Jeff Seale, PhD
Director of Climate Policy & Strategy and Science Fellow
Bayer, Crop Science Division
The scientific community warned them that if an action wasn’t taken by regulators and those in positions of power, the world could face ecological ruination on a massive scale. Something needed to be done immediately. That was in 1994. Out of this call for action, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was born.
Now, the situation is even more urgent. Global climate objectives like the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Bayer’s own sustainability commitments grow more pressing by the minute. A pandemic continues to strain economies and supply chains, exacerbating hunger, and causing profound uncertainty. And in recent years, a groundswell of climate activism has called for massive change on a global scale.
I’m inspired by the energy and dedication of the thousands of citizens engaged in fighting the most pressing issue of our time. In particular, it’s heartening to see the young people of our world speak up. With a global climate strike, school walkouts, and continued demands for attention to this issue, the passion of the younger generation has only grown.
One thing I’ve noticed in climate discussions is that agriculture sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s not uncommon for the people who want swift action on climate change to view agricultural technologies as bad for the planet.
Life, as we know it on Earth, is governed by a set of biophysical limits—or planetary boundaries. These limits define the conditions on which the Earth’s ecosystem can support a “safe zone” for our existence. Exceeding one or more of these boundaries may trigger sudden environmental changes that threaten the existence of our very ecosystem.
Scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and colleagues have suggested that we have already exceeded the boundaries for climate change, biodiversity loss, and the nitrogen cycle. These limits all share a common factor: agriculture.
In short, agriculture is part of the problem. We have the responsibility to harness our natural systems and provide an adequate, nutritious food supply for all the people on Earth. At the same time, we must do it in a way that doesn’t wreck the place.
We are constantly searching for the ever-elusive win-win situation. With more than a quarter of the world’s population suffering from food insecurity, our planetary boundaries being exceeded, and COVID increasing both those pressures, we face the daunting task of turning the current lose-lose scenario into a sustainable ecosystem for all—and quickly.
What many people don’t know is that agriculture may be precisely where the swiftest action is possible. To those calling for action now, the good news is that changes in farm fields can bring about some of the most effective shifts to address climate change.
I have hope that agriculture can be part of the solution. But how do we make that happen?
Much of the ag sector is engaged in a battle over which systems are sustainable and which are harming the planet. We need to stop the in-fighting and arguing over “regenerative” and “industrial” and “organic” and “agroecology” and start focusing on sustainable agriculture practices. We spend so much time and effort trying to force a one-size-fits-all solution to a complex, dynamic, biological system. Instead, truly sustainable farming will be defined by the local ecosystem, considering both biological and sociological constraints. These systems need to be flexible enough to fit a variety of scenarios and we should support the appropriate development of each of those systems. What is sustainable for a large-scale farmer in the US corn belt can be quite different for a smallholder farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Too often the voice of the farmer is lost when discussing the future of agriculture. The Paris Accord mandates a just transition as one of its pillars and ignoring the voices and concerns of farmers is counter to this mandate. Creating a sustainable ag sector will only succeed if the women and men that grow our food are helping to create that system. Smallholder farmers especially need to have a seat at this table. These farmers produce a significant portion of the world’s food supply. Still, half of the people suffering from hunger today are smallholder farmers and their families. Sustainable food production means financially rewarding the farmers who spend their lives providing for society and protecting the planet.
Amid climate dialogues, I often find myself thinking, “Well yes, farmers are going to have to change. But the point of all the work here is that we ALL must change if we are to succeed in halting the rush toward a warmer, destabilized world. That includes those of us who work in agriculture.”
Right now, there is renewed focus on agronomic practices such as no-till and cover crops that improve soil health and improve crop resilience. Diverse crop rotations, intercropping, no-till, and other integrated systems can help remove CO2 from the atmosphere, protecting biodiversity in the process. We must invest in expanding the adoption of these climate-smart practices.
One factor that has thus far limited this kind of cooperation is the lack of a market demand for farmer adoption. Initiatives like the one Bayer recently launched, which offers farmers incentives for sequestering carbon in their soil, are helping to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers to create a truly integrated system.
Of course, meticulous, transparent scientific grounding is crucial to the success of such a system. Bayer’s soil carbon quantification is based on a widely used model, DNDC, as the first step in generating a rigorous approach, followed by the submission of our work for scientific scrutiny and publication in a peer-reviewed paper.
In addition to bolstering carbon sequestration, we should encourage the development and adoption of digital advances, improving agriculture’s impact on the environment. And we should develop the infrastructure needed to get these tools into the hands of all farmers.
Lastly, we should support and expand the use of modern crop improvement technologies such as gene editing and microbial seed treatments to a more diverse set of food crops with focus not only on increasing harvests, but also reducing food loss and improving nutritional properties.
There are many things that can be done to create a more sustainable agriculture — and this is just the short list. Agriculture can be part of the solution as we fight back against our world’s greatest challenge. We have the tools at our disposal today.
Amongst the citizens, youth, and leaders of the world, we have the passion and desire. Agriculture has the means. Now, we must come together and get to work!