Tackling the climate crisis in agri-food systems through nature-based solutions

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September 2021 - Our food security depends on the sustainable management of healthy ecosystems. Yet, over half of the world’s agricultural lands and marine ecosystems are degraded to some extent. Current trends also make agri-food systems the core driver of biodiversity loss in the world, and a contributor to more than one-third of global GHG emissions, according to a recent FAO study.

With fewer resources to meet increasing demands of growing global populations and changing consumption patterns, food security will only become more challenging in the future. At the same time, agri-food systems will need to prepare for the disruptive impacts of climate change on agriculture value chains. Our current agri-food systems need to become more sustainable and resilient. Nature-based solutions (NbS) can play a key role to achieve this.

Human, economic, and social development depend on the health and longevity of our natural ecosystems. NbS are defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems”. NbS seek to maximize nature’s ability to provide ecosystem services that can help address societal challenges. Within the agri-food system, agriculture nature-based solutions (Ag-NbS) – such as agroforestry, coastal mangrove restoration management, and conservation agriculture – are an effective, long-term approach to tackling issues that include declining agriculture productivity, pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change.

The NbS that specifically address climate change are categorized as ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) and Nature Climate Solutions (NCS). EbA is a subset of actions for adapting to climate change using nature, whereas NCS is a subset of land management actions that increase carbon storage. Both EbA and NCS are seen as cost-efficient approaches to addressing climate change in agri-food systems, since they also deliver co-benefits, such as improving the livelihoods of farmers, restoring degraded agriculture landscapes, and sustaining future food production and global food security.

Silvopastoralism practices – a form of agroforestry that combines fodder plants with scrubs and planting trees in pasturelands – addresses intensive livestock farming and its harmful impacts on surrounding ecosystems. In Colombia, for example, the creation of pasture alleys, windbreaks, live fences, and fodder banks allowed for a 20 percent increase in milk and/or beef production and improved land management on over 94 000 acres. FAO supported the country to deliver these practices across 87 municipalities in 12 states, which covered a total area of 159 811 hectares. Silvopastoralism has reduced 1.5 million tons of GHG emissions as well, and is a practice that can be scaled up in Colombia to 1M Ha of coverage by 2030.

Policy makers and agriculture sector leaders can help to accelerate the adoption of NbS in sustainable agriculture, fisheries, and livestock practices through strategic public interventions, private investment, and corporate leadership. To support this, UNDP developed a Pathway for Increasing Nature-based Solutions in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), a seven-step approach for national governments to integrate or enhance nature-based solutions in their NDCs'. It provides a framework for governments to identify potential NbS within their country to enhance their climate mitigation and adaptation actions (and other co-benefits) in a cost-effective manner.

Through the Integrating Agriculture in National Adaptation Plans (NAP-Ag) programme (2015-2020), FAO and UNDP supported its partner countries to urgently address the degradation of agriculture’s natural capital foundation and enhance the resilience of agri-food systems in their National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). The programme contributed to the development of three supplementary guidelines to the UNFCCC NAP technical guidelines. The first guideline on Addressing agriculture, forestry and fisheries in National Adaptation Plans was issued in 2017 and introduced the sector opportunities in NAPs. In 2020, NAP supplementary guidelines focusing on forestry and agroforestry was launched (NAP-Forestry), followed by guidelines addressing the fisheries and aquaculture sector (NAP-Fish). Both publications explore the prospects for EbA in building resilience in agri-food systems. A briefing note on entry points for mainstreaming EbA throughout the four elements of the NAP formulation process was also published under the NAP-Ag programme.

Building on the lessons learned of the NAP-Ag programme, FAO and UNDP are currently implementing a 5-year programme, Scaling up Climate Ambition on Land Use and Agriculture through Nationally Determined Contributions and National Adaptation Plans (SCALA), funded by the German Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) through its International Climate Initiative (IKI). This programme is currently supporting 12 countries across Africa, Latin America and Asia to develop countries’ capacity to catalyse transformative climate action in the land-use and agriculture sectors through NDCs and NAPs.

By partnering with national governments and ministries, national universities and research institutions, civil society, and the private sector, SCALA will address barriers to scaling-up NbS interventions through activities, such as improving cross-sectoral coordination capacities and strengthening knowledge on the social and economic benefits and trade-offs of NbS. For example, in Ethiopia, one of the partner countries, the programme plans to appraise various agroecology-based livelihood options for a transformative climate action implementation plan.

With many countries currently undertaking NDC enhancement revisions, there is now an opportunity for NbS to feature as a more prominent component in the updated NDCs. Additionally, there is a strong case for countries to mainstream EbA into their NAPs processes, as outlined in a recently published Guidelines for Intregrating EbA in NAPs, developed under the jointly implemented UNDP-UNEP National Adaptation Plan Global Support Programme (NAP-GSP), with contributions by FAO.

It is therefore imperative that policymakers, researchers, and practitioners scale up their efforts into what more can be done to harness the full potential of NbS for enhancing countries’ climate ambition and helping them to achieve their national climate targets in a more inclusive, green and effective manner.