Excerpt: 21st Century Agricultural Renaissance: Solutions from the Land Report

21st Century Agriculture Renaissance Report

As California faces the impacts of climate change—how to address the interconnected challenges facing the state's energy, water, and food systems remains a foremost challenge. VX News here excerpts the 21st Century Agriculture Renaissance: Solutions from the Land report which lays out a vision for an agricultural renaissance in this century and offers a model for constructing sustainable and resilient systems across working landscapes to counter growing interlinked global food security, nutrition, health and climate challenges.   
Urging an Emerging Agricultural Renaissance Forward

Humankind through the centuries has chosen to eke out our existence from a natural world that has been deeply scarred by the dynamic yet disturbing footprint of humanity, approaching 8 billion.  We have altered the native landscapes on every continent in order to feed, clothe, establish and protect ourselves in a multitude of cultures, languages, technical waves and governing structures. Driven by a singular goal, not simply to survive, but to live...and thrive, the unintended consequences to the earth’s resources can no longer be ignored as the abundance of soils, seas, rivers and forests are increasingly diminished. For those of us who manage these life systems and resources in order to produce the food and fiber for the world, the burden is on us to understand and acknowledge the past in order to embrace the present and prepare for an intentional, but variable and unpredictable future. 

The staggering increases in knowledge, productivity and population in just the past 100 years reflect a profound transformation of humanity’s physical and mental capacity for both positive and negative change. We are keenly aware that any prolonged collapse of global food systems can create a world of scarcity and struggle where nations fight for resources and face the greater threat of battling those inescapable forces of nature that we have tried to control. 

There has never been a greater need for an Agricultural Renaissance than now. The many voices of farmers, echoing through centuries of scarcity and abundance challenge us to find new pathways. Paths that produce abundance for expanding populations while rejecting the wasteful destruction of resources of our past and present. Paths that seek new ways to collaborate and innovate. If we choose the unprecedented pathway of collaboration as a species, as a people who inhabit this small planet, we may be able to tell, ultimately, a more rewarding and remarkable tale of a species that chooses living over survival and finds a way to sustainably thrive.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, describe humanity in a world that has yet to exist.  It lays out a bold and ambitious vision of how humankind might come together to collaboratively build an innovative framework, with systematic international cooperation and design to set our human systems in alignment and harmony with natural systems.  It requires the participation and leadership from agriculture, farmers and their partners to establish the foundational framework for successful achievement of the SDG’s. Without successful agriculture humankind cannot thrive.  It is our roadmap towards an Agricultural Renaissance.

Chapter 1 The Challenges are Increasining
How do we feed 10 billion people by 2050? The World Bank says we will need 56% more food (Nieuwkoop 2020). How do we  produce more food while protecting ecosystems, reducing biodiversity losses and lowering emissions? … while adapting and improving  climate resilience …while reducing stress on water and soil resources? …while providing quality livelihoods for those who work in agriculture and the food system? …and, without using more land? Recent research has estimated that food systems contribute 21-37% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Rosenzweig et al., 2020). These are the complex questions farmers, ranchers, foresters, and agriculture’s partners are asking; and for which they have already begun to search and find solutions. The answers to these questions require new ways of thinking; uncommon collaborations; innovation and new technologies; and most of all, a new systems  approach to how agriculture  provides multiple benefits to  society while managing Earth’s working landscapes. Understanding the past adaptability and resilience of agriculture offers guidance  and confidence that we can meet future challenges—the known, the unexpected, and the uncertain. 

The transition from subsistence farming—from crops raised for food, clothing, and fuel for one’s own family to a commercial enterprise that provides a profitable livelihood—is the history of  agriculture, population growth  and urbanization, markets, and changing land use (Morton 2020). The U.S. Land Grant University (LGU) system was enacted by the Morrill Act (1862; 1890, 1994) during the Lincoln administration to  develop agricultural sciences and technologies and extend new knowledge and practices to  farmers, helping them generate surplus products for off-farm sales. Early agricultural farm management curricula were designed to move farmers from subsistence to profitable occupations using scientific, organizational, and management techniques (Warren 1913). The successful farmer was described as a naturalist who—by observation of plants, animals and the land— acquires experiential knowledge and combines it with scientific investigation and business skills. L.H. Bailey, editor of the Rural Text-Book series (1921), explicitly listed the  requirements for a good farmer as “the ability to make a full and comfortable living from the land; to rear a family carefully and well; to be of good service to the community; [and] to leave the farm more productive than it was when he took it.” 

 Solutions from the Land farmer leaders embody an additional goal: To “improve the ecology of the landscape.” This ideal of experiential observation, proactive concern  for the natural environment, and scientific investigation characterizes many modern farmers today. Fourth-generation Ohio farmer Fred Yoder, who has worked the land for over 40 years, reminds  us that the business of farming  remains vulnerable to economic hardship. In July 2020, he commented that “twenty years ago I was very frustrated, thinking there just wasn’t any profit in farming. Productivity was not a problem, but I didn’t have enough money left to live on afterwards.” When Fred’s dilemma led him to research  different farming methods to save money, he made the decision to fully commit to no-till farming.  

No-till is a growing strategy that minimizes soil turnover and erosion, eliminating labor and fuel costs by reducing the number of trips over each field. Over time, as Fred  transitioned his whole farm to  no-till, he began to notice that his soil structure improved, the soil  retained nutrients better, and his productivity increased (O’Shaughnessy 2020). Throughout the history of agriculture, each generation  of farmers has, like Fred, faced  personal challenges to their farm operations; has made hard decisions and learned to adapt to better manage their land and conserve their soil and water resources; and, at the end of the day, has had to make a living.  

U.S. farmers, ranchers and foresters in the last century experienced tremendous challenges. The dust storms of the drought-stricken Great Plains in the 1930s blew soil all the way to Washington, D.C., halted agricultural production, bankrupted farmers, accelerated soil erosion rates, and degraded water resources. Farmers, conservationists, scientists, policymakers, and private industry worked  together—drawing on historic  information, knowledge of the present, and simulations of the  future—to find solutions, practices, technologies, and policies to build a new agriculture that fully incorporated conservation of soil, water, grass, and forest resources  (Delgado et al. 2020). Soil surveys provided the technology needed  to enable farmers and foresters to account for the topography and spatial variability of soil types, engineering grass waterways, terraces, contour farming and diversions to better manage water runoff and soil erosion and replant forest lands.  

Unprecedented global population growth post-WWII created a new challenge: For farmers to increase agricultural productivity enough  to prevent mass starvation and  reduce worldwide food insecurity. New science, policies, and technologies were embraced by farmers around the world as the Green  Revolution brought with it improved crop varieties, hybrid seeds,  synthetic fertilizers, more intensive cultivation strategies, increased productivity and expanding global markets. However, increased  productivity—accompanied by  increased use of fertilizers,  pesticides, and other agro-chemicals—came with unintended  consequences. Nutrients and  pesticides leached off-field and  off-farm into neighboring water bodies, degrading wetlands, streams, lakes, and rivers while leading to hypoxic dead zones world-wide. 

 The 21st century is now fully under way, amid weather-related crop failures; locust plagues; wildfires  and deforestation; regional conflicts; loss of biodiversity; erosion of ecosystem health and functionality; a changing climate; and the spillover of 2020’s global pandemic into 2021. Each of these accompanies consequent threats to local and world food security, health and well-being, and livelihoods (GFFA 2021). Our 20th century agricultural production and conservation  systems are increasingly under stress and are proving to be  inadequate to manage the risks and uncertainties of 21st century production and provide the multiple and varied production-related services needed by society, such as food security, energy, healthy ecosystems, and livelihoods.  

 Technologies and innovations to address these challenges are  proliferating. Smartphones, computing technologies, geographic information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS), remote sensing, models, robotics, drones, and on-demand local climate  projections are being applied to support precision agriculture,  agricultural ecosystem and biodiversity management, and easier, more effective ways for farmers and others in farming landscapes to communicate and collaborate (Delgado et al. 2020). Advanced science is uncovering processes  in microbiology, plant biology, agroecology and landscape ecology—at field, farm and landscape scales—that can be harnessed to develop nature-positive production systems. Inventions such as robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, CRISPR, nanotechnologies, genetic and biological engineering, sound wave pulverization and datarich modeling are rapidly moving beyond conceptualization to experimental trials and mainstream uses. 

 Yet despite these advances, without the full engagement of farmers, foresters and their partners, our  capacity to transform the systems of agriculture for the future will be compromised. The development of a more dynamic and robust toolbox is essential, but will be insufficient without the voice, experience, and understanding that the stewards  of the land provide as they move beyond timely projections to  address changes and threats in real time. Those on the front line must have support and resources to strike new ground in managing their lands and shaping their  working landscapes. 

Today’s agriculture must address hunger, livelihoods, water scarcity, clean water, healthy soil, ecosystem resilience, climate change, greenhouse gases and a whole range of local and global realities. 

These are not new concerns, but the urgency to address them has increased. The creation of the United Nations (UN) was an effort to articulate and act on the international issues of education, economics, culture and human well-being which nations and regions were struggling to manage. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, approved by the UN General Assembly in 2015, is the most  recent iteration of these global  priorities. The Sustainable Development agenda put forth 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that target specific outcomes  (Figure 1). While agriculture factors into nearly all of the 17 goals,  several are more directly associated with agricultural production, food systems, and agricultural livelihoods: Goal 1, No poverty (profitable livelihoods); Goal 2, Zero hunger (food production); 3, Good health and well-being (nutrition); 6, Clean water and sanitation (efficient  management of water); 7, Affordable clean energy; 8, Decent work and economic growth (promoting  sustained, inclusive sustainable economic growth and full and  productive employment); 12,  Responsible consumption and  production (managing waste); 13, Climate action (adapting to and mitigating climate change); 14,  Life below water; and 15, Life on land (biodiversity dependent on sustainably managing farms and landscapes) (UN SDGs 2015; Lal 2020). 

The systems relationships between agricultural production, rural livelihoods and economic well-being, healthy ecosystems, and food  security and nutrition are complex and not always apparent. These  relationships extend far beyond agricultural and forestry landowners to the food system workers in our fields, fisheries, food processing  facilities, distribution and food  delivery infrastructure. All of these sectors are increasingly interdependent and affected by diverse and changing human values and behaviors as well as established, unstable external forces (e.g.,  population growth, depleted natural resources, fragmented public  policies, and changing climate). The  difficulty of achieving multiple SDGs at the expense of other SDGs is  acknowledged by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and  Development (OECD) in its 2021 “Making Better Policies for Food Systems” report. Figure 2 demonstrates the triple challenge of  providing food security and nutrition for a growing population, providing livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people involved in farming and along the food chain, and ensuring environmental sustainability (OECD 2021).  

The Global Forum for Food and Agriculture 2021 Communique on “How to feed the world in times of pandemics and climate change?” affirms that the agriculture ministers of 76 nations worldwide remain committed to the SDGs. Theyarticulate an urgent call to action:  1) aim at zero hunger; 2) keep markets open and functioning; and 3) invest in rural areas and rural infrastructure (GFFA 2021). They acknowledge the essential roles farmers play in local and global food systems. Further, they emphasize the critical need  to improve the access of small and midsize landholders and family farmers to markets, education, technology, technical support, and resources; as well as the importance of sustaining their activities and livelihoods, respecting and protecting their rights, and helping enhance their resilience (GFFA 2021). 

  We can no longer afford to think  of agriculture and our food system  as a linear journey through  pre-production, production, post- harvest, and consumption that adds land, water, energy, nutrients, labor, and capital as inputs, and abandons waste lost from the process as discards (ASABE 2021). Rather, agriculture, forests and wetlands, the earth’s resources and atmosphere, and humans with their multiple cultures and values are complex, interwoven and multi-dimensional systems simultaneously layered onto each other, interacting spatially and continuously “looping” forward, back, and sideways.  

Circular economy systems models offer alternative transitional paths within food and agriculture value chains to 1) design out waste and pollution (recover discarded wastes for productive uses); 2) continually reuse products and materials;  3) protect and renew natural  systems; and 4) provide for  economic benefits (ASABE 2021). Minimizing input resources,  transforming subsystem processes, leveraging interconnections among associated subsystems, capturing resources for reuse or other system inputs from recovered discarded materials, and harnessing breakthrough advances in biology and digital technologies can increase the circularity of existing systems. Our best hope for finding solutions and managing the changes we  are encountering now and in the future is to better understand how complex systems work on many levels (Meadows 2008) and develop innovative collaboration strategies that reinforce structures and  behaviors that enable us to achieve shared goals like the SDGs.

  "We can no longer afford to think  of agriculture and our food system  as a linear journey ... (r)ather, agriculture, forests and wetlands, the earth’s resources and atmosphere, and humans with their multiple cultures and values are complex, interwoven and multi-dimensional systems simultaneously layered onto each other, interacting spatially and continuously “looping” forward, back, and sideways."