In discussion with Melissa Ho
Podcast summary

Valuing the true cost of food is key to our water future

 

There are many elements to tackling the way the world ensures a future water supply. Water as a commodity, the regulation of groundwater and drought-resistant crops are just some of the topics in our discussion with Melissa Ho, Senior Vice President for Water and Food at WWF-US. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 32-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.

 

What’s your view on the UN Food Systems Summit: did it create a catalyst for real improvement in the sustainability of the food system?

The summit and its takeaways drive ambition in other platforms, like the Convention on Biological Diversity, where governments will make commitments on nature and biodiversity. The momentum was about elevating the importance of food systems in the broader global agenda on climate and nature. There’s been an elevation and understanding of land use change, deforestation, conversion and food waste and loss.

Turning to water, the western United States has been experiencing severe droughts. What are some of the causes and effects?

We’re tracking two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and their status shows us the state of all western US water. The reservoirs are around 35% of their capacity right now, which is the lowest they have ever been. This is the result of not just a drought but a ‘mega drought’. There’s so much at stake: agriculture is hugely dependant on these reservoirs, and cities too.

Part of the response has been more marketization and commodification of water. Is water pricing a strategy for the future?

Water markets are very controversial and very nascent. To go back a step, the crisis is largely driven by climate change but another dynamic is the importance of groundwater, especially (but not only) in California, where water markets are taking off. Until recently, groundwater was not highly regulated and in droughts there’s chronic overdraft leading to degradation, salt water intrusion and land subsidence.

In California, in 2014 regulation mandated that local groundwater users must bring their basins back into balance by the 2040s. Water markets are just one piece of a mechanism to help manage this groundwater. There’s lots of other mechanisms too.

There’s a need to have pricing and for the true cost of water to be evaluated. For many, the markets are a way to bear that out. The other pieces of the puzzle are governance, equity and inclusion. It’s important to understand the impact and the design of these systems to ensure the basic human right of having access to water for households and livelihoods is maintained.

Are there specific things farmers in the western US or Europe should be doing to help conserve water?

Wetlands restoration is a key one for land management. Wetlands around the world have been converted and it’s a neat example of nature-based infrastructures. On farm, practicing regenerative agriculture, which is important for water management, soil health, soil infrastructure, and soil and nutrient management. We need to also think about water quality and understand the issues around runoff and degradation of water systems from agriculture.

Will we see new crop strains specifically bred to be drought-resistant on farms in the coming decade?

I don’t think genetically engineered, drought-tolerant corn or wheat or rice are a silver bullet. Water is a critical input – you can’t avoid needing water at all. We also need to look at our consumption, our management, and our choices in a much broader way.

Would it be better for people to eat less meat which causes less water abstraction?

I think we oversimplify the issues and the context-based nature of the environmental footprint of food. Moderation and consideration of consumption really matter. It’s not fair to demonize one commodity or another. In the Great Plains in the US, the land is suitable for grazing but not suitable for plant production. Beef is a quality nutrition product and it’s not accurate to say it has no place in the food chain. There are a lot of issues with speciality horticultural crops, especially coming out of France and South America. In the Eco Valley in Peru, there’s overextraction of groundwater for a huge rise in horticultural crops, especially asparagus but also onions, tomatoes and other things.

What would be one policy idea or practical suggestion to create a more sustainable food system?

I wish we would value food for its true cost, looking at all the externalities and impacts that our food system is having on human health. Then allocate our public resources to drive a food system towards better shared values on the outcomes. The UN reported that 87% of government support that goes to agricultural producers is either distorting or causing more damage to health and environment.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 32-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Melissa Ho

As Senior Vice President for Freshwater and Food at WWF-US, Melissa D. Ho drives landscape and transformational initiatives that increase the sustainability of agricultural systems and the conservation of water for the environment and ecosystems. WWF is a Strategic Partner of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture.

 

In discussion with Alberto Arroyo
Podcast summary

The hurdles to implementing sustainable practices

 

Sustainable agricultural practices abound, but the key question is how to implement them. In our latest podcast, Alberto Arroyo, Head of Policy and Programs at the IUCN European Regional Office, discusses the challenges, the need for a clear, aligned way ahead, and the commonalities between different systems. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 25-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.

 

Which sustainable agriculture practices could make the greatest contribution today?

Whether we speak about one or another approach to sustainable agriculture, there are a number of practices behind that are relatively coincident in all of them. Crop rotation, cover and companion crops, mixed crops and intercropping, reduction of synthetic pesticides and mineral fertilizer use, no or minimal tillage, lower livestock densities, managed grazing, free range – there are many more. These are the kinds of practices that are definitely helping.

Regenerative agriculture is one of the practices hitting the headlines. Is it a useful framework when some of the terminology seems to be quite broad, even vague?

Yes, why not? If we do the practices right, let’s not bother too much about the names. We came up with a glossary of 180 and there’s even a new one – nature positive agriculture. I’m not sure we’re talking about something completely new.

Some of the practices you outlined are fairly common. What stops any or all of these from being implemented in the majority of European farms?

Challenges in implementation is one of the issues we discuss in the report. The economic issue is a fundamental one. Conventional agriculture is very subsidised. To transition to something different needs support, so these subsidies will probably be redirected to other kinds of practices.

Do you think the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will bring about substantive practical changes on the farm?

Yes, there are opportunities now. What’s very important is that a lot of the responsibility is not in the Commission’s hands, but in the Member States’ hands – which means there are still a lot of decisions to be made and we don’t know what they will look like.

There is a concern that some of all of the national ministries may not be practically ready to take on the responsibility.

Maybe it wasn’t the best to leave that much responsibility to the Member States. It’s difficult to know how we’re going to monitor the achievement of all the targets with different decisions taken not at the central level, and also how the CAP will be translated into performance in relation to environmental targets.

Monitoring performance needs an identifiable baseline. How close are we to having indicators that allow us to monitor performance at a useful level?

That is one of the gaps we identified. And this is an area where we want to focus our efforts. There are lots of indicators and a lot of metrics for measuring environmental performance towards different targets. But at the moment everything is a bit messy. We are going to try to define some recommendations for a potential way forward.

Let’s go back to the practices: which one is most underused, something we could promote better?

One of the targets in the Green Deal is the reduction of the use and risk of pesticides. That’s something that will be useful not only for the environment, but also for health. That’s why it’s also in the Farm to Fork strategy.

Is there anything that consumers at an individual level could do more of?

There is a terrible issue with food waste. That’s in the hands of not only supermarkets and restaurants, but all of us.

You say that sustainable agriculture must deliver economically, socially and environmentally, because otherwise it doesn’t work. How would you ‘rank’ them?

If we have a problem with the environment, we will not have anything to discuss about social or economic issues. If you look at it like a wedding cake, in the base you have all the environmental targets, and afterwards economic targets and after that social targets. Without the environmental targets being achieved, we will not have anything to discuss about the other targets.

IUCN has recently joined the ForumforAg. Here, we’ve always stressed the need for open dialogue. Are there any actors who shouldn’t be invited to join in? And on the other side, who are we missing?

I would say there’s nobody we should exclude, because if we want to achieve change we need everybody to feel responsible for the achievement of the target. I would like to hear any kind of industry or sector you could imagine. Maybe the focus has been quite strongly oriented towards production – farmers and land users. Now we’re getting broader, for example, the pesticide industry which is a very important one.

In these discussions, do you differentiate between ‘natural’ pesticides like sulfur or copper, and synthetics? Or is it a total phase-out of all of them?

I wouldn’t like to differentiate. We need to change the way we’re doing things and this is a challenge. We need to think about it holistically, not focus on a specific one. At the moment, the challenge is the spectrum of the use of pesticides. There are some approaches that are using much, much less.

Finally, can you give us one practical or policy idea that you think would make a difference for a more sustainable food system?

At the moment we’re lacking a clear vision of where we’re going. It depends who you ask. As long as we have different ideas of where to go we are just going to push in different directions. This is one of the fundamental issues: to try to sit down with everybody who is important in this discussion and try to find a common way forward as much as possible.

Read the IUCN report on sustainable agriculture here.

We think you’ll also enjoy a podcast with Emily Broad Lieb, Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard, on finding simple solutions to food waste. Listen to Ask a Harvard Professor on Food Waste here.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 25-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Alberto Arroyo

Alberto Arroyo is responsible for policy and programs at the European Regional Office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). IUCN is a Strategic Partner of the FFA. He has held leading positions on EU environmental policy for the past 15 years.

 

In discussion with Sébastien Treyer
Podcast summary

A knowledge-intensive transition of Europe’s food systems

 

Our latest podcast delves into how Europe’s food system could be transformed towards agro-ecology on a continent-wide scale. Sébastien Treyer, Executive Director of the Institute for Sustainable Development & International Relations (IDDRI), talks about the pathways for such a transition that would meet biodiversity and climate objectives – and what agroecology at large scale would mean. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 31-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.

 

You’ve said a transition is technically feasible. But what does that mean when we’re trying to compete on world markets?

We had three findings. First, academically and technically, it is feasible to transition agriculture at the scale of the whole continent. And we are still able to export cereals and added value products, like dairy and wine.

Second, there will be structural changes – and two that are particularly important to discuss with the food and farming sector. One, the need to diversify crop production systems and, two, the need for a reduction in volume in livestock systems, which is particularly concerning for the sector. We’ve tried to explore this at scale in France with the dairy and cereals sectors to see how that could be compatible with economic strategies for farmers, cooperatives and the food processing industry downstream.

Thirdly, how ‘value not volume’ can be compatible with some specific economic strategies in both sectors, actually leading to a 10% increase in jobs in those sectors compared with business as usual.

Where are those jobs going to be found?

In farming, we would have more need for people to work on farms than with current trend of mechanization. Agro-ecology is based more on knowledge than just mechanized innovations, meaning qualified jobs. The added value is other types of jobs in the food processing industries than those that exist today.

This paradigm shift towards agroecology would need a huge investment in technology and innovation. What specific tools are you referring to?

The idea is to put more ecological thinking into agroeconomic practices and look at innovation at the scale of the whole agro-system. Innovations in the organization of the landscape and in practices. Not only looking at the improvement of one specific seed or one specific breed of animal, but at the whole ecosystem.

It’s extremely knowledge intensive – a lot of data processing, a lot of artificial intelligence to try to understand the whole ecosystem. More concretely, a lot of robotization. It could be more knowledge-intensive than capital-intensive – and this is something we need to consider. A lot of farmers are in debt, so we should not necessarily help them invest more in technologies.

What about the need to shift towards a more plant-based diet?

It’s a key and very difficult structural change we need to address at the whole European scale. The livestock sector has to face the necessity that, at some point, output in dairy, red meat, also in pigs and poultry sectors, has to reduce. We see a possibility that the same farmers or the same supply chains can be involved in the plant protein industry.

Then is the EU on the right track with Farm to Fork?

The Farm to Fork strategy has two important triggers for the transformation that I’m talking about. First, setting clear, important targets about climate protection and biodiversity protection. Second, Farm to Fork pushes us to discuss at the scale of the whole food system, not just looking at farmers alone, but also food processing, consumers, retailers, and the input industry upstream of the food system.

Farm to Fork strategy is really positioning the problem and the policy discussions at the right scale.

Which policy conditions are needed to forge ahead?

I see three areas of policy that are extremely important. A food policy – the Farm to Fork is the beginning of that. Food labelling on environmental information for consumers. And trade policy – how to align the EU trade policy with the objectives of Farm to Fork.

To finish, could you give us one concrete policy or a practical idea to create a more sustainable food system?

My choice would be to look at how we use the existing recovery plans and investment plans. I hope we have a really open discussion on NextGenerationEU, the instrument for recovery, and how recovery instruments are targeted at the right type of investments, both in the processing industry and at the other farming sector levels. Investments are needed that can shift towards the diversification change that is at the heart of the structural changes that are needed.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 31-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Sébastien Treyer

Sébastien Treyer is Executive Director, IDDRI (Institut du Développement durable et des Relations internationale). A graduate from École Polytechnique, chief engineer of the Corps of Bridges, Water and Forests, and PhD in environmental management, he was in charge of foresight studies at the French Ministry of the Environment, and played an active role in leading the interface between science and policy and scientific programming at the European Commission, the French National Research Agency, and territorial actors such as the Seine Normandy Water Agency.

 

In discussion with Chris Harbourt
Podcast summary

Carbon farming: Changing behaviour for the long term

 

With climate change increasingly top of the news agenda, interest in carbon farming is growing fast. Our latest podcast heard from Chris Harbourt, Global Head of Carbon at Indigo, about how it can work in the field, how almost any farmer can benefit, and why prices of carbon credits are likely to rise. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 28-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. Indigo is a supporting Friend of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture. 

 

Let’s start on the farm: what does a farmer have to do to sign up for carbon farming?

They have to decide carbon farming is for them: that’s a major decision as they have to make significant changes to how they do things. They have to add a practice or make a physical change. The most important thing for me is, they have to innovate. And they have to document the changes. We designed the programme to pay for performance.

What are the most common operational changes that farmers make?

Cover cropping, because if the fields are green, they are sequestering carbon. Limiting the loss of carbon from the soil, with no tillage or reduced tillage. Changing rotational practices, or changing major inputs.

Can all sizes of farms do carbon farming?

With the Indigo programme, you’re part of a very large cohort, you gain from the participation of a very large pool. We have no minimum size.

What about investment, for example, equipment or seeds for cover cropping? Is the current price of carbon credits high enough?

In some cases, it certainly is. We have a massive programme that we started first in the US, and it’s working. We recently issued first payments to over 200 farmers.

We anticipate carbon credits will go up in price. So as prices go up, there’s a bigger opportunity. Farmers have to be ready to capitalise on that. If they want to be excellent at carbon farming three years from now, when prices are significantly higher, they really need to get started. We are excited about increased pricing to unlock more supply. There’s a landslide of buyers looking to purchase credits.

What’s the minimum in technology a farmer needs to take part?

The minimum is to be able to do some type of electronic recording. Then it’s the availability of an education programme that would inform them what in their area are the right type of practices to adopt to lead to carbon sequestration.

What kind of buyers are typically looking at carbon credits?

It’s the voluntary market: tech companies, consumer packaged goods companies. Heavy emitters are aware and looking at offset credits. Aviation is a great example – for the foreseeable future we’re going to burn jet fuel to fly around the world. There’s no way to offset that, and so the offset market comes in. I hope our buyers of today are not our buyers of the future, and they’ve figured out ways of removing carbon from their supply chains.

Cover crops and rotations are already mandatory in Europe under the CAP. What would you ask European farmers to do above and beyond?

The buyers of carbon credits are looking for something new, that the farmer doesn’t already do. There are opportunities in any of these practices and in new technology as well. So, for example, if a farmer’s been using a cover crop for many years, a switch to a multi-species cover crop, or changing the timing. There’s an opportunity with almost every farmer.

Are the rewards tiered, based on the impact of the practices?

Yes, they are incremental. It’s pay for performance, not pay for practice. What we’re trying to do is effect long term change, make sure that these practices stick. Credit is not just about the creation of the element, but it’s also to make sure it stays for a very long time.

Is carbon farming actually measurable? Can we deliver accurate, verifiable data at the farm level?

The science is certainly there. We’ve worked with a model called DayCent – that’s day and century together. We’ve created a hybrid between soil sampling and modelling, that can actually estimate carbon credits. Is there opportunity for improvement? Absolutely.

Credits are seen as ‘permanent’ if the atmospheric benefit of emission reductions is the equivalent of 100 years. Can we really guarantee such a long period of carbon storage? How do you incentivize farmers to keep up the practices for a century?

It’s more of a fundamental question of, can we make the work we’re doing today withstand the test of time and beyond the concept of a carbon credit? Can we educate farmers in a way that makes sure the behaviour sticks over the long term? The key is in driving the behavioural change, making sure it sticks, that it becomes generational. If it’s profitable… why would you go back from that?

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 28-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Chris Harbourt

Leveraging over 25 years of experience in leadership positions at the intersection of science, agriculture, engineering, and business, Chris leads Indigo’s efforts to develop a trusted and scientifically rigorous carbon credit program for farmers.

 

In discussion with Ken Giller
Podcast summary

Regenerative agriculture in practice

 

Regenerative agriculture is having its moment in the spotlight. But behind the enthusiasm there are many complexities. Ken Giller, Professor of Plant Production Systems at Wageningen University, talks to ForumforAg about what it means in practice, whether it could be applied in Africa, and reopening the debates on gene editing and biodiversity practices. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 30-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. 

 

Where does the term regenerative agriculture come from and what does it represent today?

It originated with Robert Rodale, the father of organic agriculture, which confused me! Today there is a coalescing around regenerative agriculture because everybody wants to do better: sustainable agriculture is good but we want to go one step further.

Everything comes together around soil and biodiversity. Many companies are committing to zero carbon by 2030 in their food and supply chains and find that 70-90% of their CO2 emissions go back to farming and production. So locking carbon in the soil is very prominent in the debate. It’s a bit dangerous because it could be oversold.

How do you measure soil carbon storage?

It’s quite difficult. People often take a sample of soil from the surface. But if you practice zero till, all the organic matter accumulates on the top of the soil. If you measure at 60 centimetres deep, there’s hardly any difference between zero till and non-zero till.

Spectral sensors measure carbon in a soil sample. But that doesn’t tell you how much carbon there is in the profile. To do that you need a very detailed analysis.

Is regenerative agriculture just a combination of practices that we’ve seen before?

People talk about basic principles like reducing soil tillage, maintaining soil cover, improving soil carbon, more diverse crop rotations, and reducing agricultural inputs. With inputs, I get worried because everything is put into one bucket, agrochemicals. There’s a big difference between nutrients, which are environmentally benign if used in the right way, and pesticides, which are designed to kill things selectively.

My work focuses on Africa where we see completely degraded soil. We don’t want to reduce inputs, we need to increase inputs of nutrients. So the starting point is crucial to this debate and often ignored.

Regenerative agriculture seems accepting of mechanization and technology in general.

There’s an opportunity for technology, particularly small-scale technology. Zero tilled systems are usually highly dependent on herbicides, so how do we control weeds if we ban them? Mechanical weeding and modified forms of tillage can help to reduce the need for chemicals – a more integrated pest disease management approach.

Is there a danger of greenwashing, with everybody coming on board but it’s not clear how they’re going to get there?

Let me put two things on the table. First, we should re-open the debate around gene editing. With using the best of biology, we can reduce the need for chemicals. If you have a couple of different resistance genes in your potato, you can cut down on fungicide.

Second, the biodiversity discussion is focused on farm diversity. We end up with some practices reducing productivity and taking land out of agriculture, which is being discussed in the EU. That means our ecological footprint will be moved elsewhere. We have to think about the implications: are we pushing more cutting down of the Amazon rainforest or more clearance of land in Africa?

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 30-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

You can read Ken’s paper here.

 

About Ken Giller

Ken Giller is Professor Plant Production Systems, within WaCASA (the Wageningen Centre for Agroecology and Systems Analysis) at Wageningen University. Ken’s research has focused on smallholder farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa, and in particular problems of soil fertility and the role of nitrogen fixation in tropical legumes, with emphasis on the temporal and spatial dynamics of resources within crop/livestock farming systems and their interactions.

 

In discussion with Adele Jones
Podcast summary

Knowing the true cost of food will help fix broken systems

 

In our latest podcast, we talk to Adele Jones, Deputy CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust, about how true cost accounting can identify the real cost of food, including the cost of its impact, to the benefit of nature, society and farmers. We also discuss how it could be practically implemented, and whether the political will to implement it exists today. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 33-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. 

 

Can you give us an overview of true cost accounting?

It’s a new way of looking at how we value things and how we value the impact a company or a person might have. It doesn’t just look at traditional financial profit and loss but also at the impact on the natural environment and public health. It places value on externalities, as economists call them. We’re not just looking at the financial cost of producing a carrot, but also its environmental impact and its impact on people when they eat it. It’s a massive part of the solution in terms of how we fix our food system.

There’s been a lot of development in this area, but how much closer are we to implementing true cost accounting than ten years ago?

In some ways we’re closer. Perhaps we put the cart before the horse by starting to gather an idea of how we value natural and social elements of food and farming. But what we didn’t have was a common way of measuring those things on farm in the first place. It’s very difficult to start meaningfully valuing externalities until you have a common way of measuring external impacts.

At the Sustainable Food Trust, we believe the common framework of measurement should begin at the farm and be a suite of metrics and indicators which empower farmers to be part of the change – things like soil health, biodiversity, water quality, air quality, animal welfare, social capital, human capital.

Then farmers can easily see the steps for improvement. You can start to shift the balance of financial advantage towards farming in a way that promotes positive nature, mitigates against climate change, and produces food in a way that contributes positively to public health and strong communities.

How do you assign a value to assets on a farm, particularly biodiversity?

Biodiversity is probably the hardest category to value. But, until we start to place a value on some of these things, companies and politicians won’t act because they won’t necessarily see how important they are as part of our economy and our future well-being.

With biodiversity you can think about how much it would cost to hand-pollinate or mechanically pollinate an orchard, for example. We are trying to create a common set of metrics for measuring sustainability, the Global Farm Metric. For instance, directly measuring biodiversity on the farm by looking at key indicator species like birds, insects etc.

Do farmers have the knowledge and time needed for measuring?

In the developed world, farmers already have to supply information to different sources – certification schemes, government grant applications, compliance requirements, carbon foot printing. If we can find a way of harmonizing the way we measure impacts on farms, we can draw it from the places farmers are already sending information to. Of course, there are some parts of the world where farmers will need help, particularly smallholders.

One study said that for every £1 in the shop, there is 97 pence unaccounted for in externalities. Are we talking about doubling consumer prices?

What consumers pay at the till is not the true cost. The way food is priced is not right and the ‘cheapest’ is actually the most expensive. The cheap food is costing us so much, and it might cost our children and grandchildren the right to go for a walk in the woodland that we love.

If true cost accounting is implemented, the cost of food might go up, and that impacts low-income societies. There are some interesting initiatives, like one in the US where food stamps are worth double if you spend them at a farmers’ market.

Isn’t that being prescriptive and saying to people ‘this is the food you should eat’?

It can be about choice. Increased transparency in supply chains is going to happen. It’s about giving people more information on which to make decisions.

Is there a political will to tackle the issue?

It’s starting to emerge. Politicians will only act when they feel pressure from the public. We have to find ways to shift public opinion in favour of transparency in supply chains, people wanting to know the story behind food.

If you had one policy suggestion or practical farm idea to make to food system more sustainable, what would it be?

If we incentivize all farmers to start measuring their impact, it’s going to inform so much policy decision making in future. As part of new schemes, as part of reform, as part of the Agriculture Bill, introduce an annual sustainability assessment just to start collecting the data in a common way.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 33-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Adele Jones

Adele Jones is Deputy CEO at the Sustainable Food Trust. She has been with the SFT since 2013, primarily focusing on projects including true cost accounting in food and farming and the harmonisation of farm-level sustainability assessment.

 

In discussion with Mark Titterington and Caroline Mahr
Podcast summary

Accelerating our mission with a more international reach

 

In our latest podcast, we hear about the plans and expanded mission of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture. Mark Titterington, Co-Founder of the Forum and Senior Adviser, and Caroline Mahr, the Forum Program Director, talk about the coming year of the Forum, EU-US relations, the shift towards a sustainable food system, and their views on the most important policies coming up in the next 12 months. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 30-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. 

 

Before we look forward, what impact has COVID-19 had on the organization and what lessons have you learned from that?

CM: We’ve become much more a virtual organization and adopted an online format for events. We successfully delivered three weeks of virtual events this year – 14 sessions, more than 3,000 participants, 90 countries represented, and 100 speakers from around the globe.

MT: We were able to extend our reach virtually across the world, bringing in speakers from very different backgrounds, very different countries, very different perspectives. When you think about our mission of creating a space where new ideas and thinking can emerge, it really helped us accelerate our journey.

We’re now a decade into the Forum’s founding mission to combine food and agricultural security. Are we closer than 10 years ago?

MT: When we started, the objective was to show that agriculture and the environment were inextricably linked. As we’ve expanded our partnerships, we’ve been able to expand that mission – looking at how we make the system more resilient, more sustainable, how the system can contribute to mitigate the effects of climate change. We’re in a better position to think about the practical ideas we can take forward.

How much time will these new ideas need to gestate before they come to life and start contributing to climate and broader sustainability goals?

MT: Without diminishing the urgency, the most important thing is that the ideas have to be practical, they have to be implementable, and real. It’s important to take time to make sure we’ve got the rewards that need to go into the system to support the actors.

What global or European policy items do you see as most critical in the coming 12 months?

MT: From a European perspective, the Farm to Fork strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy are critical. Also the Fit for 55 package and particularly the focus on what the land use sector can and needs to get done and how it’s supported. Linked to that, setting the standards for areas like regenerative agriculture and carbon farming are going to require international cooperation. And interaction between public and private sectors will be important.

CM: Yes, it’s the impact of the EU policy packages on third countries and the relations we have with other continents of this world. We should also look into the true costs of food and how we integrate the price of natural resources more accurately.

The Forum aims to provide more connections between US and European policymakers. How do you see this progressing?

MT: Over the past couple of years the Forum has worked very hard to create the space for the US ad EU to interact at all levels, federal, presidential, Congress, state and cities. We’ll be building on that. There is a lot of willingness and openness to forge a new partnership. I think with our partnerships – like the Chicago Council, some new partnerships, and our existing strategic partners – and corporate members that go across boundaries, we can get a lot of mileage out of this transatlantic partnership and make a contribution in terms of ideas and thinking that will be critical going forward.

CM: It’s also important to the Forum to strengthen the networks of young entrepreneurs and young leaders from both sides of the Atlantic. Another element is the increasing trend towards regenerative agriculture on both sides – there will inevitably be a connection.

What are the big themes or highlights coming up from the Forum in the next 12 months?

MT: As we’ve mentioned, the EU policy agenda and what that means to land managers, growers and other actors. We’ll be delving into some of the things that civil society and companies are doing and asking to what extent they are delivering scalable solutions. And pushing forward with the transatlantic agenda.
We have our event in Paris in December, and next year our program for the month of March. With the major international events happening – the UN Food Systems Summit, Cop26 and the Convention on Biological Diversity – we will want to analyse what is coming out and what it means for actors and stakeholders in Europe.

CM: There are very specific topics that we will also address at our events: obviously, biodiversity, and another one is sustainable trade.

Looking at UN FSS and Cop26, what are your expectations?

CM: We expect leadership from public authorities, a real commitment from member states. We need to see a willingness from politicians to take up their responsibility to address climate change and the urgency of transforming the system. We’ve been talking about it enough already – can we move on! I expect a reinforcement and the opening up of public-private partnerships.

MT: Leadership is really important – honest, trustworthy, substantive, courageous leadership. There are two things they can do – set very clear direction, and provide funding that catalyses other funders.

What is, for each of you, one policy or practical suggestion for a more sustainable food system?

MT: As you know, the Forum doesn’t take a position on any one thing. So it’s a personal idea, revolving around ensuring that we get the standards and the quality set around regenerative agriculture and carbon farming, that we provide the support that growers need to make the transition, and that we have a market that’s available for both public and private actors.

CM: I’ve been looking at the connection between food consumption and food production, the impact on health and the need to protect nature. I would suggest some kind of mandatory education course in schools and academic universities, just to emphasize the impact of food production on our health and that of our children.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 20-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Mark Titterington

Mark has enjoyed a long career in the agri-food sector having previously worked at the United Nations and for Syngenta where he held a number of senior leadership positions in corporate affairs and business sustainability in the EAME region and globally. Mark is a co-founder and senior adviser to the Forum for the Future of Agriculture and a Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Policy Network. He is also the current Head of Marketing and Public Affairs for Indigo Agriculture Europe GmbH.

 

About Caroline Mahr

Caroline Mahr is the Program Director for the Forum for the Future of Agriculture and Project Manager at the European Landowners’ Organization.

 

In discussion with Matija Zulj
Podcast summary

Digital technologies are crucial to sustainability

 

In our latest podcast, we hear about the impact of smart technologies on farmers, sustainable agriculture and consumers. While they can be a cost burden to farmers, they also promise big rises in profitability, according to Matija Zulj, Founder and CEO of Agrivi, which provides digital agriculture services. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 20-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. 

 

Digital technologies seem to rely heavily on farmers knowing how to use computers at an advanced level and having high-speed data access. How does this work out in practice, especially with smaller farmers?

Farmers are even now using smartphones on a daily basis to read what’s happening in their region. They have the devices needed, they have connectivity – even if there are problems in some areas – and we can see adoption of digital technologies taking off. The market is ripe for more adoption.

What about broader services that require soil sensors, advanced machinery or other more capital intensive inputs? Will there be a gap between farms that can afford them and smaller farms that lag behind?

There is a gap at the moment, and some farms need help to lift the burden of the cost of technology. For example, food companies provide technology, both to help farmers adopt it and to secure the sustainability of their supply chains. Input companies also cover the cost of technology. And in a lot of countries there are also subsidies for technology adoption.

Will digital services financially benefit farmers – or will farmers end up paying for them, and not improving their income?

It needs to be a win-win situation. For example, by vertically integrating the supply chain, food companies are trying to bring know-how to farmers to help them deliver the desired quality. If we look from a consumer perspective, if we want to eat healthy, nutritious, safe food, with rising standards, there needs to be cooperation between the stakeholders.

Your experience shows farmers can increase their profitability by between 50-100% percent in the first two years of using digital agriculture. How does that work?

If the profit margin is low, achieving a 50-100% increase is not that hard. It’s about timely agronomic practices and doing the best possible things to protect your crops. For instance, on average, farmers lose 20-40% of yields because of late or inadequate crop protection. Our technology provides early risk warnings of pests and disease so farmers can take timely measures.

If many farmers in one geographical area apply these technologies and gain better yields, won’t that flood the market?

If you vastly increase the supply and there’s no extra demand the price would go down. The key is improving collaboration in the ecosystem so that farmers address actual demand – so they grow what’s needed, not what they think is needed.

Many voices say that industrialized, mechanized, modern farming is de facto harmful to communities and the environment. Can software and connected hardware overcome these concerns, or are we refining a system that fundamentally doesn’t work?

Digital technologies are crucial for achieving sustainability. They are the fastest way to provide tailor-made advice that serves all the food safety and sustainability standards.

In 5 years’ time, what will be the most used digital technologies in agriculture?

Digital software will have a faster penetration than a lot of hardware simply because it’s less cost intensive. We will also see more and more automated solutions, robotics, simply because of the lack of labour.

If you could give one policy or practical idea to create a more sustainable food system, what would it be?

Making traceability obligatory. This would impact directly on applications of inputs that at the moment are disrupting our health and our planet. As consumers we could more easily choose the products that are sustainably grown.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 20-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Matija Zulj

Matija Zulj is an impact entrepreneur committed to solving global food problem. He is recognized as one of European Top Innovators (sifted by Financial Times) and a thought leader in the fields of foodtech, agtech and building sustainable food systems.

 

In discussion with Marc Rosiers
Podcast summary

Strengthening farmers’ position in the food chain

 

In our latest podcast, we talk about how to reconcile a better living for farmers with affordable food for consumers, as well as how to include eco services in the price of farm produce. Our guest Marc Rosiers, Managing Director of MR Food and Agriculture Consulting, also discusses local supply chains, cooperatives and the potential of carbon farming. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 30-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. 

 

Farmers want a good living and high prices for their products. Consumers prefer to pay less for food to protect their standard of living. Can this contradiction be resolved?

The market is growing in importance in EU policy. We are seeing price volatility and depressed agricultural prices. Price as a signal to supply and demand is not really effective, because production cycles are quite long. There is also a lack of permanent, systematic, accurate information on both supply and demand to guide farmers in their production decisions. So while demand is quite steady we see a lot of shocks in supply. Oversupply and low prices – or shortages, with high prices. As well, the price level in some European countries is depressed compared to the world market price.

What are the answers? We have to look for economies of scale and scope – more cost-efficient production and strategies like cold storage of produce.

Agriculture has tried to find a solution to these shocks in supply. Over the last seven or eight years, the Commission has been working hard to strengthen the position of agricultural producers in the food supply chain. Now, in all agricultural sectors, you can create producer organizations so that farmers get access to economies of scale or scope. Together, they can negotiate better supply conditions and prices and exchange best practices. They can invest in sustainable farming and risk management tools, common equipment, storage and other facilities. A producer organization can play a very important role in supporting viable farm income.

There’s only one important drawback – that’s governance. The larger the cooperative, the more difficult the governance.

Do you expect the movement towards cooperatives to grow in the coming 5-10 years?

Yes, because cooperatives and producer organizations receive exemptions from competition law. Normally, farmers cannot exchange information like prices and volumes with each other. But in a producer organization, they can. Another advantage is that processors or retailers are interested in developing direct relationships with farmers’ organizations – but not with individual farmers.

Could a farmers’ cooperative have its own factories or production sites? Do they still need intermediaries?

I think everybody has to remain in their own competence. I don’t see this happening yet. At the moment, I see the reverse – retailers establishing a dedicated supply so they can say to their clients “your food comes from there”. This is also part of the solution to depressed prices – it can eliminate leakages, and this will add to the net income of the farmers.

What about farmers selling directly to consumers through short supply chains, like farm shops and online business models? Do you see this growing?

Agriculture is not only one business model. Short supply chains are one model that will remain because being local is becoming very important. Shortening supply chains brings us back to dedicated supply, eliminating intermediaries, stopping leakage – and more of the income remains with the dedicated supply.

There’s been a lot of talk about a “true price model” which reflects not only production costs and margin of profit, but also environmental externalities or eco services. Is it possible to move to a true price model in agriculture?

Theoretically, it’s a marvellous concept but there are a lot of practical barriers to implementation. How will you impose this type of calculation on imported goods? Food price affordability is one of the key concepts for the Common Agricultural Policy. If you double and double prices, it may not be a big issue for the average consumer, but it is for people below the line. So you need to have accompanying measures of social redistribution.

There is a lot of urgency in the climate debate. Will things like carbon storage and biodiversity promotion be an additional source of farm income or just another cost?

For the first time there is an opportunity for farmers to be rewarded for eco services. Carbon is leading the way but there are a number of barriers. There is a lot of talk about carbon credits but before you can issue credits you need to certify all the practices of the farmer. There has to be trust in the robustness of the mechanism that verifies the farmer is delivering storage of additional CO2. This is not yet being put in place.

Once your carbon certificate is there, then you have to develop markets where you can trade it. I am optimistic because we already see more demand for carbon credits than supply.

If you could give one policy or practical idea to create a more sustainable food system, what would it be??

The Commission wants to create one sector to integrate agriculture, forestry and land use in one regulation, to reconnect what’s happening in the soil with what’s happening above the soil. I think that’s essential.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 30-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Marc Rosiers

Marc Rosiers is Managing Director of MR Food and Agriculture Consulting and has 25 years of experience as internal consultant and board member in agri-food companies and professional associations such as there are Agri Investment Fund, Boerenbond, etc.

 

In discussion with Jean-Marc Chappuis
Podcast summary

A holistic approach to farming reform

 

Switzerland is planning a reform of its agricultural policy, based on a holistic food systems approach feeding into the country’s overall sustainable development. Hot topic areas include pesticide, nitrogen and phosphorus use reduction; the role of women on farms; and the need to maintain agriculture in the mountains. In our latest podcast, Jean-Marc Chappuis, Deputy Director of the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture, gives us some insights and his expectations of the UN Food Systems Summit. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 24-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. 

 

What are some of the main goals of the new 5-year program?

The aim of the reform package for agricultural policy, Politique agricole à partir de 2022 (PA22+), is to reinforce the environmental services of agriculture and to improve social aspects, mainly the position of women on farms: to strengthen the three pillars of sustainable development.

The package was suspended by the Parliament, which requested a new report that should analyze potential enlargement of agricultural policy towards a more holistic food systems approach, among other questions to be answered. We are working on this report and it is expected to be finalized in summer 2022.

The Swiss government wants to create financial incentives for pesticide-free farming. How do you define that? Is it organic farming or completely chemistry free? And how have you structured those incentives?

Well, all chemistry is concerning. It is not only for organic production. The Parliament has adopted a new package on the reduction of the risks linked to the use of pesticides. I can give you the details: the risks posed by the use of pesticides to surface waters and semi-natural habitats, as well as the pollution of groundwater, to be reduced by 50% by 2027 compared to the average value for the years 2012-2015.

And the Parliament also decided to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses from agriculture. The Federal Council proposed to reduce nutrient losses by at least 20% by 2030, compared to the mean value for 2014-2016. The proposal would be discussed with the agriculture sector, NGOs and other organizations.

How will Switzerland pay for the new measures?

It is a national agricultural policy, financed from general federal revenues such as value added tax, direct federal tax and customs revenue, with some cantonal subsidies.

Switzerland has farms in difficult areas in higher altitudes: how do you support those types of farms?

The country’s decentralized population is one objective of the agricultural policy. The area used for agriculture is divided into a summering area, a mountain area and the valley. The mountain and valley areas are divided into zones and the subsidy varies across different zones. We have a subsidy, for example, paid to farmers who move their cows in summer to the highest altitude zones.

Looking internationally, the talks on a framework deal between the EU and Switzerland have collapsed, so how will agricultural trade relations continue?

There is a risk that trade will be affected if the 1999 Agricultural Agreement is not updated regularly. But Switzerland and the EU have a common interest in the markets functioning. The EU Commission is in the process of considering how the relationship between states and the EU will continue.

The UN Food Systems Summit is coming up. What are your expectations of the outcome and what is the Swiss Government bringing to the table?

It is very important to have a food systems approach and this is supported by Switzerland. We expect the UN to lay the ground for action-oriented work between now and 2030. Forming coalitions around specific issues seems a promising approach, provided they include the private sector and civil society. The actions have to be based on sound science.

We expect that stakeholders will be able to talk together. The transformation of food systems goes well beyond agriculture and it is very important to get all stakeholders, and consumers, on board.

If you could give one policy or practical idea to create a more sustainable food system, what would it be?

We had a very interesting and good experience with the dialogs we organized in preparation for the Summit. A lot of initiatives were proposed, concrete initiatives were presented, all aimed at improving the sustainability of food systems This is certainly something we would like to carry on.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 24-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Jean-Marc Chappuis

Jean-Marc Chappuis was appointed Assistant Director of the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG) in August 2018 and in March 2020 he was appointed Deputy Director. He is head of the Knowledge Systems, Technology, International Affairs Directorate. Jean-Marc Chappuis holds a doctorate in agricultural engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) specialising in agricultural economics.