Thai rice growers, supported by agribusiness Olam, have been trained in sustainable practices that increase their crop yields ©Olam
Thai rice growers, supported by agribusiness Olam, have been trained in sustainable practices that increase their crop yields ©Olam

Can farming save the food chain?

As scientists predict population growth and extreme weather events, food producers look to ‘big food’ and agriculture to save the day with regenerative farming techniques 

The decade began with devastating fires raging across Australia, doing little to dispel fears for the future of agriculture in the face of climate change. Last year in Zimbabwe and Zambia, farmers faced the worst drought for 40 years, while in November, thousands of acres of UK farmland disappeared under a month’s worth of rain that fell in one day in the east of England. 

The United Nations’ latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Climate Change and Land, highlights the challenge to the world’s food system. “Observed climate change is already affecting food security through increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and greater frequency of some extreme events,” says the report. 

Yields of crops including maize, wheat and barley are declining in lower-latitude regions, where developing countries tend to be located, and in parts of Southern Europe. Food security is threatened in drylands – tropical and temperate areas – particularly in high mountain regions of Asia and South America, and southern Africa, where grain production has fallen by 30%. Zimbabwe’s staple crop of maize is down by 53%, says the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC).

The physical and economic effects of Australia’s bushfires, which have destroyed more than 10m hectares of land (England covers 13m hectares) and killed at least 4,000 livestock, will wreak havoc on the world’s seventh-largest dairy exporter – mainly to Asia – worth A$3.3bn (£2.51bn), and a farming community that was already battling a three-year drought. 

While most food security studies have looked at agricultural production, attention has now turned to supply chains and demand and consumption, explains Dr Cynthia Rosenzweig, a lead co-author of the IPCC report, and a US government scientist.

“We see the potential for increasing risk of multi-breadbasket failure,” she says. Projections are for increased heat waves, heavy downpours, and sea-level rise, leading to coastal flooding, she explains. And even without these climate changes, high levels of CO2 alone are enough to negatively affect the nutrient quality of crops, with protein levels coming down, along with a reduction in micronutrients such as zinc and iron. 

Adapt to survive

One prediction still under research is the potential in the Atlantic for increasing severe tropical cyclones or hurricanes. “Suppliers and their supply chains are going to need to be aware of sea-level rise, exacerbated by coastal flooding, which may cause shipping issues, and the potential for heavier downpours on their inland facilities. They also need to be aware of higher temperatures, and a need for potentially augmented refrigeration. We have to prepare right across the food system,” she says. 

There are two responses, says Rosenzweig: one is mitigation of risk in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions; the other is adaptation to changes already occurring, and those projected. Many practices can be scaled up to advance adaptation to climate change: on the production side, increasing organic matter, erosion control, improved management of crops, and genetic improvement (growing heat- and drought-tolerant crops). 

Food loss and waste throughout the food system, including the supply chain, contributes about 10% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, with an estimated 25%-30% of all food produced being lost or wasted, according to the IPCC. “Reducing food loss and waste is directly relevant to food security and can support both adaptation and mitigation,” says Rosenzweig.

Adjust your latitude

Relocations are happening naturally. “Zones where crops are grown are shifting to higher latitudes and higher altitude,” says Rosenzweig. “In some cases, climate change has positively affected yields of crops, such as maize, cotton, wheat, and sugar beets, in the higher latitudes, in Northern Europe and in northern China.”  

Seeing such changes evolve first hand is Ali Capper, National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Horticulture & Potato board vice-chair and partner at Stocks Farm, one of the UK’s largest hop, dessert apple and cider apple producers, supplying brewers Bulmers and Magners, and supermarkets. “Our warming climate will definitely increase the crops we’ll be able to grow in the UK, whether that’s new varieties, or new crops that we don’t yet grow here.” 

Apricots and peaches weren’t grown commercially in the UK until about six years ago, she explains, but in the south east now these are grown on a commercial basis. Quinoa is being farmed in the UK and sweet potato is undergoing trials. “Watch this space because it won’t be long,” says Capper, who is also hotly tipping the imminent arrival of a British-grown pink apple, à la Pink Lady. 

Capper believes UK food production and farming must be shored up by an efficient water system, supported by the correct infrastructure of pipelines and canals to move water to where it is most needed. “If you look at where we are importing our food from, 36% of the UK consumption of fruits and vegetables comes from Spain, but water scarcity maps show that Spain is already short of water. And that is going to get worse.”

Those same predictions, says Capper, show the UK will still be green and a good place to grow food for at least another 80 years, which should allow the nation, given the correct government policymaking, to become a more prolific food exporter. 

“If we decided that food production was a priority for the UK, because we have the right land, the right climate and enough water and, I would argue, a moral obligation not just to feed our own people, but to consider how we may have a role in feeding those countries that are going to get drier and hotter, then achieving that is perfectly possible,” argues Capper, “if you’ve got the vision to put in the infrastructure and the policy measures that would be required, but it is going to take a bit of vision.”

Stocks Farm is Red Tractor-assured – a UK-wide food standard scheme – and as such reports on energy usage and demonstrates a reduced reliance on carbon. Whereas 20 years ago New Zealand apple importers were able to argue it was kinder to the environment to buy an apple shipped from there than buy one from the UK in June, most of the UK’s cold stores are now powered by solar power, so carbon emissions from cold storage are now close to zero. “The conversion of the farming industry from carbon into renewable energy will continue,” says Capper, who warns that the potential impact of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is higher carbon emissions. “It goes hand in hand with cheap practice, whether that’s removing rainforest and planting soya, or raising feedlot cattle…”

The NFU is aiming for net zero carbon emissions by 2040, working with academics to define comparable, consistent benchmarks for the farming industry. Capper says to hit targets, UK farming will need a much larger adoption of regenerative farming techniques such as minimum tillage, which for many crops and soil types is achievable, and which reduces soil erosion and increases organic matter. 

“Min-till is definitely a direction the farming community supports, but it won’t work for everything,” says Capper. “Where we have no choice but to disturb the soil for apple trees, or potatoes, for example, then we as an industry need to be looking at how we can offset in other ways. And that might be planting bio-energy crops, which sequest carbon, like miscanthus, for example.”

Growing energy

Miscanthus – or elephant grass – is a perennial carbon-negative crop that is used to produce renewable energy from biomass. It is currently grown on around 7,000 hectares of low-grade marginal land in the UK, and absorbs 1-3.8 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. This kind of method is at the core of ‘big food’ manufacturers’ plans – like US food giant General Mills’ pledge to advance regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres of its farmland (roughly a quarter of its food producing land) by 2030. The maker of brands such as Cheerios and Nature Valley will partner with key suppliers to drive adoption across ingredients including oats, wheat, corn, dairy feed and sugar beets. 

Meanwhile, 19 other food giants including Danone, Kellogg Company, Nestlé, Mars and Unilever, have formed an “agriculture-centric coalition”. One Planet Business for Biodiversity, or OP2B, was launched in September with the aim of protecting and enhancing biodiversity in agricultural systems.

Further up the supply chain, agri-business Olam, which supplies ingredients, feed and fibre to 19,800 customers including food producers worldwide, is also recognising its responsibility. With suppliers in more than 60 countries including processing and distribution operations, as well as a network of around 4.8 million farmers, the company has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, both in its own operations and its supply chains. Globally, Olam is training supplier smallholders in climate mitigation practices, says its AtSource CEO Roel Van Poppel, while also working on initiatives to improve “climate-smart agriculture”. 

For example, it is involved in a project to restore meadows around Fresno, a key growing area in the Sierra Nevada, the mountain range supplying water to the Central Valley in California. “If you restore meadows, you have a more gradual water supply in case of drought,” says Van Poppel. 

In another project for cocoa in Ghana, the company is committed to conserving forest landscape around the Sui River. “We are sensitising communities, and trying to bring about improved governance, and we distribute tree seedlings to replant trees in areas where a lot of deforestation has taken place.”

Olam owns pepper plantations in Brazil and Vietnam, where it says sustainable agricultural practices such as drip-irrigated farming can double the yield per hectare. It runs coffee plantations in Tanzania and Zambia, orchards of almonds in Australia and California, and a “fully sustainable” dairy operation in Russia. The experience of operating its own farms contributed to the development of AtSource, a tool which it’s now rolling out to suppliers and stakeholders to enable them to map their supply chains transparently. “In West Africa there’s issues around deforestation and child labour which are not so big in California, where we are more concerned with water usage. All supply chain operations have slightly different risks,” says Van Poppel. 

But does the noisy big-business stampede to save the planet stink of greenwashing? Rosenzweig is forgiving: “It’s a very important effort on their part, because climate change is a massive challenge. Someone has to take the first step. I’m encouraged by the early adopters rolling up their sleeves and getting going so they can share what they’re learning at the larger scale.”

How farmers use tech to feed the future
Feeding a world population expected to reach 9.7bn by 2050 is a huge challenge, and the effects of climate change will further strain land and water resources. So, what action are growers taking? 

• Robots that can pick fruit and veg are being developed to harvest strawberries in the US and Spain, and apples in the US.

• Agricultural weather analysis systems such as IBM’s Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, make use of data from satellite imagery to provide ‘hyper-local’ six-month weather predictions. 

• Driverless farming equipment is used to measure the growth rate of crops. The global autonomous tractors market is projected to reach $4,389.8m by 2025, according to Allied Market Research.

• Hybrid crops offer benefits over traditional crops, such as producing more food without the need for more land. 

• Precision monitoring technology allows farmers to track supplies and equipment such as fuel and fertiliser, and more accurately determine when to re-order key supplies. 

• Internet of Things-based sensors can monitor conditions such as soil moisture, helping farmers make planting choices to maximise yield.

Which crops will suffer the most from rising temperatures?

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