For safe and nature-friendly food systems, Europe must invest in farmers

  • Short-term plans to support European food security must not come at the expense of the green ambitions of agriculture.
  • If 20% of European farmers adopted a climate-smart approach, this would be extremely beneficial for the resilience of food systems.
  • Farmers must be supported financially to make this transition successful.

The conflict in Ukraine has put food systems, and their fragility, at the top of the global agenda. Together, Russia and Ukraine account for around 30% of global wheat exports, while Russia is the world’s largest fertilizer exporter. Fertilizer, feed (mainly wheat and maize) and food prices have already reached record highs as war-related disruptions and sanctions cut inputs, labor and logistics essential to global agricultural production. EU leaders are already talking about a looming and widespread food security crisis and developing plans to strengthen food sovereignty in the region. While such plans are reassuring, talk of giving up the EU’s green ambitions is not.

The latest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that climate change and related biodiversity loss “have affected the productivity of all sectors of agriculture and fishing, with negative consequences for food security and livelihoods”. It is widely recognized that planetary systems are dangerously close to breaking point. Choosing to reorient policies and subsidies only towards securing food supply in the short term, at the cost of safeguarding resilience in the long term, would make the security of our food systems an illusion.

Soil degradation currently costs the EU €100 billion a year, and climate change could reduce crop yields by 20% by 2050. The Farm to Fork strategy, which is at the heart of the European Green Deal , is part of the answer to this problem. crisis, precisely because it aims to restore the health of the EU’s soils and improve its adaptation to climate change through “climate-smart action”. It also sets goals to reduce the region’s reliance on the use of environmentally degrading synthetic fertilizers, a goal that becomes even more significant in light of farmers and food prices struggling to keep up with recent increases in fertilizer prices.

A farmer-centric transition

A recent report by the World Economic Forum outlines pathways for a transition to farmer-centric food systems in the EU. It finds that if an additional 20% of European farmers adopt climate-smart practices, by 2030 the EU will be able to reduce its annual agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by around 6%, restore soil health more than 14% of its total agricultural land, thereby improving biodiversity and the resilience of food systems and, depending on the level of implementation, adding between €1.9 and €9.3 billion per year to farmers’ incomes .

The report, developed in collaboration with Deloitte and NTT Data, draws on insights generated by the EU Carbon+ Farming Coalition, a regional coalition of the 100 Million Farmers Platform. The coalition brings together 14 organizations from across the food value chain to work with farmers, who form the base of the food chain, and roll out climate-smart actions across the EU. They aim to support the transition at the speed and scale required to ensure the future security of the region’s food systems. The report shares the results of consultations with 1,600 farmers from seven countries, which together represent 75% of the EU’s farmer base, to understand what obstacles and solutions are needed to mainstream the adoption of action climate smart.

The agricultural economy is the main factor preventing greater sustainability of the sector

The agricultural economy is the main factor preventing greater sustainability of the sector

Image: World Economic Forum

The new research reveals that agricultural economics is the biggest factor hindering the shift to sustainability. Given that farmers’ incomes in the EU are around 60% lower than non-farm incomes and that farmers now regularly face increasing insecurity due to weather events, it is unrealistic to ask them to bear the additional financial cost of the transition. Moreover, since the benefits of the transition are shared by all in areas such as greater food security, increased biodiversity and improved ecosystem services, asking farmers to bear this burden alone is inequitable.

Agricultural load sharing

Currently, most farmers in transition only have access to operational-level improvements, such as optimized input use or reduced yield volatility to make the case for sustainability. But transition takes time, and a multi-year payback period doesn’t provide farmers with the right incentives to change. Therefore, private and public stakeholders should help create additional revenue and incentive segments that reward climate-smart actions.

These can be at the value chain level, on the one hand, where all actors in the value chain are brought in to contribute through things like sourcing guidelines to promote smart crops in the face of climate, purchase agreements that guarantee certain prices and quantities to farmers or cheaper loans. for climate-smart action, and the assessment of co-benefits on the other hand, where the beneficial results of the action that are not directly linked to yields are compensated, through carbon credits or other ecosystem services. By unleashing these additional value segments, the study concludes that the payback period for climate-smart actions could be reduced by around seven years, creating a more compelling and faster case for change.

This is where the European Carbon+ coalition aims to step in, launching an integrated effort that strengthens the economic case for transition and addresses the complex and interconnected challenges facing farmers. The value chain effort will include initiatives around finance and risk reduction, favorable sourcing rules, technology innovation for farm measurement, verification and reporting, and farmer training, among others. Ultimately, these initiatives aim to help achieve the goals of the EU Green Deal, which are key to empowering European food systems and their stewards: farmers.

The Ukrainian crisis has brought the importance of food systems to the forefront of the world stage. It is important to continue to underscore their importance by recognizing that there is no path to achieving our global Sustainable Development Goals that does not include the transition to net-zero, nature-positive food systems and resilient.

Mary I. Bruner