The World Food Prize Should Help Farmers Fight Climate Change

Robert Leonard and Matt Russell argue that the World Food Prize is an opportunity to rewrite the playbook to empower farmers.



As the climate crisis rocks the world, and ethnic tension, population displacement, and war continue unabated, some of the finest minds in the world are meeting this week in Des Moines, Iowa at the World Food Prize to discuss “Pax Agricultura: Peace Through Agriculture.”

Every year, the Norman E. Borlaug International Symposium brings together over 1,200 people from more than 65 countries to address global food security, among other issues, and announce the winner of the annual World Food Prize. The award, which has been described as the Nobel Prize of Food and Agriculture,” bestows $250,000 on scientists, NGO leaders, and politicians who “have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world.”

Many of these leaders are taking their cues from Borlaug, the Nobel Prize winning “Father of the Green Revolution.”

Now, it’s time for a pivot. Moving forward, peace through agriculture will only come if we pay farmers and ranchers not just to produce food, fiber, and fuel, but also to provide the environmental services the world demands. We need to empower farmers and ranchers globally to figure out what conservation practices will work best on their land, in consultation with scientists and local farm agencies, and pay them to implement the practices that can help us confront the environmental crises that underlie most if not all world conflicts.

As part of Pax Agricultura, we need this assembly of engaged minds to lobby for public policy that empowers farmers in every corner of the world to address climate change. We realize this is no small ask. This has not been the business model for agricultural corporations and this is not in the playbook for politicians claiming to represent farmers and rural citizens. But it will be farmers and ranchers who will lead us out of the fix we are in—not corporations and politicians. Corporations and politicians either need to figure out how they can help or get out of the way.

Crucial initiatives exist to plant millions of trees to fight global warming, lower emissions, and establish carbon markets, but no one can pull carbon from the air as quickly and powerfully as farmers and ranchers. Harvest in the northern hemisphere has arrived, and “carbon farming” practices can start as soon as this year’s cornucopia is filled.

Consider our challenges: Global warming and ecological disasters. The rapid loss of species. Poor water quality. Declining soil health. Loss of habitat. Flooding in parts of the world, and desertification in others. Wildfires. Threats to our food supply, and overdependence on a few crops and animals. Income inequality, and poverty. Dead zones in our oceans, and environmental degradation causing social instability, ethnic tensions, population displacement, and war.

Most if not all of the Democratic presidential candidates recognize the importance of paying farmers to sequester carbon and improve the soil, and they are adopting rural, agriculture, and climate policies that rest on this foundation. Why is this happening? Because these candidates have come to Iowa and are listening to farmers who are telling them if the right policies and markets are in place they can solve some of the world’s biggest problems, just as their parents and grandparents figured out how to grow more of the crops the world needed last century to feed a growing population.

We believe Republicans and other world leaders can see the wisdom in this, too. They too have important ideas and insights that are needed to empower farmers, but they must be willing to stand with farmers and ranchers, especially when political and market forces work against the interest of farms and rural communities.

Sure, additional efforts are needed. A price on carbon, for one. Reducing emissions is another. But we aren’t going to get out of this by relying on fickle markets and changing one light bulb at a time—we need focused public policy to make it happen.

Yet, many powerful interests are keeping it from happening. These interests have not been advancing this strategy because it will impact their short-term profits.

The current system supports business models that promote production of just a handful of commodities. Increasingly, the value of these commodities is concentrated among ever more consolidated corporations and away from farmers and rural communities. And yet, many of the environmental costs of this system stay in rural communities or move downstream. Indeed, the global climate crisis is magnified by these externalized costs in increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The fossil fuel era and the Green Revolution produced some amazing benefits for humankind. The Borlaug International Symposium is a fitting celebration of these achievements. But global climate change is a wake-up call and shows the need for a second revolution that is every bit as important and necessary as the Green Revolution.

The leaders at this year’s symposium must shift their focus from maximizing short-term corporate profits over long-term ones. If Peace through Agriculture is a real goal and not just a slogan, there is as much of a transformation on the horizon as the transformation from horses and harnesses to tractors and hybrid seeds nearly 100 years ago.

The biggest challenge isn’t getting farmers to adapt and innovate. That will be easy. The biggest challenge is that when farmers do develop the strategies to provide high-level climate services, they will also be displacing a significant amount of inputs in the supply chain. In other words, fast climate action disrupts business as usual for many of those gathered at the symposium—especially the fertilizer and seed companies. Our fear is that many of those gathered may be more serious about protecting their markets than solving the climate crisis.

The same holds for many of our farming associations who say they are advocates for farmers, but often side with corporations and politicians instead. While many of the children of Midwestern farmers receive free and reduced meals at our schools, these professional advocates are cashing in.

Our agricultural research universities, facing dwindling public dollars, are also beholden to private interests. Many of their scientists want to do publicly funded, independent research to address important problems farmers face, but they are denied that opportunity when their research might not improve the bottom line of the corporations funding the schools.

The agricultural press, whose publications would fold without the same companies’ advertising dollars, are also caught between a truck and a grain bin. Agricultural journalists have been slammed for years when they try and write about the climate crisis. It’s no wonder the ag media has picked up on the Democratic candidates’ plans to pay farmers for climate services. They are embracing an opportunity to cover a crisis they know is real and they understand what a game changer it would be to incentivize farmers to lead the solution.

Powerful interests from a variety of sources will say it’s too costly, but it’s not. Implementing substantial carbon farming policies will save trillions of dollars and countless lives, and cost pennies per meal.

American farmers already know how to do this. They organized into powerful co-ops to help maintain market power in the past century, and many held onto some of the value for their farms and rural communities as the Green Revolution expanded global food security and wealth. We don’t have to reinvent the tools.

We could step back and let nature work on its course and rebuild prairie systems with 6 percent organic matter, but it could take hundreds if not thousands of years. Or we can encourage farmers to take up carbon farming and achieve the same result in 10 to 20 years.

Despite big-city myths to the contrary, most of the world’s farms are small family farms. Even in Iowa, probably the most cultivated place on the face of the earth, most of the farms are small family farms. Their relationship to the earth is intimate, and they know what will work on their land.

The recent harrowing report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on land use makes the case they must. And we’re not just talking about soybean and corn farmers in the Midwest. The chile farmers in New Mexico, the Australian cattle ranchers, Chinese rice farmers, and cassava harvesters in Mozambique all play important roles in drawing carbon back into the soil.

We urge the attendees at the Borlaug symposium to pause and look around. Ask yourselves, who among you are part of the solution, or part of the problem? You don’t need to figure out the answer. Farmers already have 10,000 years of experience to draw on. You just have to figure out how you can help them do it. That’s how you will achieve peace through agriculture.

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  1. John Butler
    Thursday, October 17th, 2019
    This editorial is eloquent testimony to the need for climate activists who are not farmers to ally themselves with climate activists who are farmers or kindred spirits to farmers – to understand each other, to work on a common cause. I expect that in moving into a green future, farmers are on average more vulnerable to all-encompassing dislocation than urbanites are. I as an urbanite born and bred owe much to farmers who’ve fed me for 75 years, but more powerful than that debt is the knowledge that my fate rests on what they do, and their fate rests on what I do. Therein lie the seeds of alliance.
    • Friday, October 18th, 2019
      John, you are right of course. But how do we get the public to join us in understanding the importance of regenerative farming practices?
      Localvore France, a non-profit in the southwest of France, is piloting a project that helps the public understand the relationship between food and the environment, while renumerating the producers for their service of carbon sequestration and at the same time making sustainably produced food more accessible to populations in need. The project called Et Tout Commence à Partir du Sol - Ici nous recoltons du carbone (it all begins with the soil, here we harvest carbon) takes place at the outdoor market, where the act of purchasing food takes place. It is a super small project on a scale that is not even a drop in the bucket. But projects like this one, that support farmers now while creating awareness, can happen anywhere. The emphasis is on the "now".
  2. Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
    ...as a WFP Laureate 1995, I can't agree more that a radical change its needed....actually the UN and World Bank sponsored IAASTD Report, which I co-chaired, already said so in 2008, that we need a change in paradigm, that business as usual is not an option and that the way forward is an agriculture and food system based in the principles of Agroecology. It's finally sinking in at FAO and many other places, not the least the farmers that have been cheated by agri business and governments that listen to their lobby and the one from major Foundations instead of the latest sustainability science. Time is not our side, and it would be great if the World Food Prize would also change its paradigm from Green Revolution to Agroecology, Regenerative and Organic Agriculture. In a world that wastes over 30 % of the produced food, we need to stop thinking more is better, cheaper is better. We need to think who, where, how we produce healthy food for healthy people and a healthy planet. That change would also imply that the World Food Prize needs a new endowment, which would free it from the sponsorship of the businesses with a vested interest in the status quo. There should be no sponsorship at the WFP, to allow to be totally unbiased and open. As the authors say correctly note "Yet, many powerful interests are keeping it from happening. These interests have not been advancing this strategy because it will impact their short-term profits." a major change is needed and theses vested interests need to yield to the transformation of agriculture and the food system they are now chocking, and bankrupting. The IPES-Food report " http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/UniformityToDiversity_FullReport.pdf " outlines the blockages in the present food and ag system. They clearly show the way forward, and would be a good example for the WFP to take cues from for the next generation of WFP Symposia and laureates. Hans R Herren