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Food that feeds the planet: Building Bridges 2022

Food that feeds the planet: Building Bridges 2022
Eugène Théodore © Building Bridges

“When we talk about the environmental transition we often focus on the transition in energy systems. But there is a problem that is not talked about enough. That is ‘AFOLU’ – Agriculture, Food and Other Land Use. If we want to avoid crossing key environmental tipping points, we are going to have to profoundly rethink our food systems.”

That was the message from Hubert Keller, Lombard Odier’s Senior Managing Partner, as he introduced a debate entitled Agriculture, Food, Land Use: The Emerging New Reality, at Building Bridges 2022 in Geneva. The panel, which brought together leading voices for change in the food and agriculture sector, formed part of the centrepiece summit of the Building Bridges conference, an event created to advance global sustainable finance and foster stakeholder collaborations across finance, government and industry.

Today’s food systems are responsible for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, 50% of agrochemical pollution and 70% of freshwater depletion

Food tops the agenda

Of all economic sectors, AFOLU is the single biggest transgressor of Earth’s planetary boundaries, the environmental safe zones we must maintain in order for our ecology to remain stable, Hubert Keller explained. Today’s food systems are responsible for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, 50% of agrochemical pollution and 70% of freshwater depletion.

David Nabarro, Strategic Director of 4SD Switzerland, highlighted how this environmental impact is being felt on the ground. In several parts of the world, he said, food production is already becoming unsustainable: “In Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and other central Asian republics water shortages mean that current farming practices are going to have to change radically, because they’re running out of water. And five droughts in succession in the horn of Africa and East Africa mean that we now have 200 million people who are food insecure. It is a serious issue everywhere right now. And the world is waking up and realising. Food is top of the agenda.”

The solution, Hubert Keller said, whilst enormously challenging, is straightforward: “The science is absolutely unequivocal. We need to return about one billion hectares of agricultural land to nature by 2030. That is about 20% of all agricultural land that needs to be rewilded in the next seven to eight years.”

The solution may partly lie in agroforestry, cultivating diversified agriculture systems in and around well-managed forests, rather than clearing forests to make way for mono-cultures

Deforestation, reforestation and reaching net zero

Every year the world’s forests absorb one and a half times more carbon than is emitted by the entire US economy. Yet today’s food systems are putting this vital service in jeopardy – 90% of deforestation is driven by food production. The solution, the panel heard, may partly lie in agroforestry, cultivating diversified agriculture systems in and around well-managed forests, rather than clearing forests to make way for mono-cultures.

Johnny El Hachem, Head of Private Equity at Edmond de Rothschild, has seen success with this approach in Africa, where Edmond de Rothschild has worked with 125,000 farmers to provide finance for agroforestry projects. Louise Mabulo, founder of the Cacao Project, has seen similar success in the Philippines, where she works with farmers to transition failing, mono-culture cultivation into sustainable, resilient agroforest farms.

Louise Mabulo outlined bigger plans still. “We need to reimagine land stewardship,” she said. “We always think of massive mono-culture farms producing faster, cheaper, easier food. But what if [food production] could instead be in the form of communities surrounded and developed through agroforests? What if we structure developments around nature, with carbon sequestration in mind? One of my visions in building my community is to create an agropolis.”

For Rob Cameron, Vice President, Global Head of Public Affairs and ESG Engagement for Nestlé, the solution to the deforestation problem lies in taking a human rights-based approach. “The reason deforestation happens is that people chop trees down. Simple as that,” he said. “There’s a socio-economic reason for it. At Nestlé we have something called Forest Positive. At its heart is a rights-based approach. It’s a right to a livelihood, land rights. If you don’t take a rights-based approach then smallholders find themselves in a position where, for economic reasons, they end up chopping trees down. So we have to find ways to work with those communities to protect those forests.”

Read also: Putting an end to deforestation – starting local, going global

 

Nourishing nature

Food systems must undergo three key changes, Hubert Keller explained, in order to lift the pressure on agricultural land and allow degraded land and forests to be restored. “First, we need to produce different foods, specifically to diversify our source of proteins away from animal-based protein. 77% of agricultural land is given over to meat and dairy, but they generate less than 20% of global calories and less than 40% of protein. This is very inefficient.”

“We also need to make our food chain more efficient, and deal with the 30% waste that is produced from farm to fork.” And thirdly, he said, we need to “move decisively towards regenerative and precision agricultural practices.”

Read also: Meet Phenix: the start-up helping everyone fight food waste

Louise Mabulo picked up on the theme of regeneration. “If we don’t transition to more regenerative farming, farmers are going to lose income simply because the soil will no longer hold the capacity to be able to produce harvests,” she said. “We’ve seen that with banana farmers in the Philippines, who have used too many chemicals and fertilisers that have degraded their soils, and in ten years’ time they’re wondering why they aren’t getting any banana harvests.”

We need food systems that heal, rather than food systems that harm. We need to become the source of the solution

For Nestlé, Rob Cameron said, regeneration is the foundation of the entire sustainability transition. “We need food systems that heal, rather than food systems that harm. We need to become the source of the solution. At Nestlé I would sum up our strategy in one word – regeneration. We need a fundamental shift, a 180-degree shift towards regenerative food systems.”

 

Returns not philanthropy

Driving this shift to regenerative farming will need finance, especially in the developing world. However, Johnny El Hachem explained, “It’s not about philanthropy. We need to stop thinking of sustainability and returns being in opposition.” In Morocco, he said, Edmond de Rothschild has brought finance to farmers to implement and scale new irrigation systems that “save the equivalent of 100 million litres of freshwater for 4 million individuals. We’re talking small investments. And we make money out of it.”

It’s not about philanthropy. We need to stop thinking of sustainability and returns being in opposition

Similarly, in Africa, Edmond de Rothschild financed the construction of processing facilities for cashew nuts, allowing farmers to process their crop locally and retain value, rather than losing margins in long, complex value chains. “We kept the margin for the farmer in Africa. And we share margins with them. Let’s put finance at the service of the industry,” he concluded.

Read also: Tackling food instability: changing the way we eat

Eat food, mostly plants, not too much

On the topic of changing diets, panel moderator Eva Zabey, Executive Director of Business for Nature, asked how many of the conference delegates had reduced their meat intake in recent years. As a sea of hands went up, Rob Cameron explained how food companies can encourage this shift.

“Sometimes we have to lead consumer demand,” he said. “However we can’t afford to be more than one step ahead. If we’re two steps ahead then it doesn’t work. The growth we’re seeing in plant-based [sales] across a range of categories is really, really impressive. And it will continue.” Echoing author Michael Pollan, he said that for the individual consumer diets should boil down to, “eat food, mostly plants, not too much.”

The big challenge is to get good quality diets that are super affordable for all

This clear shift in dietary preferences is being seen across the world, David Nabarro said. At the UN’s first ever food systems summit, aggregated responses from 110,000 participants, across 148 countries, showed changing diets as the number one choice for creating a pathway to sustainable food systems. However, he warned, the cost-of-living crisis could hamper this shift, and exacerbate inequalities in today’s food systems. “The big challenge,” he concluded, “is to get good quality diets that are super affordable for all.”

 

Nourishing, resilient, regenerative and just

For investors and consumers, “cost curves are going to be an essential driver. The fact that a more environmentally friendly solution is becoming cheaper and cheaper every year is going to be a major driver of this transition,” Hubert Keller said. “We think that alternative proteins will break even versus animal-based proteins within the next two to three years. We think it could unlock around USD 1.5 trillion of economic opportunities. So not only will it be good for the environment, but it will also be good for the economy.”

As agricultural policy and regulations evolve, subsidies will also play an increasingly important role in driving change. Today, there are between USD 500 and 700 billion of subsidies in the global agriculture sector. Much of this public money, Hubert Keller explained, could be re-purposed and channelled into the sustainability transformation. Maria Lettini, Executive Director of the FAIRR Initiative, agreed. “We need to transform our subsidies to ones that are incentivising R&D innovations and supporting farmers in the transition,” she said. “We need that money to go towards a food system for the future that provides nourishing food for all.”

David Nabarro agreed, emphasising the central importance of the “just transition”. As we shift to a sustainable future, he said, food systems must be exemplified by four key qualities. First, they must NOURISH – no food system should cause people to be unhealthy and malnourished. Second, they must be RESILIENT – able to withstand the stresses of pandemics or climate change. Third, they must be REGENERATIVE – healing and replenishing nature, rather than exhausting scarce resources. And most importantly they must be JUST – “because in that way we make sure that food systems work for all, not just a lucky few.”

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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