Global food production—intrinsically connected to natural systems—nourishes the world. As the world tackles climate change and other sustainability challenges, agriculture can act as an economic engine and as a solution to global challenges.
Samir Ibrahim launched the conversation by asking Valerie Guarnieri to set the scene. For the first time in decades, hunger is on the rise. Hundreds of millions of people are on the verge of starvation and one in 10 is desperately hungry. There is enough food for everyone, Guarnieri said. Unsustainable agriculture degrades livelihoods and ecologies; sustainable agriculture can address more than one challenge. Nature-based solutions can help address almost a third of all emissions. They can help transform food systems and build adaptation and resilience.
Agriculture is at the center of a lot of other large conversations around climate solutions and economic instability. Lino Dias explained the idea of the smallholder effect. Holistic food production can provide answers, but to have resilient systems we need resilient farmers. Successful small farmers support their local economies, and their successes ripple outward to stimulate the local economy.
Drawing on his personal history growing up on a farm, Rodney Ferguson shared his knowledge about economic incentives for farmers to think about long-term sustainability issues. Smallholder farmers very often know what the value of their own practices are, he said, but they do not know how to access finance or compensation for engaging in those better practices. Soil, water, and access to local markets are crucial for small farmers but often poorly compensated. Ferguson described work with Vietnamese farmers to preserve the Red River watershed, leading to improved economic stability in the entire region.
Women form a huge portion of the agriculture workforces, but they are hindered by systemic barriers to access to information, credit, and markets. Tania Lozansky explained that the roles women play in agriculture have a direct effect on the quality of agriculture products. Access is crucial, Dias explained, for all stakeholders. Smallholders need access to high quality inputs, know-how, and markets. End users need access to smallholders along the entire chain of production.
Turning from the idea of agriculture as a tool for prosperity to agriculture technology as a solution to other issues, Ibrahim asked John Farner to explain smart irrigation as a sustainable solution. Agiruculture is made up of very small and very large business entities around the world. The role technology plays in irrigation involves both how we use water and what we get out of it, which includes access and education.
The types of innovation that can scale to solve global challenges, said Leesa Shrader, are driven by digital innovation and technology. Bundling services, such as financial investment, access to markets, irrigation, mechanization and education, makes a difference for accelerated impact. Technology still requires a human touch, she continued, especially for women. Organizations need to meet smallholder farmers where they are.
Making an appreciable difference requires working with communities to understand what they need rather than working from the top down. Sam Stephens noted that the concept of failure is too taboo in the donor, implementation, and partnership space. A natural human tendency is to take a proven approach and apply it widely but a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works long term. Working with the community to design, implement, and maintain interventions requires listening from the outset.
Making sustainability a business driver, Lozansky added, requires that everyone in this complex ecosystem must benefit. Partnerships can bring different players to the table, including those who have not worked together before. Adapting to local circumstances requires trying new things.
A major challenge involves balancing long-term solutions that meet the needs in the field and the necessity of stopgap solutions for emergencies. Guarnieri explained that meeting immediate needs must come first but we must also engage communities to help build skills and invest in the technologies the community needs.
Turning to the topic of partnerships with Better Life Farming as an example, Dias explained that there must be some value for everyone in the value chain. Farner discussed how partners each play a unique role to meet locally-driven needs. Lozansky described how advisory services and education can help smallholders see their farms as businesses, and Feguson explored the idea that addressing micro and macro issues are crucial to replicability across regions.
Ibrahim asked the panel to think about where they would invest $1 billion, believing that we currently have all the tools necessary to solve major global challenges. Farner would look at water-stressed areas that need access to food; Guarnieri would invest in school meals for children, investing in children and linking to local production and community prosperity; Stephens would improve efficiencies and resiliency in existing initiatives to drive greater impact at scale; Dias would bring resilient solutions to the last mile of food production, based on science and sustainability principles; Lozansky would invest in creating off-farm jobs and reskilling digitally to help generate wealth outside of smallholder farming; Ferguson would invest in tools to better measure the science of sustainability in order to collect better data on carbon emissions and sequestration; and, Shrader would improve markets through digital enablement, allowing producers and buyers to connect quickly and easily.
Finally, Ibrahim asked what each panelist would ask of the others. Shrader would ask the World Food Programme to go digital to better connect with smallholder farmers; Ferguson would ask the private sector to commit to the net zero solutions around the world; Farner would ask to tell the stories of smallholder farmers; Dias would talk about farmers not as abstract entities but to put farmers at the center; Stephens would advocate for partnerships across sectors, transparency, and support; Lozansky would ask that we work collectively to develop net zero solutions for agriculture; and, Guarnieri would ask that the private sector share their understanding of the business of small farming and how to make it successful and sustainable.
By combating deforestation and reversing it, we can mitigate climate change, reduce the risk of future pandemics, support lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable, including small shareholder farmers, and really ensure that no one is left behind.
Improving and protecting the productivity of small farmers has macro effects including more political stability and strengthened food systems.
There’s not enough land or resources to produce the food we need in the way we’re doing it now. We need to use our land more wisely and use our natural resources more wisely to increase our productivity and do it in a climate-smart way.
Part of the solution is taking the right approach in engaging with the local community and working with them to build something that is truly customized, localized, and sustainable long term.
Where we’ve seen things succeed, we’ve had a good role of government, good engagement in government. I think you can’t divorce agricultural change from the government. You can’t do it entirely by the private sector—there has to be a role for the government to engage.
Smallholder farmers very often know what the value of their own practices are but they don’t know how to access finance.
Agriculture is contributing to a lot of the Sustainable Development Goals, and if you can think about holistic food production, it can give a lot of answers to a lot of the challenges we have today in rural development.
To get this ecosystem right, we can also support our clients with advisory services, maybe in areas that are a bit outside of their core expertise.