Global food system can rise to challenges, new research shows
Respondents say technology, innovation and incentives for farmers fundamental to change
By Lilian Schaer for Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
A global survey into the attitudes towards agricultural sustainability shows there’s a realistic understanding of the crises currently facing the agri-food industry, and respondents are overwhelmingly optimistic about the food system’s ability to rise to the challenges.
As well, they believe that innovation and technology will be key to more sustainable food systems – and that change is unlikely to happen if farmers aren’t incentivized to do so.
Those are the highlights of the Alltech Sustainability Insights research that the global animal nutrition company released earlier this summer during its Alltech ONE World Tour. Over 2,500 respondents from around the world participated in the survey, which was conducted for Alltech for the first time this year.
“The world isn’t in a crisis, it is in a series of crises,” noted Tara McCarthy, Alltech’s Global Vice President of ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) during a presentation in Calgary, listing the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, the war in Ukraine, cybersecurity and climate change as key issues challenging countries around the world.
“There is no doubt that the environment will be one of the biggest challenges we face, but the challenge is that we don’t all agree how to get out of it,” she added. “The environment is a megatrend, and we have to navigate this and the resource scarcity that this implies.”
Sustainability didn’t become a theme of conferences or a board room topic until the last few years, she noted, when the United Nations (UN) released its Sustainable Development Goals, and the UN climate change conferences began attracting sustainability investments and commitments from around the world.
The European Union (EU) approved its Green Deal in 2020, with its goals of reducing emissions by 55% by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050, and governments in other countries are also making climate commitments.
“Obviously, that has an impact on our agriculture, where we’re seeing farmers protesting and feeling they’re no longer welcome, but we are also seeing new business models coming through where farmers are actually being rewarded for the new requests businesses are making of them,” McCarthy said.
A desire to find out what makes agriculture around the world believe in the future was the catalyst for Alltech’s research into the challenges, opportunities, drivers and attitudes towards change and who will need to pay for it. Of the respondents, 88% noted that the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have highlighted the vulnerability of the world’s food system.
At the same time, 78% of all respondents indicated that climate change will make food production more difficult in the future, a figure that was higher in Latin America and Asia and dropped to only 56% among North American respondents.
And 85% of global respondents – 91% in North America – had confidence that the food system can rise to the challenges it faces, supported by a strong belief in technology. Innovation, they noted, will be key to creating a more sustainable food system and there must be incentives for farmers to drive change.
Globally, respondents identified their top six drivers as rising costs and inflation, a growing world population, climate change, supply chain disruption, availability of agricultural labour, and water quality.
In North America, the picture is a bit different, where respondents selected the availability of agricultural labour as the top driver, followed by inflation and rising costs, supply chain disruption, a growing global population, market forces and declining water resources. Climate change, which was not on the North American list, was a key driver for respondents in the EU.
Three quarters of global respondents think they can change their business practices in the next three years to improve their environmental sustainability, and 76% believe they understand the changes that are needed to create a more sustainable food system.
At the same time, only one in four is very confident in the environmental impact they will have, and although almost two thirds of global respondents believe that government should help drive sustainability changes, only 27% in North American share that sentiment.
Overall, noted McCarthy in a follow up interview, the research team expected to see varying attitudes from different parts of the agri-food value chain, but that wasn’t the case.
“The value chain in each geography is actually quite aligned, and although on certain topics there were some light nuances, like crop producers being more worried about water than others, it was pretty consistent on what was important,” she said. “There are different cultural nuances that influence points of view too: regulation and government have a much stronger influence in the EU, whereas there is a more entrepreneurial free sprit in North America.”
The results also showed strong concern in Europe around climate conversations, whereas North American respondents pointed more towards the reputation of the agriculture sector and the license to operate as a fundamental concern.
“My challenge to the North American industry is that while they have done amazing things with production efficiency and the adaptation of technology, past performance is not indicator of future returns, so how do you make sure you are watching your horizons?” she said. “Look at what is around you and ensure you aren’t out of step.”
An important way to ensure that reputation is protected is through data measurement, technological adaption and collaboration, with 92% of survey respondents globally citing the need for regulators, farmers, investors and non-government organizations to work together and create frameworks that build trust.
According to McCarthy, although the ESG agenda can be politicized, it’s fundamentally about increasing efficiency and productivity, and reducing waste, which benefits both farmers and the environment. For farm businesses, that means recording what they do, knowing their numbers and understanding opportunities for great efficiency by looking at work practices, technology and innovation.
“In this world, trust is at a premium, so you need to be able to prove what you’re doing – and as an industry, you’re only as good as your weakest link, so how do you make sure that the rising tide raises all boats?” she said. “Agriculture is an industry with an enviable purpose - we are feeding the world and our goal is to do that sustainably, so we have to stay aligned, and continue to ask questions and look for answers.”
This article is provided by Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC) as part of its ongoing efforts to report on research developments and outcomes affecting the Canadian livestock industry.
LRIC is supported by the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership (Sustainable CAP), a five-year, $3.5 billion investment by federal-provincial-territorial governments which reflects the principles of sustainable development, allowing the agriculture and agri-food sector to meet the needs of today, and grow for tomorrow.