Food is the ultimate convener…
It transcends language barriers. It is a vehicle for unity. It brings people and countries together. Food is culture. It’s no wonder food could be one our greatest solutions to the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
The global food system accounts for nearly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, 90% of habitat loss and 70% of water use globally. At the same time, climate change and biodiversity loss will make it much harder to produce food in the future, threatening the livelihoods of producers and ultimately making it more difficult to feed a growing population.
Swift improvements must come to our global food system. Business as usual cannot continue; the pressures the system faces are too great. By mid-century, accelerating climate change will generate acute stress, just as increasing global population and affluence shift demand towards more protein-heavy diets.
Repositioning the global food system as an environmental solutions provider requires moving from high-level concepts to action. It means changing underlying incentives and norms. It means shifting global policies and markets. But how?
Foodscapes. By using a foodscape-scale approach to planning and action, we can help drive progress that benefits both people and the planet.
The Nature Conservancy is pleased to present its Global Regenerative Food Systems Director, Saswati Bora, for this in-depth Q&A session.
Many thanks to Saswati for her time educating us on foodscapes and the potential they bring to solving our humanitarian, climate and biodiversity crises.
What is a foodscape?
Foodscapes are distinct geographic areas where healthy land, freshwater and ocean ecosystems coincide with critical food production systems. They accelerate the transition of food systems from degrading and extractive to productive and restorative for nature and people.
In our science report, Foodscapes: Toward Food System Transition, we define a foodscape as a distinct food production geography with specific combinations of biophysical characteristics and management attributes, including the political, cultural and economic influences of food production.
How does mapping foodscapes help provide the scientific framework for the transition needed in the global food system?
Some attributes of foodscapes, including biophysical and agricultural management characteristics, can be mapped at a global scale. The global mapping used in our foodscapes report resulted in more than 80 foodscape classes that showcase the diversity of food production systems around the world.
Understanding the diversity that underpins our global food system is a first step toward making improvements. It can provide useful insight that can be further developed, adapted and applied using local, place-based knowledge.
We believe that mapping foodscapes helps realize the potential for nature-based solutions with varying impacts that are sensitive to local conditions, while also understanding how economic, political and community systems intersect when producing food.
© The Nature Conservancy
This map shows all 86 global foodscapes classes, making it possible for food system leaders to go from analysis to a realistic vision of the changes that need to happen at local and subnational levels in order to meet demand, improve ecosystem services and address the challenges of climate change.
What are some of the solutions that will help create a food system transformation?
There are solutions that can mitigate the interrelated climate, biodiversity and water challenges, while at the same time improve livelihoods and wellbeing of producers. Any actions we take must keep producers and rural communities at the center of the approach.
For example, in intensively cultivated breadbasket foodscapes, such as the Punjab-Haryana in India, crop residue burning due to the short window between rice harvest and wheat planting is causing respiratory harm that disproportionately impacts the poorest population and contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Supporting producers to mulch-till the residue instead of burning helps to clear the air and keeps people healthy. This also constitutes a regenerative ag practice which, in turn, will improve soil health, nutrient content and water management — all which lead to better outcomes for people and nature.
Amandeep Kaur, pictured here in her tractor, farms 45 acres in Punjab, India, with her father. She is a leader in adopting regenerative practices, such as using a Smart Seeder, which eliminates the need to burn and improve the soil health by trapping moisture and creating natural fertilizer.
In a mixed-use foodscape like the Argentina Gran Chaco, global demand for beef and soy has driven the destruction of native habitat and forests. The adoption of agro-silvopastoral techniques — where farmers allow cattle to graze in forests instead of clearing more land to open pastures — offer the potential to protect the traditional mixed-use landscape while producing economically important commodities that provide a livelihood to rural communities and protecting globally important biodiversity and carbon storage.
What are the challenges in transitioning to a regenerative food system?
While the foundation for a regenerative food system has been laid and long been employed by Indigenous peoples and local communities, regenerative approaches have not achieved the scale necessary. Our current economic systems are just beginning to incentivize on environmentally and socially positive outcomes. For instance, trading carbon credits helps incentivize the farmer to store more carbon through regenerative ag practices.
Behavioral norms are entwined with existing systems, and change towards regenerative outcomes is focused on marginal change, rather than systems-based approaches. There is a move to align and coordinate among entities that can create change at scale.
We also know that the diversity of production systems emphasizes the need for a place-based approach rooted in local ecosystems, market structures, cultural norms and institutions. If we are to quickly move the food sector to champion regenerative practices, we must address a fundamental gap: how do we support the producers on our food frontlines – farmers, ranchers, fishers and pastoralists – to translate this global charge into on-the-ground change?
We believe that by taking an integrated systems change approach at the level of a Foodscape can help build bridges between global ambition and local implementation. In doing so, foodscapes provide policymakers, private sector leaders, economists and community leaders an additional tool to help map a relevant path towards food system transformation.
How can we translate all of this into action?
To help propel a transition to a regenerative food system, The Nature Conservancy aims to catalyze a transition to regenerative practices in a diverse and representative set of Foodscapes in a manner that charts a course for global food system actors to move more quickly. Through a systems-level and science-based approach that includes coalition building, coordinated planning, market development, supply chain actions and public policy, we want to unlock the pace and scale that is needed for these regenerative outcomes to impact the world’s climate, biodiversity and human welfare goals.
Over the coming years, we plan to support a portfolio of 12-15 diverse regenerative foodscapes that can be a positive force for people and nature. Here, we plan to demonstrate how to engage local producers, the private sector and policymakers to accelerate regenerative practices. By scaling deep in a portfolio representing the diversity of geographic and food production archetypes, we hope to develop pathways that other regions and organizations can replicate.
At the global level, we want to build the science, partnerships and investment pathway that catalyze change at scale. We want to influence success by building coalitions and continuously learning, adapting and replicating what works — while balancing pace and scale with equity and inclusion of local communities.
Foodscape In Action: Northwest India
In India, the economy is dominated by agriculture and key production regions – like the states of Punjab and Haryana in the Northwest – are already experiencing acute climatic stressors. As a result, many of the prevalent agricultural practices are impacting the region’s scarce groundwater levels, decreasing air quality, and negatively impacting the health of the population, reducing long-term viability of the land, and adding to global greenhouse gas emissions.
But transitions are happening, with science-backed and viable alternatives to business as usual. Farmers in the region are recognizing they can be climate heroes while simultaneously supporting their own bottom line by adopting regenerative and no-burn agricultural practices. These natural climate solutions are benefiting farmer livelihoods and climate mitigation efforts.