Transitioning to sustainable agriculture will involve a large set of complicated, interlocking, and contested issues. Yields will need to increase while portions of the landscape are spared to maintain biodiversity. Advanced cropping systems will be needed to move the overall system toward net negative greenhouse gas emissions. Without major changes in how meat is produced, meat consumption will need to decline to stay within planetary sustainability boundaries. Achieving these and many other goals will require changes throughout agriculture and in the broader food systems of which agriculture is a relatively small but foundational part.
Great overlap exists between decreasing climate and biodiversity risk and ensuring food and nutrition security. Sustainability goals therefore have multiple motivations and end points. In that respect, an important set of questions involves the conceptual framework for change that can coordinate and justify actions. For example, can a different way of ascribing value to agricultural products be developed—one that involves such factors as food quality, health, and sustainability—that does not depend entirely on yields? Could the economics of agricultural markets be modified so that value is more evenly distributed, with growers getting a more equitable share of the returns from the foods they produce?
The possibility of tipping points in the climate or social systems adds urgency to the need to transition to sustainable agriculture. Incremental steps may not be sufficient to produce dramatic change. When dramatic change becomes possible, researchers and policy makers will need to be prepared with solutions that can be implemented quickly. Public engagement at the local level, buttressed by the accumulation and presentation of evidence, can generate the democratic legitimacy to take on vested interests that hinder change.
There is already strong evidence that food systems are unsustainable. However, the need for policies that support sustainability exists in a crowded, long-established, and siloed policy space, with major food policies having evolved over decades and centuries. In addition, food and farming touch on many other issues—not just human health and environmental well-being but also employment, politics, and society. Policy makers do not always understand the issue of sustainability well, and even the term “sustainability” can be defined in different ways, which is not helpful in a policy-making context. The gaps among evidence, policies, and reality are real and challenging, even if they may be narrowing. It is likely that rapid, substantial change to current systems is required to
act on many of the issues and evidence discussed at the forum. Policies today tend to be dominated not by sustainability but by productionism, which is the idea, formulated in the mid-20th century, that the world needs to produce more food to feed a growing population. Policy changes tend to be tweaks to this established system, even though the current challenges will not be met without larger changes to these structures. The Paris Agreement and the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were major accomplishments, but at a national level, environmental and health problems are proliferating and intensifying, and efforts to build the evidence base are not leading to changes in policy to the extent that the challenges warrant.
Transformation of the global food policy system will entail changes in the entire value chain from farm to fork, including production, transport, business, and governance. This will require a wide variety of policies affecting incentives, regulation, and broader governance frameworks. The individuals involved include consumers, shareholders, civil society organizations, farmers, and fishers. Businesses include manufacturers, agro-business, finance, transport, insurance, and retail. Governance occurs at all levels, from local to international. All of these actors are embedded within an environmental system that provides ecosystem services and biodiversity and is being harmed by land and freshwater degradation, resource depletion, and the emission of greenhouse gases.
Mechanisms that “lock in” particular policies and hinder change can sideline solutions (see Figure 5-1). These lock-in mechanisms can derive from knowledge constraints, economic and regulatory constraints, sociocultural constraints, and biophysical constraints.1 An example of an economic and regulatory constraint is a set of perverse incentives where farmers are paid to farm in ways that harm the environment. An example of a biophysical constraint is a lack of pollinators caused by habitat loss and the use of pesticides. An example of a sociocultural constraint is limited collective identity to organize for change or act in ways that favor the environment.2 Another such constraint is a belief in technofixes, like robotic pollinators or geoengineering to stop climate change. Focusing on just one or two lock-in mechanisms will leave the others intact to continue to impede change.
New applications of technology can help overcome lock-in mechanisms, but every technology has a resource footprint, which inevitably entails tradeoffs. One way to evaluate such tradeoffs is through lifecycle assessment, which is a systems-level tool that can be used to compare costs with benefits across interventions.3 Systems-level analyses can be incorporated into policy design decisions proactively to reduce the potential for unintended consequences.
There is no silver bullet, and policy frameworks and sectors will need to plan for a future that is increasingly uncertain and ambiguous. The world is changing very quickly, and globalization is not necessarily going to continue and could unravel. Supply chains may get shorter and more regional.
1 Oliver, T. H., E. Boyd, K. Balcombe, T. G. Benton, J. M. Bullock, D. Donovan, G. Feola, M. Heard, G. M. Mace, S. R. Mortimer, R. J. Nunes, R. F. Pywell, and D. Zaum. 2018. Overcoming undesirable resilience in the global food system. Global Sustainability 1(e9):1–9.
2 Oliver, T. The Self Delusion: The Surprising Science of How We Are Connected and Why That Matters. New York: Hachette.
3 Pourzahedi, L., M. Pandorf, D. Ravikumar, J. B. Zimmerman, T. P. Seager, T. L. Theis, P. Westerhoff, L. M. Gilbertson, and G. V. Lowry. 2018. Life cycle considerations of nano-enabled agrochemicals: Are today’s tools up to the task? Environmental Science: Nano 5:1057–1069.
Farms could become smaller and more diverse. Systems will continue to evolve in ways that are at least partly unforeseeable. However, these systems can be shaped to ensure that they are prepared and flexible enough to cope with surprises.
A wide range of policy levers exists to overcome barriers, including incentives, regulation, and the establishment of new business and policy frameworks. Agricultural subsidies could support rather than detract from sustainability—for example, moving toward rewarding positive environmental outcomes. End users could gain equitable access to appropriate innovations. Agricultural strategies could be shaped by sustainability as much as by production and efficiency—for example, moving away from the monoculture and industrial agriculture that is the current norm. A new concept of yield could be based on sustainability and quality metrics rather than simply the amount of output. This would entail a broader balancing of goals, where agriculture and the broader food system are judged on overall performance rather than individual outputs. Such strategies will need to be formulated through involvement of all stakeholders, including farmers.
Meeting the needs of the future will require both incremental and transformational change. For example, the large amount of food that is lost along food supply chains points to the need for steady and continuous improvement, as does the need to move away from traditional methods in livestock production. At the same time, substantially lowering greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture will require that current production systems be re-engineered to reduce their reliance on tillage, fertilizers, and heavy machinery powered by fossil fuels. Agronomic techniques such as intercropping, integrated pest management, the use of trees in agriculture, and irrigation water management can all yield both incremental and large-scale change.4 Field-scale solutions are already available but are greatly underused.
An example of the potential for policies to support sustainability involves the need to restore, protect, and judiciously manage soil. Sustainable soil management requires replacing what has been removed from the soil, restoring and maintaining soil health, recycling nutrients, and predicting what will happen to soil because of anthropogenic and natural perturbations. One approach to soil management would be to supplement legislation directed toward clean water and air with similar legislation designed to foster soil health. Farmers and land managers could be empowered to restore degraded soils, increase the organic carbon stored in soil, and save soil and water for nature conservancy. As part of a Healthy Soil Act, good soil management could be rewarded as one component of a farm payment system.5
If food security is defined as the availability of a balanced and nutritious diet, shaping the demand for food becomes a major policy objective. Small-scale changes can shift behaviors in healthy directions, such as providing larger numbers of vegetarian options on menus and training chefs so that they can cook high-quality vegetarian food. Technologies and modern communications can help sway demand toward better choices, particularly through the deployment of modern advertising techniques.
People choose foods for different reasons, meaning that different people will respond to different incentives and nudges. People can also be educated to recognize the environmental and health benefits of changing their diets, which requires continuing research into how to shape messages that reach people and cause them to change their behaviors. Other policy mechanisms include food labeling, education and training of food producers, and bans against the import of unsustainable products.
Forces outside of the global food system can exert powerful effects. An example is the potential for infectious diseases to spread between humans and animals, such as the viruses that cause coronavirus diseases. In the case of zoonotic diseases, less intensive farming systems and buffer zones may be needed to prevent infectious agents from moving from wildlife into livestock or human populations.
4 Pretty, J., T. G. Benton, Z. P. Bharucha, L. V. Dicks, C. Butler Flora, H. C. J. Godfray, D. Goulson, S. Hartley, N. Lampkin, C. Morris, G. Pierzynski, P. V. Vara Prasad, J. Reganold, J. Rockström, P. Smith, P. Thorne, and S. Wratten. 2018. Global assessment of agricultural system redesign for sustainable intensification. Nature Sustainability 1:441–446.
5 Royal Society. 2020. Soil Structure and Its Benefits: An Evidence Synthesis. London, UK: Royal Society.
Prices and trade are prominent factors in food system policies. For example, unless every country agrees to implement a carbon tax, other countries could undercut one nation’s policies by making products that are unsustainably carbon intensive and sell them abroad. Equalizing prices would require implementing border tariffs to put an extra cost on products that are not being sustainably made.
Trade will need to be a prominent part of discussions among countries if it is to contribute to sustainable agriculture rather than detract from it. For example, many of the foods imported into northern countries are from climate vulnerable countries, raising questions about the reliability of supply chains. Eating sustainably from more local sources in places like the United Kingdom would mean eating more local foods like cabbages, root vegetables, and legumes and fewer exotic foods imported from abroad.
More generally, price is a major influence on what people choose to eat. A critical policy consideration is therefore how to include externalities related to the environment and to human health in the price of foods. Carbon or resource taxes are possible fiscal policies, based on the concept of the polluter pays. Because food systems, and especially livestock production, are carbon intensive, they would be among the first systems to respond and adapt to a carbon pricing mechanism. The revenues generated by these price changes could then be used for health promotion programs and in programs to increase food security.
A restructuring of agricultural subsidies could also help food systems transition to sustainability. According to one effort to model agricultural subsidy reform, removing all agricultural subsidies could be economically and environmentally beneficial but could negatively impact population health, mostly because of a reduction in fruit and vegetable consumption.6 Coupling subsidies to the production of more nutritious crops could improve population health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it also could have negative economic impact by reducing the overall efficiency of the agricultural sector. According to this analysis, restructuring of subsidies across countries—for example, according to their share of global population or global gross domestic product—could simultaneously result in health benefits, avoid economic losses, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The overall conclusion is that agricultural subsidy reform could contribute to needed food system transformation, especially for increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables, though less so for reducing the consumption of animal-source foods.
Currently, subsidies in many countries are more likely to support ecosystem disservices than ecosystem services. If farmers could be paid for storing carbon, reducing floods, controlling pollution, and so on—without simply exporting agricultural production to other countries—subsidies could support health and sustainability rather than detracting from those goals. For example, the United Kingdom is currently planning to move toward a system where subsidies will be used to promote climate benefits, ecosystem health, and other public benefits rather than simply food production.
6 Freund, F., and M. Springmann, 2019. Impacts of Agricultural Subsidy Reform on Economic Welfare, Environment and Health. Presented at the 22nd Annual Conference on Global Economic Analysis, Warsaw, Poland.
Researchers will continue to investigate the food system and sustainability and how best to implement new knowledge in policy. Specific research gaps identified at the forum include the following:
- Supply chains, the economics of distribution systems, and the need to minimize waste are all pressing research and policy issues.
- Research into synergies among carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable agriculture can guide policy actions. A spatial analysis of synergies and conflicts in land use could help order policy priorities, as would land use plans and maps for conservation, forest management, and agriculture at a national scale.
- Research and development could identify, analyze, and evaluate policy levers for change. This research will need to be multidisciplinary, coordinated, and international, with data and computing science skills as a particular priority.
- Applications of biotechnology, implementation of integrated pest management, and better understanding of the soil microbiome could enhance crop performance and the storage of carbon in soils.
A gap between fundamental research and practical application is not currently being filled by either the public or private sectors. This gap often involves questions that are informed by the social sciences, such as land use issues, but this kind of research can fall through the cracks of policy agendas. An example is how best to integrate the manufactured foods of the future with more conventional agriculture, which will require the consideration of such goals as soil quality, net zero or negative emissions, biodiversity, and healthy diets.
In the future, the global food system could head in quite different directions. One possibility is that environmental degradation, increased inequity and injustice, exclusive reliance on global distribution networks, and homogenization of energy-dense diets will destabilize food systems. In this scenario, research might focus on commodity crops, biofortification, ultra-processed foods, long supply chains, and robotics. The result would be a food system marked by low diversity, continued high levels of waste, reliance on external inputs, inequities, and a lack of agency.7
An alternate future is for the global food system to become more equitable and just, more respectful of cultural and gender issues, more biodiverse through agroecological management, less wasteful, and more food secure. The research agenda could then focus on more varied diets to provide nutrients, more varied farming systems, smaller-scale farming, systemic efficiency, low waste, whole foods, less processed foods, and short supply chains. Researchers could investigate the integration of data and systems, the consequences of agricultural practices, soil health and soil–water interactions, the food system as a whole (including dependencies, touch points, immediate opportunities),
7 Schipanski, M. E., G. K. MacDonald, S. Rosenzweig, M. Jahi Chappell, E. M. Bennett, R. Bezner Kerr, J. Blesh, T. Crews, L. Drinkwater, J. G. Lundgren, and C. Schnarr. 2016. Realizing resilient food systems. BioScience 66(7):600–610.
and the interaction of the food system with other sectors. They could work in closer partnerships with farmers, who will be the people responsible for implementing new techniques and approaches.
At some point, if humans are to continue to thrive on the planet, agriculture will need to transition from being sustainable to being regenerative, where the soil, crops, and livestock; the environment; and human health are restored rather than simply sustained. Animals will be part of many regenerative systems, requiring that the genetics and efficiency of animal production be studied. Other important research topics will include advanced genetics and breeding techniques, controlled agricultural environments such as urban agriculture, and enhancing productivity on fallow, marginal, and degraded land.
Many individuals and organizations in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors are working on sustainability issues, and their efforts could be enhanced through greater coordination and cooperation on precompetitive questions and issues. The components of food supply chains, and especially retailers, could work more directly with other parts of the food system, including farmers and consumers. Public–private partnerships can be especially effective in formulating and enacting policies for voluntary systems designed to achieve such goals as healthy diets. Individuals, businesses, or governments can all instigate interventions, but doing so in an optimal way requires coordination among the sectors involved in food systems, as well as coordination among countries.
Despite the importance of agriculture to the human future, agricultural research and development represent only a small percentage of total government research and development funding. However, private funding has increased in recent years, which has helped create new funding models and opportunities. In particular, public–private partnerships are a way to support innovative science addressing today’s food and agriculture challenges, because neither sector acting on its own can be expected to bear this entire burden. For example, in the United States the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research is an organization that was founded to bring together public–private partnerships to shape agricultural research and production, and it has catalyzed several major initiatives focused on nutrition, food security, and sustainability. One is a partnership that connects scientists, farmers, and ranchers, beginning with coordinated precompetitive research to create customized solutions for individual farms and ranches that can then be deployed, first in the United States and then globally, in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner.
Coordination within sectors is also critical. For example, many government agencies and ministries are involved in these issues, and coordination among those agencies is often poor, just as coordination among academic disciplines is often lacking. People with different backgrounds will need to interact to learn about new possibilities and problems. In addition, coordination across borders will be essential to meet the long-term needs of humanity. An international organization could pull together people with a broad range of backgrounds and interests to provide much needed guidance and advice.
Healthy and sustainable food systems are essential to meet many of the SDGs established by the United Nations. (Indeed, a case can be made that such systems are essential to meeting all of the SDGs.) An international initiative could be established to make explicit the connections between agriculture and other human needs. An important part of such an initiative would be to create a range of positive visions for the future. For example, what would the world look like if all of the targets of the SDGs were achieved? A positive vision could inspire young people, who are being told that many of the things previous generations took for granted, such as travel, a wide variety of inexpensive foods, and good health, may no longer be guaranteed. Science could contribute to positive visions of the future by supporting and guiding both short-term and long-term actions.
Researchers could work more actively with governments to shape the outcomes of deliberative processes. As an example, science has influenced climate change policy through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Perhaps an Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Agriculture connected to the United Nations Framework Convention on Sustainable Agriculture could have a comparable influence. Collaboration between the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the IPCC could also have beneficial effects. A wider range of countries, researchers, and issues could be involved by working with the InterAcademy Partnership. If messages about sustainability from the research community were clear and actionable, then those messages would be more likely to drive policy change.
Sustainable agriculture will be characterized by healthy ecosystems and healthy diets that ensure resilience to climate change, economic security, social inclusion, and human well-being. A clear, long-term strategy for what needs to be achieved would provide policy actors and food systems with both direction and coherence. Such a strategy would need to be based on both evidence and values, which will require dialogue among the public, people involved in food systems, policy makers, and researchers.
The health of people and the environment is indivisible over the long term—a concept that some have termed One Health. Research and policy initiatives that encourage convergent work on the challenges of food, health, and ecosystems would reflect this underlying linkage. A coalition of national and international organizations, perhaps through an ongoing forum on sustainable agriculture, could promote both the research that is needed and the translation of this research into evidence-based policies.
“Ultimately, we need to change the zeitgeist of our relationship with nature and bring its value central to decision making. To help achieve this, we, as natural scientists, must go outside our comfort zones and forge more ‘radical collaborations’ with social scientists, economists, engineers, and policy makers–with all the end users of our research. Only by doing that will we be able to ensure our deep knowledge about the workings of the natural world and inform the process by which high-level pledges for nature get translated into action.”
—NATHALIE SEDDON, University of Oxford