Just Rural Transition: Showing the world how vital biodiversity is to our food systems

Race to Resilience partner, the Just Rural Transition brings together food producers, governments, businesses, investors, civil society, rural and indigenous peoples to champion equitable solutions to food systems challenges. Here, the JRT explains to the Climate Champions why the protection of biodiversity, and therefore COP15, is critical to its work. By Just Rural Transition | December 14, 2022

COP15 is a biodiversity summit, so why is it important to your work in resilience?

Agriculture and food systems are the primary driver of biodiversity loss, with agriculture alone threatening 86% of species at risk of extinction. On the other hand, the UN reports that land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the planet’s land surface, and up to US$577 billion in annual crop yields are at risk from pollinator loss. In short, food systems are both a cause and a victim of nature degradation and climate change. As these crises deepen, they put global food security and farmers’ livelihoods at grave risk.

At the Just Rural Transition initiative (JRT), we know it is vital to transform agriculture and food systems to be more productive, resilient and sustainable for the benefit of coming generations. Our work brings together food producers, governments, businesses, investors, civil society and rural and indigenous peoples to champion equitable solutions to food systems challenges that can deliver better results for people, climate and nature.

What factors make agriculture a driver of biodiversity loss?

The resilience of our food systems is built on biodiversity, yet that diversity is shrinking: over 90% of crop varieties have been lost, and today 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species, according to the FAO. This leaves agriculture at risk from pests and disease, especially in a warming world. This loss of variety has partly been driven by past agricultural policies that focused on increasing the yields of a small number of staple crops. In this limited scope, they have been successful – yields have risen two- to threefold since 1950 – but this success has come at a cost to climate stability and resilience, global biodiversity and even food security itself.

Government subsidies compound these issues. Globally, governments spend over US $800 billion annually to support agriculture, but much of this is both inefficient and ineffective, incentivizing actions that drive climate change and environmental damage. Evidence suggests that repurposing public support towards investing in climate-smart innovations that both increase agricultural productivity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions could reduce overall emissions from agriculture by more than 40%, restore 105 million hectares of agricultural land to natural habitats, and reduce the cost of healthy foods, thereby also contributing to better nutritional outcomes.

Are we starting to see a shift in resilience strategies that embed nature restoration, and, if so, who’s doing this well?

Nationally, countries have begun to explicitly recognize the importance of including nature protection in climate-smart agricultural policies. Zambia, for instance, is implementing a Climate-Smart Agriculture Programme, which includes conservation agriculture, minimum tillage, agroforestry and the production of climate-resilient crop varieties.

JRT has worked with farmers around the globe, and we have seen a great number of innovative farming practices that are good for both nature and climate. Farmers also have clear recommendations on how agricultural policies can help them fulfil their role as stewards of nature. You can read these recommendations in our recently published policy brief.

The private sector can also play a key role in advancing agricultural practices that are better for nature and climate. A good example is the Moringa investment fund, which works with sustainable agroforestry projects to achieve positive environmental and social outcomes. For example, its project with Cafetalera Nica-France, a Nicaraguan agroforestry company which specializes in producing high-quality shade-grown coffee, has enabled the use of efficient techniques that reduce the size of the planted areas, freeing up land for nature restoration.

Despite having separate climate and nature conferences, should we be looking at non-state actors’ overall environmental impacts?

We should indeed consider climate change and nature degradation together. One cannot be solved without the other. And this is particularly pertinent when it comes to our food systems. Thriving ecosystems such as healthy soils are vital to extracting and storing carbon. They underpin the resilience of our food systems and protect communities against the floods and droughts that are becoming increasingly frequent and severe with climate change.

A significant first step towards this mindset was taken in 2021 at COP26, with COP Presidency’s Nature Campaign, which worked to accelerate action on protecting and restoring forests and other critical ecosystems, and helping the world move towards sustainable agriculture and land use. JRT worked with the COP26 UK Presidency, the World Bank and dozens of countries and civil society organizations to build support for a Policy Action Agenda. This agenda provides a range of concrete actions to accelerate a transition to sustainable and equitable agriculture. Importantly, it takes a holistic approach to defining sustainable agriculture and the actions countries and non-state actors can take to enable it – thereby recognizing the importance of considering climate and nature together.

Nevertheless, enacting effective policies to deliver triple wins for people (via healthy diets and economies), climate (mitigation and adaptation) and nature (protecting and restoring biodiversity) remains extremely complex and challenging. It cannot be achieved by policymakers alone. Many farmers are already using their experience and expertise to drive innovation and secure the transition to more equitable, resilient and sustainable food systems. Governments should introduce policies that support farmers to implement these solutions. Business, too, must become a critical partner in the transition to net zero and nature-positive food systems by investing in more sustainable food production.

What should we, as Climate Champions and partners, be doing to improve how we embed nature into our work?

We need to be loud and clear that our work to help solve the climate crisis goes hand-in-hand with protecting nature. For JRT that means showing the world how vital biodiversity is to our food systems – through services like soil health, disease resilience and pollination, which boost the yields of 75% of our crops. It also means celebrating the crucial role that farmers must play – and are already playing – in the race to save biodiversity and mitigate climate change.

Climate Champions should use their voices and platforms to highlight these links between climate and nature, and show that nature protection needs to be integrated into all agricultural policies and practices alongside climate mitigation and adaptation, food security and livelihoods. The fact that we have historically considered these inseparable issues in silos is a large part of the problems we face today.

If we get an ambitious international agreement on the protection of nature, what does this mean for non-state actors?

An ambitious international agreement on the protection of nature would be an enormously positive development for our partners. But an agreement is only as good as its implementation. Farmers and other stakeholders must be meaningfully consulted on how such an agreement will be enacted and transformed into national policies. They should then be supported and rewarded by governments to enact these policies through land stewardship and nature protection. Likewise, Indigenous peoples and rural communities should be empowered to own and lead conservation and restoration initiatives, backed by formal government recognition of their community and customary rights to lands and natural resources. In this way, such an agreement will be equitable and long-lasting, giving future generations a stable climate, thriving ecosystems and fair livelihoods.

Race to Resilience

Revitalizing landscapes damaged by intensive agriculture in Brazil’s Paraná State

Race to Resilience partner Initiative 20×20 is working with MIROVA and the SLB Group in Brazil to restore degraded land caused by intensive agriculture in Paraná. This project seeks to rejuvenate 1,400 hectares previously used for intensive farming practices by implementing innovative forestry methods that promise greater biodiversity and environmental sustainability.