Shifting Farming Practice

A shift in methods of agricultural production is needed to drive positive social, economic and environmental outcomes for farming (Pharo et al., 2019) and increase the resilience of food production to climate change and other shocks (UNFCCC, 2022). The current agrifood system’s dependence on a small number of monoculture crops with high chemical inputs, GHG emissions and freshwater use are central to its impacts on the Earth system. Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture (OWD, 2019); thus the methods used to manage this land and ensure its productivity have global impacts.

Land-based CO2 removal, including in agroecosystems, offers huge potential for climate mitigation. The ‘4 per 1,000’ initiative aims to increase carbon storage in topsoils by 0.4 per cent per year globally, with the aim of offsetting a significant portion of anthropogenic GHG emissions. Both the Breakthrough Agenda (IEA, IRENA, and UNFCCC, 2022a) and the Sharm-el-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda (UNFCCC, 2022) set transformation of agriculture as a key priority and target for climate finance, with the combined aim of making climate-resilient, sustainable agriculture the most attractive and widely adopted option for farmers everywhere by 2030.

Development and adoption of a suite of agro-ecological or ‘regenerative’ farming practices are central to these goals, along with innovation for precision agriculture. These usually emphasise reduced tillage, crop rotation, integrated crop and livestock management and incorporation of perennial crops and trees into farming systems. Agro-ecological farming aims to restore soil health and increase agrobiodiversity and ecosystem service provision, including carbon sequestration, while reducing chemical inputs via increased nutrient recycling and precision application. 

A transition to sustainable and resilient farming practices is relevant at all scales and regions (boxes 4.3.9 and 4.3.10), but the urgency is particularly acute for smallholder and subsistence farmers to adapt to increasing climate vulnerability and food insecurity. Hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers are increasingly vulnerable to climate change and are approaching the limits of adaptation for the models of farming on which their livelihoods depend (Morton, 2007). For many subsistence farmers, current Green Revolution farming practices come with costly dependence on chemical inputs like fertilisers and pesticides, or irrigation systems. Often overuse of fertilisers in these farms has caused soil degradation, and reduced water quality and biodiversity. This can drive a vicious cycle of degrading reinforcing feedbacks, where farmers are locked in a cycle of increasing input requirements, increasing indebtedness, and decreasing productivity (The Food and Land Use Coalition, 2021). Accelerating a transition therefore requires breaking this cycle of feedbacks, and strengthening positive feedbacks associated with agro-ecological health and farmer livelihoods. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, around 80 per cent of farms are subsistence smallholdings of less than one hectare (OECD, 2016), operating on degraded land and with minimal capital assets. In this region alone, 50 per cent adoption of regenerative agriculture could lead to a 30 per cent reduction of soil erosion, 60 per cent increase in water infiltration, >20 per cent increase in soil nitrogen and 20 per cent increase in soil carbon, adding ~$70bn gross value per year for farmers. Similar benefits are already driving widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture in both East Africa and areas of India, including certain practices being mandated at state level in Sikkim and Andhra Pradesh (The Food and Land Use Coalition, 2021).

Smallholder farmers have strong social networks which encourage social contagion, and small individual farm sizes which can foster high learning rates. This makes them strong candidates for driving a tipping point in farming practices. 

To enable widespread adoption, regenerative farming practices must:

  • Offer a more economically attractive livelihood for small-scale farmers (i.e. by reducing inputs or labour costs or through access to subsidies or other incentives).
  • Perform better than current practices, through higher yielding or more diverse, nutritious or resilient crops. 
  • Become a part of prevailing cultural and social norms.

Farmers must also be able to access:

  • Markets for crops produced with regenerative methods.
  • Information and knowledge networks that enable them to assess the benefits of shifting, and support them to learn new farming practices. 

Access to finance can incentivise practices that increase productivity and resilience while reducing emissions and protecting natural habitats (IEA, IRENA, and UNFCCC 2022); as such the Breakthrough Agenda recommends that access to international climate finance by smallholder farmers needs to sharply increase (Meldrum et al., 2023). Multiple mechanisms exist for this, but one model already driving innovation is the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM). Through established monitoring protocols and verification standards, carbon sequestered in biomass and soils can be accredited and sold on an open market to buyers looking to offset carbon emissions. Payment for carbon credits can help to fulfil the enabling conditions above by offering farmers incentive payments or access to markets for a ‘virtual’ carbon crop in addition to conventional crops, helping them to build diversified and more resilient livelihoods (Box 4.3.9). Globally, VCMs have been growing exponentially, at a compound annual rate of over 30 per cent from 2016-2021 (World Bank, 2022), with the value of carbon credit retirements close to US$1bn and expected to grow to 15 times that by 2030. Recent developments have questioned the credibility of credits generated through ‘reduced deforestation’, which are qualitatively different from credits produced via actively sequestering carbon in vegetation or soils (Balmford et al., 2023). This has served to increase demand for credits based on sequestration, and those with demonstrable social co-benefits. 

In countries where industrial agriculture predominates, similar mechanisms for paying land managers for provision and improvement of ecosystem services remain an effective tool. In these systems, high levels of subsidy have considerable influence over the structure of farm business models and the choices available for land management. Diversifying income streams is often attractive for farmers as it offers resilience in the face of marginal livelihoods and volatile markets (Box 4.3.10). Research in the UK suggests that, given incentive structures that make agro-ecological practices economically viable, and confidence in long-term government commitment to agri-environmental policies, farmers are prepared to shift practice accordingly (Guilbert et al., 2022). However, powerful dampening feedbacks also exist in the agro-industrial sector (Daugbjerg, 2011), and it is not clear whether potential for tipping dynamics exist, as opposed to linear change.


Voluntary carbon markets drive agroforestry adoption in East Africa and India

The International Small Group and Tree Planting Programme (TIST) supports access to voluntary carbon markets to incentivise tree planting by smallholder farmers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and India, with the goal of maximising benefits for participating farmers (TIST Program, 2023). Since its inception in 1999, it has grown rapidly through a mixture of grassroots activity, social contagion and targeted expansion (Emmanuel O. Benjamin and Blum, 2015), to include more than 170,000 participants (TIST Program, 2023). TIST members have planted more than 23m trees and own the rights to verified carbon credits generated by measuring their growth. Small incentive payments are made until trees are large enough to qualify for carbon credit verification, and these appear sufficient to offset the opportunity cost of committing to tree planting (Emmanuel O. Benjamin and Sauer, 2018)

Once planted, trees provide multiple co-benefits to farmers (De Giusti, Kristjanson, and Rufino, 2019) including fuelwood, animal fodder, fruit or nut crops, shade, and soil stabilisation. These benefits generate strong social-ecological reinforcing feedbacks, providing motivation for trees to be maintained over many years. The greening impact of TIST tree-planting is visible at landscape scales, and can be seen to extend beyond individual tree-groves to neighbouring land (Buxton et al., 2021), potentially strengthening these feedbacks. Regular meetings, training and visits by extension officers to measure tree-growth ensure accountability and transparency, and generate strong social feedbacks.

Figure: 4.3.11
Figure 4.3.11: Positive feedbacks initiated by the TIST programme that increase capability of farmers, support them to access and benefit from voluntary carbon markets and improve the performance of their farms relative to the vicious cycle of degradation and vulnerability presented by the status quo. 

TIST’s organisational structure is inherently scalable, and designed to facilitate sharing experience, information and training, both vertically and horizontally. Coupled with a culture of learning by doing, this means that best practices and innovations, including for other regenerative farming practices, can be spread rapidly (Masiga, Yankel, and Iberre, 2012). Rotating leadership throughout the programme structure, with equal leadership for women and men, facilitates social capital which further enhances the programme outcomes (Marshall, 2022), including ensuring economic empowerment for participants (both male and female) (Benjamin, Ola, and Buchenrieder, 2018) which in turn enables greater investment in farming, education and health (Benjamin, Blum, and Punt, 2016), bringing further benefits aligned with multiple SDGs (OECD, 2020).

Growth in African-origin carbon credits slightly exceeds the global average growth rate in VCMs, with credits based on agriculture, soil sequestration, forestry and land use attracting the highest prices (two to four times the global average) (ACMI report). However, it is estimated that Africa currently generates only ~2 per cent of its annual potential for carbon credits, with potential to generate around US$50bn by 2030. This represents a powerful opportunity to leverage the feedbacks demonstrated in TIST and other programmes.

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