Food & Water Stories

Regenerative Food Systems

Workers clear undergrowth with machetes in shade-grown coffee crops on San Agustín Las Minas coffee plantation.
Guatemala Water Fund Workers clear undergrowth with machetes in shade-grown coffee crops on San Agustín Las Minas coffee plantation. © Jason Houston

Food is more than something we eat to survive—it’s a part of how we thrive. And yet the way we produce food today threatens both people and nature, degrading our land and water, accelerating climate change and species loss, and making our farms, fields and fisheries less productive over time.

Fortunately, the solutions are in our reach. We can shift to a regenerative food system, producing food on land and at sea in ways that work in partnership with the world around us. Together we can turn one of today’s biggest challenges into our greatest opportunity—a food system that goes beyond sustainable and creates positive growth for communities, economies and the planet.

Regenerative Food: A Win-Win Cycle

  • green icon of a globe

    Secures the global food supply

    Global food demand is set to increase by 50 percent by 2050

  • green icon of wheat-like crops

    Builds a better economy

    One third of the world’s population obtains its livelihood from agriculture, and food production accounts for nearly 10 percent of the global economy.

  • green icon of a bird on a branch

    Increases biodiversity

    Agricultural expansion is the primary driver in 80 percent of native habitat loss globally

  • green icon of a water droplet and a plus and minus sign implying water quality

    Protects our water

    Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals

  • green icon of a bar chart and thermometer visualizing climate change

    Tackles climate change

    Agriculture and other land uses account for 25 percent of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions

  • a green icon of two fish

    Ensures a healthy ocean

    Food from the sea currently accounts for 17% of the global production of edible meat.

We have to create new solutions and find smarter ways to produce more with less input, while keeping in mind that there are no healthy foods without a healthy environment.

Dr. Qu Dongyu UN Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General

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Our Perspective

The vast scale of our food system means it can be one of the greatest levers for positive change. 

Food production has altered our planet more than any other human activity. It accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent of all freshwater usage; it is perhaps the single greatest cause of biodiversity loss. But it also provides livelihoods for more than a third of the world’s population. The next decade will be critical to making a global shift to producing food in ways that restore nature and support thriving communities. A regenerative food system takes us beyond mere sustainability toward positive growth that benefits our planet and the billions of farmers, fishers, ranchers and others who work to provide our food—without sacrificing the health and dignity of rural people and communities of color. 

By developing smart strategies in partnership with producers, we do more than make farms and fisheries more productive; we restore habitats, protect clean drinking water, increase biodiversity, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions all while securing the food supply for a rapidly growing population.

A truly regenerative approach marries long-held wisdom with system-wide change. 

Black, Indigenous and other communities of color have led the way on regenerative food production for millenia, developing ways of growing food in harmony with the natural environment. Their deep knowledge of the land and water they work can guide our shift to a regenerative system on a global scale, but the burden of change cannot fall to them alone. Governments, corporations and NGOs like The Nature Conservancy need to make major investments and facilitate system-wide structural change. We can start by redirecting the $500 billion governments spend annually on the most harmful agricultural subsidies toward regenerative practices; shifting markets to recognize sustainable practices; leveraging technological innovation; and making direct investments to support resource-poor producers in making the transition.

How can producers serve a growing population of consumers even as the very foundation of a productive food system—healthy lands and clean water—are disappearing at alarming rates?

Food demand is expected to increase by 50 percent—and protein demand by more than 70 percent—before we reach 2050. We are at a pivotal moment in history: there has never been a more important time to make changes across the food producing sectors. Transitioning to nature-positive production practices will allow producers to ramp up food supplies while generating long-term returns for themselves and the planet.

With more than half of Earth’s habitable lands currently used for agriculture, farmers and ranchers are some of the most important stewards of the world’s lands and water resources.

Stewarding land resources starts with stewarding soil. Healthy soils have huge potential for carbon storage, and are the foundation for rich biodiversity, clean waterways, and productive farms and ranches. By not plowing up grasslands to plant crops in Montana and the Dakotas, for instance, we can protect native plants and birds while supporting ranchers’ livelihoods as land stewards. In Kenya and Mongolia, better-managed grazing lands can store carbon in soil across large areas, sustain local livelihoods and protect biodiversity while also providing climate mitigation. In Brazil and Colombia, restoring degraded pastures to return hectares to soy production and diversifying revenue streams for farmers can ensure native forests are not converted for agricultural use.

  • A green icon showing a thermometer with plus or minus sign

    25%

    Agriculture is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.

  • A green icon showing three drops of water

    70%

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

  • a green icon showing three pine trees

    80%

    Agriculture drives a majority of habitat loss around the world.

  • green icon showing dried earth and dead plants

    52%

    52% of agricultural land is severely or moderately degraded, leading to the abandonment of 12 million hectares/year.

Cerrado of Brazil Trees in the Cerrado in Brazil © Helena Rezende/TNC Photo Contest 2019

Productive Croplands

Twelve million hectares of agricultural land are abandoned each year due to severe degradation. TNC is supporting farmers around the globe to improve soil fertility, water quality and biodiversity, increase supply chain productivity and protect against deforestation and conversion.

Read More: A Business Case for Sustainable Soy

                                               

Twelve million hectares of agricultural land are abandoned each year due to severe degradation. TNC is supporting farmers around the globe to improve soil fertility, water quality and biodiversity, increase supply chain productivity and protect against deforestation and conversion.

Read More: A Business Case for Sustainable Soy

                                               

Naronyo at Home Herder Naronyo Nang’oiho at his home in Selela village, northern Tanzania. © Roshni Lodhia

Healthy Grazing Landscapes

Grasslands are the least protected habitat on earth and are rapidly disappearing. TNC is working with ranchers to restore grazing landscapes with improved planning, as well as increase carbon sequestration, biodiversity and habitat protection while maintaining their livelihoods.

Read More: Keeping Grasslands Healthy in Northern Tanzania

                                                                 

Grasslands are the least protected habitat on earth and are rapidly disappearing. TNC is working with ranchers to restore grazing landscapes with improved planning, as well as increase carbon sequestration, biodiversity and habitat protection while maintaining their livelihoods.

Read More: Keeping Grasslands Healthy in Northern Tanzania

                                                                 

We can restore the health of our ocean and inland waters and protect sensitive species and habitats by transforming the way we interact with our ocean, lakes and rivers.

Fish and other seafood products provide vital nutrients for more than three billion people around the globe and supply an income for 10 to 12 percent of the world’s population. The health of our ocean and inland waters and the livelihoods of millions of people all depend on well-managed fisheries and sustainable aquaculture.
Oyster Farmers Island Creek Oysters workers handling oyster cages. © Island Creek Oysters

Restorative Aquaculture

In the last three decades, aquaculture—or farming in the water—has surpassed the size of the global beef industry and is the world’s fastest growing form of food production. TNC is helping fish farmers grow their operations in ways that are cleaner and more efficient, as well as harnessing the power of marine aquaculture to improve water quality and ocean habitat around the world.

Read More: Diving Deep on Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration

In the last three decades, aquaculture—or farming in the water—has surpassed the size of the global beef industry and is the world’s fastest growing form of food production. TNC is helping fish farmers grow their operations in ways that are cleaner and more efficient, as well as harnessing the power of marine aquaculture to improve water quality and ocean habitat around the world.

Read More: Diving Deep on Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration

Fishing boats in the early morning light, Ancón, Peru. © Jason Houston

Thriving Fisheries

Unsustainable fishing practices threaten the ocean ecosystem and the communities who depend on it by depleting wild fish populations and destroying habitat. These impacts are amplified by warming waters and other stresses of climate change.

TNC partners with Indigenous and local communities and leverages research and technology to support sustainable fisheries that result in stable supplies of seafood, thriving coastal communities, biodiversity conservation, and healthy oceans, rivers and lakes.

Watch: Empowering Communities to Make Their Fisheries Thrive

Unsustainable fishing practices threaten the ocean ecosystem and the communities who depend on it by depleting wild fish populations and destroying habitat. These impacts are amplified by warming waters and other stresses of climate change.

TNC partners with Indigenous and local communities and leverages research and technology to support sustainable fisheries that result in stable supplies of seafood, thriving coastal communities, biodiversity conservation, and healthy oceans, rivers and lakes.

Watch: Empowering Communities to Make Their Fisheries Thrive

  • blue icon of a fish

    >30%

    of wild fish stocks are now overfished.

  • blue icon of a turtle and a shark

    20

    Ending overfishing would halt or reverse the decline of more than half of the key marine mammal, sea turtle, and seabird populations that are threatened as bycatch.

  • blue icon showing a fishing boat

    120M

    120 million full-time and part-time workers are directly dependent on commercial fishing.

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    >US$80B

    > US$80 billion could be realized in annual net economic benefits if we manage our global fisheries better.

Our food system is an orchestra of life in which all players depend on each other.

The challenge of the next decade will be to catalyze a massive global shift to food systems that go beyond sustainable to regenerative, working in partnership with nature to drive changes that restore the health and function of entire foodscapes—and the planet. Together we can grow positive.

In The Spotlight

Foodscapes: An Integrated Approach to Food System Transformation Event

The UN Food Systems Summit is driving high ambition for transformation across all elements of complex global food systems. But swift and integrated implementation still feels out of reach for many. Defining, mapping and managing the world’s “foodscapes”—food production regions on land and sea—may offer a transformational approach that transcends boundaries: economic, social, political and environmental. Foodscape-level framing offers an opportunity for a systems view and the potential to manage the transformation collectively, while still allowing for local nuance.

Watch leaders representing the diverse perspectives of science, policy, business and food producers discuss the potential for a foodscape approach to drive both transformation and restoration of the world’s food economies—delivering benefits for people and the planet.

The event is also available to view in Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin.

Foodscapes Event (1:07:32) Join us as we speak with sector experts about a transformational approach to managing foodscapes to benefit people and the planet.

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