Working with partners to upscale sustainable agriculture

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    To translate corporate decisions into sustainable production processes, we need new tools for measuring what Earth gives us and how we value it. We need innovations in how we measure the impact of our choices on what we consume, in how we conduct business and how we structure policy. The Paris Climate Agreement gave us reason to celebrate. Never before have so many countries, corporations and NGOs come together with such urgency to address a shared challenge. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are intertwined with the Climate Agreement. Just reducing greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t solve such global challenges as inequality, poverty, and insecurity. But Paris was a moment of activation and connectivity. The Climate Agreement is the opening for delivering on SDG target 13 “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” but indirectly also for delivering on a set of other SDG targets. More specifically, the fight against climate change is an underlying condition for the attainment of the SDGs. Climate change affects clean drinking water and thus good health, it destroys decent work opportunities, it damages life below water and life on land, and through enhanced competition over scarce resources, it can even create or exacerbate conflicts. And – as we all know - developing countries will suffer disproportionately more from climate change. People need nature to create livelihoods and improve their well-being. Nature is necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. At the same time, nature itself is also crucial in order to combat climate change, as halting tropical deforestation can provide 30% of the mitigation efforts needed to limit warming to 1.5º and provides additional benefits for adapting to climate change. We need to take an integrated approach to sustainable development including the fight against climate change and the protection of nature. Only then do we stand a chance to address the challenges of communities, indigenous peoples, companies and nations.

    Engaging with the private sector

    Engagement with the private sector is essential to support the implementation of both the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. Corporate decisions and activities ultimately determine the management of natural resources. The private sector has a key role to play to ensure that the production of agricultural commodities is sustainable and in this way supports the Paris Climate Agreement and the SDGs. And indeed many corporations have made highly commendable commitments. However, the reality is that a corporate decision or commitment does not necessarily make a difference in farmer or conservation practices in the field, particularly in developing countries.

    Fostering conservation practices

    Making that impact in the field is our focus at Conservation International (CI). Our mission is to ensure that our single, spectacular and abundant Earth can continue to provide for us all. And the way we see our role is to spark innovation. In order to translate corporate decisions into reality, we need new tools for measuring what Earth gives us and how we value it. We need innovations in how we measure the impact of our choices on what we consume. We need innovations in how we conduct business and how we structure policy. What we do at CI is try to generate these kinds of breakthroughs, demonstrate that they work and scale them up through partnerships to create planet-sized change.

    Data system for resilience

    A perfect example is Vital Signs, the partnership Conservation International created with the Gates Foundation to measure the contribution that nature makes to the production of food. As is well known, Gates is driven to increase food production and the quality of life for hundreds of millions of poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Our question to them was, how can a farmer, usually a woman with one acre of land, produce food if there is no water, infertile soil, or no pollinators? The data system Vital Signs generates near real-time data and diagnostic tools at every scale (household, plot, landscape, nation, globe). CI has implemented this data collection in five countries in east Africa (Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia), with plans to roll out to more than ten countries across Africa in the next years. This data helps identify interventions that will increase the resilience of agricultural production to climate variability and shocks. It will provide farmers and decision-makers across the globe with better data on agriculture, ecosystems and livelihoods to help them achieve agricultural development that is sustainable for people and nature. Threads that are being measured include: climate forcing, biodiversity, water, soil health, food security, poverty, health, sustainable agricultural intensification, resilience and others.

    Improving the sustainability of production processes

    In order to upscale these demonstration projects informed by science, we are working with the private sector and with governments that need to create a demand for sustainable agriculture commodities. To focus on commodities, the coming years are critical to ensure the long-term sustainability of the palm oil, coffee, soy and cocoa sector as climate change impacts intensify and world demand for coffee, palm oil and cocoa continues to grow. Currently, agriculture is causing 80% of global deforestation. Knowing that our forests are the world’s lungs providing clean air for us to breathe, we need to find ways to supply markets in a more efficient way on already degraded areas without causing more deforestation. For palm oil, the most widely used vegetable oil, improvements of production practices have started but in some cases tropical rainforest is still being chopped down to make space for palm oil plantations, while soils are suffering from damaging pesticides. At the same time, rights of local communities are not always respected. In the coffee sector, warming temperatures, drought and changing weather patterns are affecting coffee production. Other factors also compound this stress: market volatility has significantly lowered prices paid to farmers, aging coffee trees are declining in productivity and the next generation of coffee farmers is seeking economic alternatives for their livelihoods. However, the threat of climate change has sparked innovation and creativity in all sectors: people from numerous industries, universities, communities, and cultures are applying their hearts, minds and spirits to come up with new, integrated solutions to sustainable agriculture production. The newly developed concept of the landscape approach for example aims at integrating conservation with development. While the most valuable areas of nature are strictly protected, producer companies need to work together with local communities and governments to improve governance, and use sustainable production practices. Other parts of the solution to sustainable production range from technical assistance and farmer finance to certification. In parallel to these efforts on the production side, consumer companies around the world have to assume the responsibility of creating demand for sustainably produced and certified coffee or palm oil. By 2050, the planet will need to feed more than 9 billion people. In the same time frame demand for water, food and energy is set to double. People need nature to thrive. CI’s mission is to ensure that our single, spectacular and abundant Earth can continue to provide for us all. About the author Herbert Lust is Vice-President and Managing Director Europe of Conservation International (CI) Europe.
    This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 5, Issue 5  (October/November 2016).
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