In the months since Covid-19 convulsed the globe, the world's food system has undergone a stress test—and largely failed it.
The pandemic disrupted global supply chains, induced panic buying and cleared supermarket shelves. It left perfectly edible produce rotting in fields, and left farmers no choice but to gas, shoot and bury their livestock because slaughter plants were shut down.
It also revealed a glaring problem: Though researchers have known for decades that climate change will roil farming and food systems, there exists no clear global strategy for building resilience and managing risks in the world's food supply, nor a coherent way to tackle the challenge of feeding a growing global population, on a warming planet where food crises are projected to intensify.
"We need to make sure food is safe, nutritious and sustainable, not just for today but for the future," said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. "There's growing acknowledgement that this has been something that's not been addressed in a coordinated way."
Already, there are 820 million people in the world without adequate food, and Covid-19 is likely to push 130 million more to the brink of starvation, more than doubling that number to 265 million by the end of the year. Developing countries are not the only ones staring down a crisis: In June, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis said food insecurity has also risen substantially in the United States.
"Hundreds of millions of lives are at stake," said Michael Puma, director of the Center for Climate Systems Research at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "We don't have a coordinated response to that, in the United States or globally. It's a complete vacuum."
But the coronavirus pandemic has also ushered in a rare opening for an overhaul. In the absence of leadership on climate resiliency—making agriculture and food production able to withstand and respond to erratic, shifting climatic conditions—advocacy groups, lawmakers and researchers are now mounting a range of new efforts aimed at the challenge.
Late last month, an international group of food, farming and environment experts released a "blueprint" for making food production more resilient to both climate and non-climate shocks that calls for $320 billion in public and private funding to transform food systems.
"The disruptions caused by this terrible pandemic have at least awakened the world to the fact that our food systems are far more vulnerable than many realized," said Bruce Campbell, a director with the group that crafted the blueprint. "Climate change is already compounding these problems, but the solutions we present—which seek bold transformations in everything from farming to trade, diets and government policies—offer an opportunity to pursue a much brighter future for people and our planet."
The transformation that Campbell and others call for is ambitious and complex, encompassing a range of actions that include shifting to less carbon-intensive diets; providing incentives for farmers to use lower-emissions practices like less tillage; reducing food waste; preventing expansion of agricultural lands, particularly in the tropics; and helping farmers conserve soil through practices like planting carbon-storing crops in the off-season.
The United Nations is holding a first-of-its-kind "Food Systems Summit" next year—a "major opportunity to craft a well-organized global effort to address the many challenges facing our agricultural and food security systems," a group of world leaders recently wrote to the United Nations and G20 nations.
And dozens of American food advocacy and farm groups are in the early stages of banding together to create an ambitious alternative to the Farm Bill—the massive, quadrennial legislation that directs U.S. food and agriculture policy. Their new version, they hope, will emphasize conservation methods rather than over-production of commodity crops.
"The coronavirus pandemic is exposing fundamental shortcomings in our food system, the role of people of color in our food system, the degree to which consolidation in agriculture has hobbled our ability to provide nutrition for everyone and a living wage for farmers," said Eric Deeble, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which is part of the Farm Bill effort. "We're at an inflection point. A lot of folks are trying to seize the moment."
Contrasting Views of the Future
Nearly 10 years ago, when Olivier de Schutter, then United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, used the term "agroecology" in a speech before the General Assembly, most of the members stared back at him, blank-faced and puzzled.
"At the time, the word agroecology was not widely understood by many governments," De Schutter said, referring to the concept of farming with fewer pesticides, less fertilizer and a diversity of crops.
Over the next several years, though, that started to change. As a growing stack of reports and research began pointing toward the expanding carbon footprint of large-scale, industrialized agriculture, the United Nations began to incorporate some of agroecology's ideas. In 2018 it published a guide to the principles of agroecology, saying "high-external input, resource-intensive agricultural systems have caused massive deforestation, water scarcities, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions."
The UN's consideration of an alternative type of agriculture represented a significant shift for the influential global organization and the emergence into the mainstream of a competing view about how best to feed a growing population as climate change makes the job more challenging.
It also amplified conflicts of opinion about whether it's possible to feed 10 billion people without a highly mechanized, industrial approach.
"There is a very ideological debate about what the future of food systems should look like," De Schutter said. "The fact is, these ideas are made even more credible by the Covid-19 crisis."
There are three prevailing schools of thought on how those systems should take shape.
One, in place for decades, depends heavily on trade and encourages countries to produce food in ways that maximize their particular agricultural advantages. Over the years, this has made more countries heavily dependent on imports to feed their populations and has led to the expansion of monocultures—like vast sweeps of wheat in Russia, endless seas of corn in the American Midwest and enormous swaths of soybeans in what was once pristine Amazon rainforest.
A related approach calls for increased technologies, including large-scale irrigation, mechanization, pesticides and fertilizers, along with high-yielding seeds in more developing countries, particularly in Africa. Many see this as another technology-intensive "Green Revolution," like the one that boosted global food production in the 1960s.
And there's a growing push to throw more support to smaller-scale farmers, working in regional food systems and producing a diversity of crops and livestock in line with agroecological principles. These smaller farming systems, advocates say, are inherently less carbon-intensive because they use fewer "inputs" like chemical fertilizer. And they are more resilient because they produce more than one product and tend to use more soil-conservation practices that trap carbon in the soil.
"There's huge debate around this," De Schutter said. "There are three quite contrasting views of the future."
In May, the European Union weighed in on the debate with the publication of a sweeping report called Farm to Fork, in which the EU set targets for cutting fertilizer and pesticide use, and increasing organic production and diversity on agricultural lands.
"Diversity is key. Under the current paradigm, we have an assembly-line approach to food," said Lew Ziska, a plant physiologist and longtime Department of Agriculture researcher. "If the climate is copasetic, then everything works fine. But if you start seeing extreme events, then it becomes a problem. In the assembly-line approach, you have uniformity and if you have uniformity you have no capacity to respond to an outside threat. If you have a virus or a pathogen, you're devastated."
Tensions at the UN
Late last year, when the United Nations announced it would hold the Food Systems Summit sometime in 2021, food security and farmer advocacy groups welcomed the news.
Agriculture had largely been marginalized in global climate conversations. Now there would be a forum focused specifically on agriculture: its role in causing climate change, the toll climate change would take on food production and the promise farming holds for reversing the effects of climate change.
Most significant for advocacy groups, the summit would also present a chance to push for more inclusion and support for small-scale, diversified farming—an opportunity for the small players to be heard in a landscape usually dominated by big agricultural livestock, crop, seed and chemical companies.
After the last global food crisis in 2007 and 2008, the UN resurrected an essentially moribund group within the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), called the Committee on World Food Security, in response to a strong push from groups representing small-scale farmers. The group was designed to be the "most inclusive" platform working on food security.
The committee became the central organizing force within the UN for addressing food security and resilience—a welcome change for many food advocates and academics who felt the UN's approach was scattered across departments.
But critics worry that the committee's role in the upcoming food summit is now being overtaken by corporate interests, in part because a recently appointed special envoy to the summit, former Rwandan agriculture secretary Agnes Kalibata, was the former head of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Critics say the alliance, backed by the Gates Foundation, and the "Food Action Alliance"—a group made up of development organizations and Rabobank, the world's leading agricultural bank—will advance the interest of global agricultural giants at the expense of the small farmers.
"It's the only global policy forum on food in which those constituents—the small farmers, small fishers—who are most directly concerned and who, incidentally, feed the world, are actually full participants," said Nora McKeon, a food advocate who spent her career at the FAO and has written extensively on food security and governance. "The new alliance is a horrible corporate-led attack."
Alliance members, however, say any effort to lead the world's food system will need the participation of global financial institutions and corporate agri-business.
"Partners in the Food Action Alliance believe that fragmentation within the current food system represents the most significant hurdle to feeding a growing population nutritiously and sustainably," said Sean de Cleene, a member of the executive committee of World Economic Forum, upon the announcement of the alliance. "We urgently need new business models and innovative partnerships to transform the way food is produced, supplied and consumed."
As U.S. policy makers and advocacy groups gear up for the next Farm Bill, the same controversies will continue on this side of the Atlantic.
"There's an enormous ideological divide in the U.S., as elsewhere, but in the U.S. in particular," De Schutter said. "The international debate could be reflected in the U.S. in the next few years."
Breaking Up the Power of Big Ag
Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack remembers his early days leading the agency during the Obama administration and his growing awareness of the threats posed by climate change.
"There were a small number of people in the department when I got there who had been working on the issue of climate and understood the challenge, but were operating under the radar," Vilsack said.
After the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, the administration started to take action across agencies, including the Department of Agriculture. Vilsack implemented a number of climate-focused initiatives, including one to increase carbon stored in soils by 120-million-metric tons a year and a network of "climate hubs" at land-grant universities. The department's research arm directed roughly one-fifth of its $656 million budget to climate change-specific research between 2009 and 2015 and supported 20,000 research papers that brought in $2.2 billion in funding.
The Trump administration has since sidelined climate research, potentially reversing years of progress. "It's fair to say it's probably not as elevated in the current administration," Vilsack said.
But, he noted, building resilience to climate change and embracing soil conservation practices, such as planting off-season crops that capture carbon in the soil and tilling less to leave soil undisturbed, are catching on, even among larger, mainstream farming operations. Vilsack believes that the dichotomy—between big and small, global and regional, monocultural and diversified—represents a false choice.
"You need both," he said. "You need the facilities that can support a local and regional food system. They can be part of a local market as opposed to a global market that they can't control."
He added, "To me it's a combination of the big guys looking at their own business plans and government providing help for the development of local and regional systems."
Critics point out that there's an enduring history within the department of lopsided support for large-scale agriculture at the expense of small-scale farmers or conservation, and that the Trump administration has continued that pattern.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, the industry's largest lobbying group, has been historically resistant to the idea of requiring farmers to store carbon or reduce emissions—or even to climate change itself. But it does support a recent bill that would help farmers participate in carbon markets.
And some large-scale monoculture, commodity crop farms and livestock operations have adopted practices aimed at reducing emissions.
Still, the numbers of farmers using climate-friendly farming methods remains exceedingly low.
A coalition of around 30 farm, food justice and environmental advocacy groups is forming that will attempt to change this. Much of its focus will be on creating an alternative to the Farm Bill, which is set to be negotiated for 2023.
"The Farm Bill is a losing proposition for organizations seeking reform because it's really about the status quo. The big corporations continue to hold sway," said Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is involved in the effort. "We really need to figure out how to work together on the objective of breaking the power of the agribusiness monopolies."
A 'Moonshot' Plan of Action
The chances of an alternative to the Farm Bill are slim, but the prospects for the groups' policy proposals are significantly brighter if the November elections bring a change in administration. Joe Biden, who will almost certainly face off against Trump in the presidential election, issued a proposal last year that aims to make American agriculture carbon neutral and would expand soil conservation programs on farmland.
Last week, the Democrat House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis issued a "moonshot" action plan to combat climate change, including a substantial chapter on agriculture that calls for support for farmers to make their lands more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
"America's farmers and ranchers are critical partners in solving the climate crisis, as many agricultural practices can provide valuable climate and ecosystems benefits," the committee wrote. "Congress should dramatically increase investments to support the efforts of America's farmers and ranchers to employ climate stewardship practices."
For the foreseeable future, though, the giants of the agriculture industry will continue to insist that only they have the technology and scope to feed the 10 billion people projected to inhabit the planet in 2050.
The world's small-scale farmers and the groups advocating for them will keep arguing that the industry's approach consumes resources, crushes biodiversity, pollutes the environment and negates agriculture's potential climate benefits, all the while producing crops and foods of diminishing variety and nutrition.
As the debate continues, a growing number of researchers say risks to the world's food supply need to be better tracked and managed and that building resilience should be the job of a single agency or effort, rather than the diffuse, piecemeal approach that now exists.
By 2050, over half the world's population could depend on food imported from other countries, and that could be extremely dangerous for food security, especially if governments decided to impose export restrictions to feed their own populations.
"You need to consider not just the risk that trade poses or climate poses, but trade and climate and economic factors—essentially all the things we know that form food security," said Weston Anderson, an agro-climatologist with The Earth Institute at Columbia University. "That involves some form of leadership at a global level."
Top Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images