The recent UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) accreditation of Solutions from the Land (SfL) offers the opportunity to participate in UNEP events and the development of a global ten-year plan of work involving more than 190 countries. SfL board member, Lois Wright Morton, a northeast Ohio specialty crop grower, provided input in a meeting last week on the second draft of a key document for the Global Strategy for Sustainable Consumption and Production, one of 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The only farmer taking part in this discussion, Morton called attention to the fact that farmers are the beginning of the food system and essential workers necessary to successfully address hunger, ensure healthy diets and protect the environment. She reminded delegates that food and nutrition security “begins with farmers who have resources, knowledge, and technologies, and are able to make a living for their households using climate-neutral and nature-positive strategies while producing an abundance of food and quality nutrition.”
Last week’s UNEP session is the latest in a series of global events to which SfL has been invited to participate, giving farmers, ranchers and foresters a voice in the development of major policies affecting food production across the world. The UNEP global strategy focuses on an ambitious and inclusive pathway for systemic and circular approaches to achieve sustainable development through sustainable consumption and production.
In her remarks, Morton emphasized the critical importance of agricultural systems and how farmers are creating circularity in their enterprises to improve the delivery of multiple benefits to society: food and nutrition, healthy soil, clean water, and rural livelihoods.
She recommended that the draft report add a third subcategory – Public and private sectors innovate circular systems within and across sectors to increase efficiencies that reduce waste and reuse outputs as valuable and useful system inputs. This subcategory (c) would emphasize innovative reuse and the retained value of by-products as system inputs. It would be in addition to report subcategories that detail (a) education and sustainable lifestyle approaches, and (b) consumer information under the Support Enablers for Change section.
Morton said that the “value retention” concept captures the multiple benefits of farm systems beyond producing for off-farm consumption food, nutrition, fiber and energy. Circularity processes take farm outputs such as manure, straw, cover crops, recycled water from irrigation/processing/cleaning products, biogas and seed production, and use them as farm inputs. Thus, these “outputs” can substitute for needed production inputs, including crop nutrients, water and by-products that boost soil health and might otherwise be purchased off-farm or result in lost value to the farm system.
Morton reaffirmed SfL’s advocacy for any global strategy that includes circular system approaches, and shared with participants a recent SfL paper she co-authored with SfL President Ernie Shea – “Beyond Productivity, Rebuilding Circles of Life to Deliver Multi-benefit Goals Via Circular Systems” – which was recently published by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.
The paper makes the case that circularity in agriculture and food systems holds promise for recovering lost resources and addressing the unintended consequences of linear production. The challenge to agriculture is to adapt the circularity observed in complex natural ecosystems into practical applications for producers and their value chains. That adaptation could then shift intensive linear systems away from the single goal of optimizing productivity toward circles of life capable of producing concurrently ecosystem services, a variety of agricultural products, and livelihoods.
The message from Morton and SfL to the global agricultural sector is that mixed multi-plant and animal agricultural systems that leverage integrated land management and biodiversity have the potential to deliver a multitude of benefits, including increased productivity, improved pest and disease control, water quality, soil health, and economic profitability. Simply put, the multi-system approach replaces linear “take, make, and dispose” systems with circular “make, use, and retain value by reuse” systems, which offer solutions for managing input costs and gaining income and ecosystem benefits from wastes that are otherwise lost and can harm agro-ecosystems. It is a message stakeholders should carry to policy makers and call for the tools that can help bring agriculture fully into the 21st century.