initiatives like HEARTH (Health, Ecosystems, Agriculture for Resilient Thriving Societies) are important steps, but more should be done. It is not enough to design programs to adapt and be resilient to climate change. Programs should also be designed to work within planetary boundaries, or we risk driving short-term gains at the expense of long-term failure.

The production and consumption of food is fundamental to our health, well-being, and survival. Our ability to continue to feed ourselves depends on healthy, functioning ecosystems and biodiversity. There is an urgent need to work across sectors to re-envision food systems that are more balanced with nature and climate. We can feed and nourish the world while sustaining local communities and biodiversity and addressing climate change. But we cannot expect to succeed with business as usual. Courageous leadership and bold change are needed if we are to rise and meet these unprecedented challenges. We must act now.

Melissa D. Ho is the senior vice president for freshwater and food at the World Wildlife Fund U.S.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Melissa D. Ho

Senior Vice President for Freshwater and Food, World Wildlife Fund U.S.