Reward the farmer for sustainability

How innovation at the farm gate will cut agriculture’s carbon footprint.

This opinion article was published in Politico.

A lightweight, autonomous, agricultural robot of the Farm of the Future in Lelystad, the Netherlands, carries out tasks such as weeding, seeding, harrowing and spraying in the most efficient and precise manner, all while limiting soil compaction and structural damage. It demonstrates just how far farming technology has advanced in recent years, helping to create a more sustainable and efficient way of farming.

We desperately need as many agricultural innovations as possible. Over the next 30 years, our planet’s population is expected to grow by two billion, climbing to almost 10 billion. As the world’s population grows, demand for sustainably produced protein will continue to rise.

However, sustainably raising and growing enough animals and crops to feed 10 billion people will not work with the current approach. Agriculture needs to continue on the path of innovation and receive sufficient support and investment if we want to tackle this issue. 

Already, animals graze on a quarter of all land, eat 30 percent of the world’s crops, and account for 14.5 percent of all human-derived greenhouse gases according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. These greenhouse gas emissions come partly in the form of methane, which is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2.  If the sector around the world doesn’t innovate, while other industries meet their targets, agriculture will account for 81 percent by 2050. To flatten this curve, we need a systemic change of our global food system. Most importantly farmers can make this happen, they are the heroes of our time. By reducing emissions, they can deliver quick and immediate wins for the planet and make sure we can enjoy our food in a sustainable way.

The European Green Deal is designed to put sustainability at the heart of Europe’s modus operandi. For instance, the EU Methane Strategy highlights the importance of reducing methane emissions, of which half derives from agriculture. Not only to slow down the effects of climate change, but to also improve air quality. While reducing CO2 has received most of the attention so far, it is becoming increasingly necessary to take action on methane reduction and to make it a priority. The industry is taking serious efforts to help tackle the issues of emissions in agriculture. For example, the innovation involved in numerous feed additives which both aid digestion and reduce ruminant methane emissions is remarkable, proving that there are already solutions in place to help reduce farming’s carbon footprint. Furthermore, Denmark has recently raised the bar among Europe, by unveiling its new climate plan for agriculture, which aims to reduce the carbon emissions in this sector by 7.1 million tons by 2030.  

As a society, we have the technology and power to make a real difference into the sustainability of food and farming. A further example of this with great potential is the advances into plant-based and cultured meat. Cultured meat is meat that grows out of one cell, resulting in gigantic savings on land, water and world crop consumption. Also, the benefits related to animal welfare, zoonoses and no use of antibiotics can be huge. If these innovations deliver on their promise, they need to get the recognition they deserve so they can be implemented as soon as possible.  

Farmers are under growing pressure to farm more sustainably and there is great drive and desire to do so. However, they have to compete at rock-bottom prices in the global market. If you want sustainably-produced food, you have to sufficiently reward investments in sustainable, innovative solutions. That means reward the individual farmer for his or her sustainability performance, instead of penalizing the entire agricultural sector for its environmental impact. The latter provides no incentive to invest. The individual farmer who invests pays for these investments and gets a fine for exceeding the standards as a sector. One route to reward farmers is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which currently supports farmers in the EU — but is not ambitious enough in helping reach the sustainability goals — while also supporting the farmer financially. Also, proper and easy tracking and accounting of sustainability performance is key. It is time for change. Individual farmers deserve greater reward and financial support for their sustainable contributions, enabling them to provide a decent income and have long-term prospects. That enables their children to continue farming, as it has been for centuries. It is important that we grow food in view of a growing world population and do so in sustainable way to save the earth. 

At the same time, we must empower consumers to make informed choices through easily understood, standardized sustainability and nutritional labelling. The media is flooded with information on the fate of the planet and the severe consequences if we don’t take action. Shoppers are now more conscious than ever of their food’s environmental footprint, but how to choose? What can you trust and what is greenwashing? The EU is looking into this labelling system for food sustainability, as proposed in the Farm to Fork Strategy, but it takes too long: why is this not already a reality? We already have energy efficiency labels for electrical goods so you can see the efficiency of your hairdryer, we have them for our houses, so why wait to implement something similar for our food? This is more urgent than ever; we need to use the momentum. Surely this would drive sales of more sustainable products and that makes it a catalyst for real change. This would make the difference, not just with retailers, but all along the value chain. 

The drive for sustainability is bringing change to the farming industry. We can and must move faster. Let’s start at the farm, by rewarding every individual farmer for his or her sustainability achievements and at the same time label real, sustainably-produced food for EU consumers. 

Edith Schippers

President DSM Netherlands, a global science-based company in nutrition, health and sustainable living

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