2023 Annual Conference summary – Third session

How can Nature Based Solutions drive resilience and sustainability in the AGRI-food system and how do we better align incentives to accelerate change?

Friday, Apr 07, 2023

In the final session of the morning, Dr. Jurgen Tack, Scientific Director, European Landowners’ Organization, got up from his seat to walk the audience through the last 3.3 million years of human history to explain the development of agriculture. He pointed out that as European cities have grown, they have taken over the best agricultural land, pushing farmers into less productive areas. Humans taking the place of nature has caused problems requiring nature based solutions, of which there are many. He listed 15 and urged policy makers not to favour just one. “We will need all of them to solve the problem,” he said, emphasising the importance of diversity, not just in plants and animals, but also in solutions, agriculture and ideas.

To bring the public along with these agricultural changes, he later recommended “storytelling” to reconnect consumers with the land. “We absolutely have to bring farming activities back to the people.”

Dr. Angelika Hilbeck, Institute for Integrative Biology in the Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich, joining the conference online, described the present as a convergence of connected ecological, social and political crises caused by similar reasons and processes which had been predicted decades ago.

All nine of the planet’s life support systems are in decline. For six of these, the key driver is industrialised agriculture with its uniformity, not other forms of agriculture, such as ecological farming, which work with, not against, nature. Like Dr Tack, she emphasised the importance of diversity in all its forms and called for a reconfiguration of “agriculture from the bottom up”. This would replace standardised monocultures with variability, niches, habitats and support systems “for life to reflourish” and use new indicators to measure productivity, instead of traditional tonnes per hectare.
Boris Erg, Director, IUCN Europe, noted that discussion of nature based solutions began some 15 years ago, but a global standard was not launched until 2020. His organisation is providing “more and more evidence”, but the change must start now and at scale. That requires a fundamental policy framework “to allow all those who operate within to feel safe, to feel resilient” and for subsidies to be turned into incentives.

Developing his theme, he explained many examples exist of nature based solutions and sustainable agriculture initiatives backed by technology and science, but conceded: “We are not yet there to have this nice meal that is made of those ingredients.” Changing human behaviour and mindsets will help bring the dish towards completion. The first, he believed, is already happening, while the second will be increasingly triggered as awareness grows of the danger of imbalances in nature’s support systems.

Dr. Johan Swinnen, Managing Director, Systems Transformation, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and Director General, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), identified two factors – internalising externalities and need for coordination – making solutions and impact at scale difficult.

Solutions require the involvement of everyone in the food system; new technologies or use of the many existing ones that remain underutilised; management, innovation and policy changes; clarity on whether the aim is to influence human behaviour or change outcomes; and understanding of the heterogeneity between regions and countries. “We have global problems, but we require local solutions.”

One novelty in his two organisations’ research is a broad focus on food systems with specific attention on nutrition and value chains from consumption to production. He identified a “massive change in consumption behaviour” over the past 15 years, both among the young and in restaurants with more care being paid to the externalities of food production.

Responding to a plea from the floor for the EU target of 25% for organic farming to be increased, Dr Tack counselled caution. To do so, he warned could destroy the market if only 5-15% of consumers are prepared to buy organic food. In contrast, Dr Hilbeck described 25% as “too little, too late”. But what was important, she stressed, was not the particular form of ecological farming “as long as it is ecological farming”.

You can watch the whole event and exclusive interviews with the speakers on our videos page.

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