A consumer-driven approach to incentivise positive agriculture outcomes at scale

A proposal for change: How/why the global food system could incentivise farmers and landowners to demonstrate positive environmental outcomes collectively.

By Antony Wyborn, Non-Executive Director Eco Detection

To meet today’s stringent environmental requirements, multinational food companies and retailers must demonstrate sustainable food and fibre procurement to regulators and environmentally conscious consumers.

A scalable market-based solution to reverse environmental degradation could be to implement a differential pricing strategy for raw agricultural commodities that financially incentivises and rewards innovation of farming management practices that produce positive environmental outcomes at the scale of large catchment hydrology areas – globally. This would entice positive management changes to be directed by the hyper-local community of farmers and landowners at the catchment level.

Increasingly, it’s understood that the best way to evaluate the sustainability of a large land area is by monitoring the yearly trend in Water Pollution Load at the catchment level. This is because land is three-dimensional, and water is a universal solvent influenced by gravity, so it can dissolve and transport many substances, such as nutrient pollution downstream, allowing scientists and engineers to map a holistic assessment of the overall upstream ecosystem and soil health.

The problem: Environmental experts recognise that over half of the world’s species reside in soil, making it the singular most biodiverse habitat on Earth. A correctly functioning, healthy soil ecosystem is adept at recycling nutrients internally, significantly reducing or even minimising nutrient loss through leaching – a stark contrast to the current leaching issues on conventionally farmed agricultural soils.

To address this, the global food system can utilise its marketplace influence to incentivise farming management practices that regenerate and enhance nutrient/carbon recycling efficiency at scale. Currently, both industries lack financial incentives to demonstrate a measurable yearly reduction in nutrient pollution runoff or leaching that’s causing soil and environmental degradation at the catchment ecosystem level. I propose the following concept to address this challenge effectively.

The four key stakeholders needed to create change.

  • Government’s role – Verifying annual water catchment measurements:

Verified catchment measurements can be archived by hydrologists placing in-situ measurement technology at specific locations throughout a catchment to directly measure key freshwater parameters (chemistry) and water flow in near real-time.

By leveraging high-frequency autonomous technology over traditional once-a-month physical water sampling and modelling, a far superior annual baseline can be created to facilitate sustainable food and fibre procurement decision-making at scale.

  • Multinational corporations – An opportunity to incentivise positive environmental outcomes at scale through sustainable sourcing of commodities:

To mitigate the risk of green-washing and stand by sustainability claims, corporations should be encouraged to seek and promote raw commodities in their supply chain that are sourced from specific geographical locations worldwide.

Locations that can demonstrate a continuous improvement in their hydrological catchment area with a verified annual percentage baseline reduction in metric tons of total dissolved inorganic nitrogen and dissolved reactive phosphorus (otherwise known as nutrient pollution) that is discharged, leached or runoff into its catchment surface freshwater.

For example, if a dairy, grain, meat, or vegetable product could be proven to be, grown, fed and sourced from within an improving freshwater catchment ecosystem, it would demonstrate positive environmental land stewardship at scale and would be perceived as a premium product by the environmentally conscious consumer.

Furthermore, multinational food corporations could financially incentivise farmers/growers collectively by incorporating a differential pricing strategy for raw agricultural commodities that factors in environmental outcomes at the catchment ecosystem level from which these commodities are sourced. In other words, commodities sourced from environmentally improving catchments would command a premium farm gate price.

That way, the collective power of landowners/growers/farmers/industry is incentivised from the ground up to eco-innovate and improve their catchment ecosystem health outcomes at scale, not just for ethical and regulatory reasons (nature-related risks) – but for economic reasons.

  • Catchment stakeholders – Farmers, growers, and landowners:

My theory is that just like the Champagne region in France, landowners, and local councils (who are commonly the most influential) would vigorously lobby, defend and protect their catchment ecosystem to ensure no further environmental land degradation occurred if a monetary value was attached to their farm gate commodity prices.

More importantly, they would take active measures to collectively manage and improve their soil’s organic carbon, biodiversity and overall ecosystem health by fostering regenerative agriculture principles at scale. In turn, this would reduce their GHG emissions and enhance freshwater quality, as our most extensive natural water filtration system is a correctly functioning healthy soil ecosystem.

  • Consumers – Economic buying power harnessed to support the land:

By sharing easy-to-understand information (advertising and labelling on consumer-packaged goods / FMCG), consumers would now have the option to be proactive in choosing food and fibre products sourced from improving catchment ecosystems. This will enable an environmentally positive feedback loop between the farmer, growers collective, and consumers at scale – leading to innovation in agricultural management practices that produce net positive, measurable environmental outcomes, utilising economic efficiency of scale.

Furthermore, socially/politically, this approach could effectively address society’s paradoxical situation where farmers in the Western world are often blamed for environmental land degradation. But at the same time, it is the economic purchasing power of society at large that can indirectly support detrimental agricultural and ecological outcomes playing out at scale.

The graph below is from a 25,000 HA sub-catchment in New Zealand. This data was captured by place-in-situ measurement technology. It clearly shows (in red) the daily fluctuation in nitrate load (pollution) in kilograms exiting this catchment. Implementing autonomous measurement technology directly in the field is essential to obtain accurate data instead of relying on once-a-month sampling and modelling of pollution load.

Thank you for taking the time to read this concept.

Note: I’ve used the term ‘catchment’ (some might use sub-catchment, basin or watershed). This means any large area of land (at scale) in which hydrologists, scientists and engineers can accurately measure the total annual Nutrient Pollution Load discharged/leached into surface freshwater.

Views expressed are my own. I am curious about creating a positive feedback loop in the agriculture sector that benefits the environment, society, and economy.

If you have any questions, please get in touch: antony.wyborn@ecodetection.com