The magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted political priorities across the globe, drawing attention away from the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, this pandemic should reinforce efforts to transition to sustainable practices in all sectors, particularly in food production, to restore our natural environment while feeding a growing population – the pandemic may create a further 83 to 132 million undernourished people globally.
Today, we have the opportunity for a green recovery, one that is based on resilient food supply chain systems that incorporate sustainable agricultural methods. We can make agriculture both part of the solution to our planet’s restoration and an engine of economic development, but we need political willpower. Sustainable soil management should be the starting point.
Soil is a finite resource with unexploited potential for biodiversity conservation, carbon storage and nutrition improvement. Many successful solutions were developed over the years (e.g. conservation agriculture, eco-intensification, regenerative agriculture) to increase carbon sequestration in soil and vegetation, improve the quality and renewability of water and expand biodiversity above and below the ground.
Plant breeders, together with soil scientists, agronomists and plant physiologists, continuously develop plant varieties that are climate resilient. However, translating science into applicable solutions requires formulating and implementing policies that realise the full potential of plant varieties to restore and enhance soil health and functionality.
"We can make agriculture both part of the solution to our planet’s restoration and an engine of economic development, but we need political willpower"
Greater support should be granted to research and public-private partnerships to develop a climate resilient agriculture and build resilient food supply chains. Sequestration of CO2 in soil and vegetation enables re-carbonisation of the terrestrial biosphere.
New plant breeding techniques can adapt the genetic composition of plants to create a positive soil and ecosystem carbon budgets where more carbon is gained than lost, making farming emission neutral or even emission-negative.
Furthermore, plant breeding innovation can deliver root systems tolerant to adverse effects of drought and heat waves, production of biomass resistant to decomposition under high temperatures, inherent capacity to adapt to increased pressure of pests, pathogens and degraded soils and production of food high in proteins, vitamins and micronutrients.
Equally important is to give farmers easy access to the most modern technologies and innovations, motivating them to produce more from less, save land, water and other natural resources and make food production systems nutrition-sensitive.
Practices for soil conservation, intelligent land management and innovative techniques are tools already available that could be deployed today to reduce the carbon and ecological footprint of agriculture and preserve biodiversity, ultimately protecting the environment, the planet and our wellbeing.
Reconciling nature with the need to feed our growing population is possible. Working with scientists, the EU can lead a truly green transition and post-COVID recovery, while also achieving its 2030 goals and setting us on course for a better and healthier world.
This Thought Leader is brought to you by the American Seed Trade Association and Euroseeds.