2023 Annual Conference summary – Fourth session

How can we act better: the case for improving biodiversity, soil health and water resilience?

Friday, Apr 07, 2023

How we can use technology to better serve Biodiversity

Ranveer Chandra, Managing Director for Research and Industry and CTO of Agri-Food, Microsoft, explained that the company’s mission “is to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more”. Its aim “is not to replace a farmer, but to augment the farmer’s knowledge”, by replacing guesswork in agricultural decisions with data, software and artificial intelligence.

The technology is not targeted directly at farmers, but at agriculture companies, startups and others wishing to build their own solutions. The current tools work for farms of ten acres or more. The company is now looking to develop these for smallholders. A show of hands of farmers in the audience revealed a majority already use various forms of technology and believe artificial intelligence could materially improve their operations.

How can we act better: the case for improving biodiversity, soil health and water resilience?
Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, European Commission, whose keynote speech was briefly interrupted by alarms going off and a disturbance by protesters, said bluntly: “We have made our land sick.” He focused on three main areas – biodiversity, soil and water – where the EU is taking measures to restore their health.

Alongside its biodiversity strategy, the Commission has published a revised EU pollinators initiative and a draft nature restoration law, which sets binding targets to restore degraded ecosystems. The EU Deforestation Regulation – expected to enter into force at the end of 2024 – will help tackle deforestation and forest degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change.

With soil degradation costing over €50 billion a year, the Commission is relying on its forthcoming draft soil health law to ensure sustainable soil use becomes the norm. As Europe potentially faces its worst drought for 500 years, the EU water reuse regulation takes effect in June, setting out minimum requirements for water quality and monitoring, ensuring safe water use for agricultural irrigation.

The second keynote speaker, Tasso Azevedo, Coordinator MapBiomas & SEEG initiatives, forester and former Chief of Brazilian Forest Service, described Brazil as “a powerhouse of agriculture and nature”. It also has the largest annual deforestation, two thirds of its pastureland have moderate or severe soil degradation, its water surface is shrinking and land use change is responsible for 75% of its greenhouse gas emissions.

After recent “dark days for environmental protection”, the new government has made fighting deforestation, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, developing the bioeconomy and increasing food production among its priorities. Its goal is zero deforestation and halving emissions by 2030. He welcomed the EU’s deforestation legislation, but warned it should not be used as a barrier to trade in other products. He also called on the EU to help compensate the peoples whose activities protect the forests for the planet’s benefit.

Andrea Erickson-Quiroz, Global Director for Water Security, Deputy Managing Director for the Food and Water Systems Priority, The Nature Conservancy, opened the panel discussion warning “the global water cycle is changing”. She stressed the importance of seeing problems in a wide context and finding mutually beneficial relationships. She gave the example of New York City’s investment in the Catskills. Working closely with farmers and changing practices, the city has ensured the quality of the water it receives at a far lower cost than the construction of a new filtration plant downstream.

Truke Smoor, Global Water Lead, Cargill, spoke of the need to move from crisis mode to build water resiliency. The company uses its role as “a connector in the food chain” helping farmers work with its downstream customers to share any risk involved. In Mexico, it is creating financing solutions for more efficient drip irrigation technology, saving 50% of water use.

Mark Hall, Head of Sustainable Farming EAME, Syngenta, explained the company is trying “to get farmers to be able to produce productive crops sustainably”. It is developing new genetic and chemical technologies more tailored to sustainable farming and soil health, investing heavily in bio stimulants and committed $2 billion in sustainable farming technologies. As a regenerative farmer himself, he underlined the “need to give growers advice and confidence”.

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

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