A variety of vegetables for sale at a fresh market in Vietnam
Fresh Market Finds A variety of vegetables for sale at a fresh market in Vietnam © Julian Hanslmaier

Perspectives

Beyond Sustainable: A Food System to Restore the Planet

Food production is the top threat to nature—a regenerative system can change that.

is TNC's Global Managing Director for Sustainable Food and Water.
Michael Doane Global Managing Director, Provide Food & Water

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One of the things that makes COVID-19 so devasting is the way it undermines the connections that hold society together. The distancing measures required to slow the spread of the disease and save lives are unfortunately pulling apart many of the interconnected systems embedded in our modern world.

When we talk about food, we are inherently talking about connections—whether that’s the social connections we form over a shared meal, or the connections between all the actors and industries required to grow, process and distribute the ingredients in that meal. Right now all of these connections are being tested.

Consider: Sick workers can lead to labor shortages and reduced output in the fields and at food processing facilities. Even when food is being produced, shipping and import challenges mean that food often doesn’t make it to shelves. And even where there is food on the shelf, people who have lost their jobs may not be able to buy the food. COVID has exposed just how vulnerable our food systems are to disruption at every point in the journey from farm to fork.

COVID has exposed just how vulnerable our food systems are to disruption at every point in the journey from farm to fork.
Empty Shelves COVID has exposed just how vulnerable our food systems are to disruption at every point in the journey from farm to fork. © John Cameron

Unfortunately, COVID is far from the only threat currently facing our food systems. In addition to the commercial and economic systems that have been so shaken by this pandemic, there’s another layer of ecological systems underpinning our food production. Supporting every grape and lentil is a whole world of soil-enriching microbes, pollinating insects, water-filtering plants—it's an orchestra of life in which all players depend on each other. And all of them are threatened by climate change.

The Next Food Crisis?

Unlike COVID, the threats posed by climate change are not new—we’ve been warned over and over that our food production systems are not sustainable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) has warned that climate change is already reducing food production in drier regions, and that any warming beyond 1.5°C above preindustrial averages will have increasingly severe impacts on food systems.  

We’ve also known for some time that the way we currently produce most of our food is in fact making climate change and biodiversity loss worse—agriculture is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, 70 percent of freshwater use and 80 percent of habitat loss. We now have a vicious feedback loop between food production and degradation of nature.

Supporting every grape and lentil is a whole world of soil-enriching microbes, pollinating insects, water-filtering plants that depend on each other. And all of them are threatened by climate change.

But COVID has exposed just how quickly disruptions in our food systems can precipitate crises. If we wait until climate impacts become even more severe and widespread, it will likely be too late to avoid tipping into another global crisis. At this point it’s not enough to just produce food in ways that minimize harm to the planet—we must start producing food in ways that actively restore the health of the planet.

At TNC we call this idea regenerative food systems. The idea is to produce food—whether on land or at sea—in ways that actively restore habitat and protect biodiversity in and around production areas while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In some cases, regenerative food systems can produce even more food than traditional systems—and, crucially, they preserve the livelihoods of the farmers, fishers, ranchers and others who work to provide our food, now and in the long run.

  • An icon showing a thermometer with plus or minus sign

    25%

    Agriculture is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.

  • A gray icon showing three drops of water

    70%

    Agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater use around the world.

  • A gray icon showing three pine trees of varying sizes

    80%

    Agriculture drives a majority of habitat loss around the world.

Regenerative Food Systems:

  • Produce food—whether on land or at sea—in ways that actively restore habitat and protect biodiversity in and around production areas
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Preserve the livelihoods of the farmers, fishers, ranchers and others who work to provide our food, now and in the long run
Aerial views of Jose Palomo's Los Potrillos ranch in Becanchen. Palomo has adopted “silvopastoral” ranch practices.
Yucatan, Mexico Jose Palomo's Los Potrillos ranch in Becanchen has adopted “silvopastoral” ranch practices, which promote sustainable forest management and achieve higher beef yield. © Erich Schlegel

Regenerative Food Systems

For most of our dinner plates, the journey from “farm to fork” is not quite so simple—it’s more like farm (or boat) to processor to distributor to retailer, with the itinerary shaped by private finance, government subsidies, consumer marketing and dozens of other factors. Creating regenerative food systems means looking at change across this entire journey. We must change our production methods so they regenerate nature rather than degrade it; we must change the market incentives to drive greater adoption of regenerative production practices—and we must accelerate these efforts in key global production areas over the next decade. 

So what does this look like?

Regenerating nature: soil health and aquaculture

Let’s start with something foundational: the ground beneath our feet. Soil is not just inert matter—healthy soil is full of living organisms that help to generate the nutrients crops need to grow. But many conventional farming practices inadvertently degrade soil health over time, which in turn can reduce crop yields. Adding fertilizer, where available, can compensate for reduced soil nutrients, but if it’s applied at the wrong time, or when there are no vegetative buffers around fields, it can wash into nearby waterways, harming freshwater ecosystems—or even marine ecosystems, as when excess nutrients make their way downstream to the ocean and create hypoxic “dead zones.”

Adopting practices like reduced or no-tillage planting and the use of cover crops can restore the complex soil biology that’s key to long term crop production, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient runoff. It’s a win for the farmer, for local ecosystems and for the climate. And when excess nutrients still make their way down to the sea? Regenerative food systems can help here, too. Certain aquaculture species, such as oysters, actively filter water and assimilate excess nutrients—they actually improve the water quality for other species in area. In fact, when practiced correctly, aquaculture offers many regenerative benefits: it has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any form of animal food production, and seaweed aquaculture could even be utilized to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

a close up shot of green plants in a field against a sunset sky
The Cobb's Farm Cover crops like the ones growing on this Texas farm help ensure healthy soil that captures and stores carbon. © Ron Nichols/USDA-NRCS
IN LILLIWAUP, WASHINGTON
Hama Hama Oysters Hama Hama is a fifth generation family-run shellfish farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Oysters can actively filter water and assimilate excess nutrients. © Jenn Repp Photography
The Cobb's Farm Cover crops like the ones growing on this Texas farm help ensure healthy soil that captures and stores carbon. © Ron Nichols/USDA-NRCS
Hama Hama Oysters Hama Hama is a fifth generation family-run shellfish farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Oysters can actively filter water and assimilate excess nutrients. © Jenn Repp Photography

Financial incentives for smarter crop siting

But production practices, while an essential starting point, represent just one element of a food system. Processing, distribution, retail, financing—these elements also determine how sustainable our food can be. Consider soy, one of the world’s most ubiquitous crops—and a major driver of habitat conversion across the Cerrado and Chaco ecosystems in Brazil and Argentina. But soy doesn’t have to replace natural habitat—there’s plenty of previously cleared land that’s suitable for soy production. The key is creating the right market incentives to prioritize production on this land.

TNC is working with global traders, input companies and banks to offer attractive long-term financing to farmers who plant their soy on previously cleared lands. And because habitat conversion creates higher temperatures and other local climate impacts that reduce soy yields, avoiding clearing lands creates additional benefits for farmers across the entire region—to say nothing of the long-term benefits of mitigating global climate change.

At this point it’s not enough to just produce food in ways that minimize harm to the planet—we must start producing food in ways that actively restore the health of the planet.

Scaling up through corporate action and smart policy

These changes will require the largest companies in the global food system to actively lead the way. The global food system is vast, connecting the otherwise independent decisions of millions of farmers, fisherman and consumers each day. But there’s no doubt that the largest companies wield incredible influence on a global level—especially when it comes to the processing and distribution systems that connect producers and consumers.

The thought of depending on these companies to lead this change may be controversial to some—after all, many of these same companies have created the global food system which is now hastening climate change and biodiversity loss. Certainly not every company is prepared to make this fundamental shift to regenerative food systems, but a few are doing so now—and they deserve our support and collaboration.

In fact, the last month has brought a flurry of positive commitments from large corporations working in the food space. Just this week, the Syngenta Group expanded its sustainability commitments through a “Good Growth Plan” that includes pledges to reduce carbon emissions from the company’s agriculture operations by 50 percent and to help farmers deal with the extreme weather patterns caused by climate change.

Syngenta’s most recent commitments come on the heels of Unilver’s investment of 1 billion euros in a “climate and nature fund” and Wal-Mart’s announcement earlier this year of Project Gigaton, an initiative to avoid one billion metric tons of greenhouse gases from the global value chain by 2030. These companies won’t transform the global food system alone, but we can’t achieve meaningful transformation without them.

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A Better Future for Food

I’m an economist by training, a conservationist by vocation, and a farmer at heart. For all these reasons, food system reform is deeply personal to me. It’s personal because of the kinship I feel with others who make their living providing food. It’s personal because I care deeply about the natural world, and I know changing our food systems is key to a positive future. And it’s personal because I’ve spent much of my life studying markets, and I am convinced they are essential to driving change at the pace and scale we need.

A table is set with foods grown or produced by some of the TNC partners who are working to make food more sustainable, New York City.
Food To Restore A table is set with foods grown or produced by some of the TNC partners who are working to make food more sustainable, New York City. © Robert Clark

Food is more than something we eat to survive—it’s a part of how we thrive. To break bread together is a social ritual—for some a holy ritual—that transcends time and culture. Asked what they’ve missed the most during COVID-mandated isolation, many people will say sharing meals with friends and family.

Of course, if the worst you’ve experienced is a loss of communal eating, you (and I) are among the lucky—it means we still have food in our homes and the good health and strength enjoy it. But that’s not something any of us can count on indefinitely if we continue to produce food in ways that degrade the planet and exacerbate climate change.

We face an existential challenge, yet there is an elegant solution rooted in nature.  Our pivot to a regenerative food system must happen quickly, though—over the next decade. It requires purposeful innovation, global coordination and a willingness to confront entrenched interests. But the future that awaits us if we do nothing is far worse than dining alone.

is TNC's Global Managing Director for Sustainable Food and Water.

Michael Doane is Global Managing Director, Provide Food & Water, for The Nature Conservancy.

More About Michael Doane