Look Beyond the Farm to Solve Global Food System Challenges
The world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, yet 828 million people are still critically malnourished. In the face of that irony, there has been a growing chorus of calls to move food system reforms supposedly designed to alleviate it past siloed projects that actually stymie such efforts. Yet many solutions remain focused on improving agricultural practices. The problem demands a new paradigm — if we truly want to repair food systems, it’s time to look past the farm.
Unsustainable production presents many challenges for food systems, but agricultural improvements alone won’t solve the problem. Distribution and waste management issues also play a critical role. Effective solutions must bring every stakeholder to the table. They must offer benefits across the value chain, including to the farmers who they will impact and who are central to implementing them.
One such holistic approach is integrated landscape management (ILM), a structured, long-term collaboration among land managers and stakeholders to achieve the multiple objectives required to help entire landscapes thrive. This technique focuses on nurturing the interconnectedness of activities within the landscape to foster synergies between otherwise competing land uses. ILM allows communities to pursue food-system-related economic, environmental and climate goals simultaneously. On the ground, ILM can take many forms. Farmers sell their agricultural waste, like manure, to a biogas facility. Land managers invest in ecosystem services critical to farming when launching a grassland conservation program that protects waterways and preserves pollinator habitats. A cooperative works with distributors and markets to sell local produce, which provides residents with healthy food while reducing transportation costs and emissions.
We have found that ILM is an effective solution to many of our food system challenges. It boosts food production and natural infrastructure, minimizes food waste and encourages climate-smart agricultural practices. ILM can significantly improve our food systems by boosting food production. One major way it accomplishes this is by encouraging natural infrastructure, such as conserving natural areas around farms. Maintaining or expanding natural locations alone offers many ecosystem services to nearby agricultural land — safeguarding habitat for pollinators essential for food production, decreasing topsoil loss through windbreaks and mitigating floods through healthy, stable soils and hydrology. Many people now realize the scale of the food-waste problem. Worldwide, a third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted annually, amounting to about 1.3 billion tons with a value of $1 trillion. But it's not just the calories and money in that food that is wasted, but also the water, soil health and fertilizer used to grow much of it; the human labor and energy to tend, harvest and process crops; and the fuel and emissions used to ship that product.
A more integrated approach can significantly reduce the inefficiencies underpinning food waste by convening landscape stakeholders to find collaborative solutions. For example, farmers, intermediaries and retailers can collectively choose to grow crops acclimated to their region rather than importing them from elsewhere. At scale, this common-sense change would boost community self-sufficiency and resilience while eliminating the waste and excess emissions of global shipping. Authorities responsible for communities that choose this route should foster local markets that sell local produce, a program that would boost incomes and improve livelihoods.
In 2020, EcoAgriculture Partners and its collaborators put ILM to the test in Ecuador with 2,000 farmers. Our findings showed how this approach could boost crop yield while conserving fragile ecosystems. Residents established around 3,600 hectares with native species to protect agricultural assets and forests. At the same time, locals protected riparian and water recharge areas to conserve water for 41 community watershed reserves. Farmers maximized their yields by using agroforestry systems that combined growing crops such as avocado, banana and papaya alongside coffee and cacao. These farms also integrated fruit species from a nearby reserve, helping Ecuador to have one of the highest measures of fruit diversity in the tropics. Farmers planted nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs to aid soil health and conservation. Farmers also adopted rotational grazing practices to help with overgrazing.
ILM uses whole-landscape strategies to engage sectors not previously focused on integrating solutions to improve our food systems. After EcoAg’s work in Ecuador, farmers and organizations could scale their projects by mobilizing institutional and financial resources. Their success positively impacted the area’s broader economic development, environmental strategies and food security. ILM offers a holistic approach to address our food systems' multiple challenges. By promoting sustainable and regenerative agriculture practices, protecting and restoring natural infrastructure, decreasing food waste and improving food distribution, ILM can help ensure a resilient and equitable food system that benefits both people and the environment. To achieve these goals, it is essential to involve all stakeholders — including farmers, policymakers and civil society — in designing and implementing integrated solutions that consider environmental and socioeconomic factors. With the scale of our problem, ILM is a vital tool to ensure food security and a sustainable future for all.