28 July 2021 | Rome, Italy
Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am most grateful for the opportunity to address this closing session, particularly as it gives me the chance to salute the leadership shown by the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, and his special envoy, Agnes Kalibata, who have so brilliantly mobilised the world in the run up to this first-of-its-kind summit.
I speak to you today as someone who, over the past thirty-five years, has been a long-standing and practising advocate of developing a more sustainable approach to land use and food production. I need not stress how urgent it is that we achieve profound and rapid change in this sector. The way our food system operates affects our environment and our health every day of our lives, but also the fragile health of our planet. The challenge we all face is to ensure that we turn the damage it currently does into something far more positive. And the only way to do that is to put Nature back at the heart of the equation.
Now I cannot think of a sector that is more literally central to the survival of our world. Roughly half of all the habitable land on Earth is now used for agriculture, but far too often that agriculture – or to be exact agri-industry – destroys the natural systems on which it depends. In the last fifty years alone, more than a third of our farmable soil has been destroyed or degraded by human activity. The global food system is also responsible for more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. So, how we produce, market and consume food has a big impact on the Earth’s capacity to sustain us, and that has a direct impact on human health and our economic prosperity.
But it seems to me that this question offers a remarkable economic opportunity. If we farm in the right way, working with earth systems instead of against them and with a substantial focus on the welfare of communities, not only will we increase the production of more nutritious food and generate more employment, we will also benefit Nature’s capacity to keep the entire system going indefinitely.
Much evidence points to the fact that it is perfectly feasible to produce food in a way that is beneficial to Earth's interdependent systems without damaging our economic well-being.
The justification for the predominant, industrialised, monocultural approach has always been that it is the most profitable way to operate. And yet that measurement of “profit” is, it seems to me, at best limited – especially if Nature fails to profit in the process. It always excludes the immensely valuable and important issues you have been addressing. Social and economic stability is built entirely upon valuing and supporting local communities and we must recognise that agriculture and food production are key to that stability.
And, ladies and gentlemen, as every farmer knows, these, in turn, are utterly dependent on the services Nature provides, such as plentiful, clean water; fertile soils, abundant pollinators and pest predators; and the ability to buffer extreme weather and stop soil erosion. These services are provided free. Thus, their destruction by input-intensive, monocrop farming remain unaccounted for. Multiplied by millions of farms operating under commercial imperatives around the world, this destruction compounds into horrific biodiversity losses and civilisation-threatening greenhouse gas emissions.
So I am much heartened, to say the least, to learn that you have been focussing not only on how to establish net-zero food systems and regenerative forms of agriculture, but also something which has long made eminent sense to me, in other words, how to develop a global farm metric that would take account of the impact our food systems have not only on Nature’s capacity to sustain us, but also on the equity of the poorest communities, on indigenous peoples and on the farmers and other workers in the food production sector.
Last year, at Davos, I launched my Sustainable Markets Initiative, having become aware – after many years of trying to persuade the world’s business and finance to address the twin crises of global warming and biodiversity loss – of how many investors were starting to seek sustainable alternatives to damaging, conventional technologies. I was equally aware of how many brilliantly innovative alternatives there now are. The aim is to join the dots between the investors and genuinely investable projects and I see the food production sector as offering a range of incredible investment opportunities because so many genuinely sustainable approaches have already been tried and tested.
Any such investment has to be based on better business models than we have now. They start from the recognition that land is more than a factor of production – Planet-positive business models recognize their responsibilities by embodying concepts of land stewardship. To accelerate these efforts, at the beginning of this year I published the “Terra Carta” as a recovery roadmap for Nature, People and Planet. And, last month, I launched ten transition coalitions of willing and able companies, together representing over $60 trillion in assets under management, which aim to help global industries accelerate their transitions and scale-up investments using genuinely sustainable approaches.
As the Terra Carta makes clear, first and foremost any better models in food production must recognise that the soil and biodiversity are the planet’s most important renewable resources. The approach must therefore be one that does not exceed the carrying capacity of ecosystems at multiple scales, from the local to the global, nor destroy their biodiversity. It must enhance soil fertility and thus, globally, help to capture some 70% of the world’s carbon emissions. It must also make the most of – rather than bypass – available human and social capital. I believe it is possible to develop these much more innovative business models and with proper, substantial investment, they could be capable of producing the scale that businesses need.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I cannot stress enough how important it is you have been discussing such questions. It gives me hope that the pressure for change is now being met by a substantial, determined global response. But that response, and its practical implementation on the ground, must be expedited as the window of opportunity left to us is rapidly closing. The security and capacity of our planet's entire life-support systems are banking on it, and if we all work with that primary responsibility to the fore, not only will we benefit Nature, we will benefit People and the Planet too.