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As the international community lifts its head above the chaos wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic and sets its sights on critical global action for the upcoming decade, the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) has its gaze fixed on five key challenges facing humanity.

These are: deforestation and biodiversity loss; broken food systems (including degradation of land and water resources); climate change; inequality; and unsustainable supply and value chains.

During CIFOR-ICRAF’s 2022 Science Week, 6–10 June 2022 — a hybrid internal conference that brought together 500+ scientists from across the world — these five challenges were in the spotlight.

The attention was timely and urgent.

Food prices are spiking; conflict is disrupting value chains; business leaders are being called out for greenwashing; and extreme weather events are hurting people, homes and livelihoods.

These wide-ranging issues are interlinked and they require a systemic response.

At the conference’s opening session, which was held in ICRAF’s hub in Nairobi, Kenya with virtual participation by scientists at the CIFOR hub in Bogor, Indonesia and elsewhere around the globe, five experts responded to each of the challenges.

First, Jennifer Clapp, who is the research chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability and professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo, Canada, delivered a discourse on transformation of the world’s food systems.

“Food systems, as they are currently organized, are clearly broken,” said Clapp. “By all accounts, we are in the midst of a major world food crisis, with a war in Ukraine disrupting food, fertilizer and energy supplies… But even before that, food systems were facing serious challenges: over 800 million people were chronically undernourished, a number that’s been rising in recent years; nearly 2.4 billion people face moderate or severe food insecurity; and nearly 2 billion adults are over-nourished.”

She went on to list additional issues, such as widespread micro-nutrient deficiency; the uneven quality of food environments; precarity of livelihoods within the systems; uneven power distribution amongst supply-chain actors; and overstepping of planetary boundaries, leading to severe environmental degradation and vulnerability to climate change.

Clapp then spoke of some of the policy imperatives that are required to remedy this, such as centring the human right to food; delivering policies within a food-systems approach; and widening our understanding of food security to include issues like agency and sustainability. “A bold transformation of food systems is urgently needed,” she said. “Critical policy shifts are necessary to support sustainable food systems and to improve our prospects for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Responding to questions, her colleague Bernard Lehmann, now chair of the Committee on World Food Security, High Level Panel of Experts (Jenifer is now vice-chair) indicated the importance of civil society in putting agency and sustainability at centre stage to address global food security. “Agency” refers to people’s ability to realize their preferences about how food is produced, processed, transported and consumed, essentially, how democratic food systems are or are not.

Professor Cheikh Mbow, the director general of the Centre de Suivi Ecologique — the leading regional centre in West Africa working on the application of geoinformatics for environmental sustainability — reinforced these points, providing an African perspective on food security in the context of climate change.

He was unequivocal about the urgency of the work required to bring food security “back from the brink” of major crisis.

“We need action,” he said. “The window for action is getting smaller and the target of 2030 is just around the corner, so we need to act now.”

He spoke further of the benefits of diversifying crop production in the region, including widespread cultivation of traditional crops and varieties, and of expanding agroforestry systems to raise productivity and resilience rather than relying on increasing quantities of agricultural inputs, such as pesticides and fertilizers.

Conserving biodiversity will be key to ensuring the functioning of global food systems into the future and it was this challenge that Professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London, addressed. He was blunt in his assessment.

“Biodiversity loss is here,” he said. “We estimated in the [Intergovernmental Science–Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services] global assessment that there are currently a million species of animals and plants that are threatened with extinction…We’ve already had 700 vertebrates and 500 plants extinct in the last 500 years but that’s nothing compared to what’s coming down the track unless we change course. But it isn’t only, or even mostly, about threatened species and species dying out.”

With this, the world should concentrate on protecting hotspot areas for loss of species, that is, those with high endemism, meaning they are home to a lot of species that are not found elsewhere.

“From a human wellbeing perspective”, he said, “we depend on functioning ecosystems and the biodiversity that is necessary for those ecosystems to function, for which a biodiversity intactness index, that measures the percentage of natural biodiversity still remaining, is relevant.”

He articulated the need to have various biodiversity goals set out at different scales: for species, ecosystems, genes and ecosystem services.

“There is no single target that will safeguard biodiversity,”  he said, rather, “we need to have an ambitious set of targets that are joined-up and coherent.”

One action that addresses multiple biodiversity goals at the same time is to focus on protecting areas that are species-rich with high endemism and high carbon storage, many of which are forests.

It is both urgent and prudent to start doing this now because the costs of delay are large. For example, drawing on forthcoming work to be published with his colleague Adriana de Palma, he pointed out that “delaying action on deforestation for a decade would increase the area requiring restoration by nearly 70% and more than double the cost of achieving the same biodiversity targets by 2050.”

The stark reality is that “we literally can’t afford another decade of decline,” he said.

Systems ecologist Ranil Senanayake, who runs the Earth Restoration Foundation, next spoke about his work to help fund and incentivize restoration by creating greener value chains.

The Foundation’s novel biocurrency, LifeForce, quantifies positive externalities from actions such as planting trees, which currently deliver a range of benefits at no cost, such as capturing solar energy, cleaning groundwater, operative cooling, producing oxygen and capturing carbon.

“Basically, what we’re doing is working with farmers to underwrite them for the difficult period of maturing a tree so that they have an incentive to look after it over this time period,” Senanayake said.

He also shared his hopes to expand the project into quantifying the preservation and restoration of healthy soils and living biomass more generally.

Throughout the session, speakers alluded to the unequal ways in which environmental, economic and social crises impact upon different members of the global community.

During the final presentation, Susan Kaaria from African Women in Agricultural Research and Development zoomed in on gender inequalities within her field of expertise. She shared that there are gendered discrepancies at the grassroots’ level in terms of nutrition and access to productive resources, services and markets as well as within the upper echelons of organizations, including CIFOR-ICRAF itself. She offered several points for intervention, such as making sure that women’s voices and participation are centred in shaping policies at community level; pushing for policies that advance equal rights and access and are gender responsive; and ensuring that national institutions have the appropriate mechanisms to support this kind of transformation.

One key element that came up in discussion is the apparent conflict of operating at global and local scales. Clearly, local action is required to have global impact but, also, because some wealthier countries tend to outsource their impacts on the planet to the developing world through importing a large proportion of their food and timber, global understanding is paramount to arriving at equitable policies and financing action to address global challenges.

Operating across nested scales is required, with due attention to context specific solutions that contribute to addressing global challenges while meeting local wellbeing needs.

In his closing remarks, Robert Nasi, managing director of CIFOR-ICRAF, said that “it was time to move on from focusing on what needs to be done — that is well understood — to focus on how to do it”, which is why CIFOR-ICRAF’s strategy is framed around developing actionable solutions.

This insight-rich opening session paved the way for an intense week of in-depth debate on CIFOR-ICRAF’s current research and the extent to which it is delivering actionable solutions that address the global challenges.

For more information on this topic, please contact Fergus Sinclair at
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