Increasing agricultural productivity, sustainably 

June 02, 2014

Where would you go to double food production on the planet? Joe Keenan, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Latin America, quizzed the audience of the May 9 Earth Day/Environmental Day speaking event at Cargill’s Hopkins/Minneapolis headquarters.

Keenan posed the question after positing that in 30 years, the world will need to produce twice as much food as it currently does to feed a rapidly increasing population.

“It turns out,” Keenan continued, “there aren’t many places that have the available arable land and enough water. But one place that has both of those is Latin America.”

Latin America is already the largest net food exporting region in the world, and in addition to its natural resources, the region has experienced farmers with the capacity to innovate and relatively strong institutions and markets.

Keenan was joined by David Cleary, Global Director for Agriculture, and Ricardo Sanchez, Latin America Food Security Director, to share a brief update on Cargill’s combined efforts with TNC in Latin America. As the head of TNC’s Latin American Conservation Council, (hyperlink) a group of business and political leaders working with TNC, Keenan also talked about his group’s strategies to support Latin America’s long-term goal of becoming the “bread basket of the world.”

The five strategies employed by the council are:

  1. Get habitat loss out of supply chains
  2. Use science-based input to define where food production can and should expand (“go/no-go” zones)
  3. Develop positive incentives to intensify production the right way (advocate for change, document lessons, propose reforms)
  4. Conduct market studies to gauge investor interest in sustainable food funds and other projects
  5. Increase producer access to sustainable intensification techniques and technologies, e.g. distribute study findings, provide training

Cargill has helped TNC over the past several years by implementing rules for its producers. For instance, Cargill does not accept soy from sources that contribute to deforestation. This policy has spread to other major food companies, and into legislation as well.

“The law started in Santarem due to Cargill and expanded,” Keenan said. “Cargill represents the most modern sector of agriculture in Brazil, so (Cargill’s actions) had an enormous psychological impact. Every major soy company in Brazil took on a no-tolerance policy.”

Thanks to those efforts, deforestation has been virtually eliminated in the Santarem area of Brazil and has decreased in other areas as well. In January 2010, Brazil made it mandatory for all rural properties to be mapped and registered through a government system known as CAR (Cadastro Ambiental Rural). In May 2014, the CAR registry for farmers who follow best practices and avoid deforestation became part of Brazil’s national law.

Other strategies to advance global food security, sustainably, as people eat higher-up on the food chain include sustainable cattle grazing techniques. TNC is identifying “Go Zones” - where cattle can graze, versus “No-Go Zones” - where grazing will disrupt the rainforest or produce new habitat loss.

TNC and its partners will continually develop approaches to increase sustainable agricultural production with minimal environmental impacts. Cleary noted that future direction may involve certifications and system-level approaches, rather than certifications for individual commodities.