David CLEARY

Global Agriculture Director, The Nature Conservancy

Our conservation mission rests on the need to meet growing global food system demands in ways which do not require significant agricultural expansion. Our targets are ambitious: reducing nutrient run-off in the Mississippi Basin by 20 per cent, or channeling all cropland expansion in the Brazilian Cerrado into land already cleared. Targets at that scale require coalitions.

To contain agricultural expansion, we need strong protection strategies coupled with continued productivity growth in agriculture and food systems on existing working lands. While global productivity growth has been relatively high over the past several decades, it has had unintended consequences:  highly degraded soils, overuse and pollution of freshwater, high GHG emissions, and an agricultural production system overly dependent on agrochemicals. While sustainable intensification is a goal, the historical reality is that unsustainable intensification has been more common. But that is no reason to give up on the goal.

 

We seek to make sustainable intensification real through four interlocking strategies:
 

  • Protecting critical habitat: channeling expansion into less sensitive areas for habitat protection while negotiating agreements for large scale protection of the most critical areas.

  • Restoring degraded land: restoring working landscapes by increasing the adoption of soil health strategies with more precise and integrated nutrient, pest and grazing management practices.

  • Securing freshwater: source water protection with nature-based solutions and aligning market and policy signals at the basin and sub-basin level.

  • Unlocking natural climate solutions: driving greater investment into both climate mitigation and adaptation management practices in agriculture.

 

Plant nutrition, nutrient management and the fertilizer industry are relevant to every one of these strategies, making engagement with the sector central to our mission.

 

While there are multiple routes to scaling, all of them require the largest corporate agriculture, food and water utility actors to “buy in” at some level to the activities called for in our strategies.  Some companies can and will block elements of these strategies if they judge them to be against their vital business interests.  We actively work to anticipate and reduce these situations through constructive engagement.  Other companies may see unique business opportunities aligned with our conservation goals.  There we seek to cultivate select companies to invest in ways which will accelerate the strategies and unlock scaling of outcomes.  In either case, companies may not have significant in-house expertise on conservation impacts, or may struggle to relate them to traditional business development and investment processes. TNC has staff across the world who can help address these needs.

 

Given our sustainable intensification approach, TNC seeks to work with the fertilizer industry in a way that maximizes benefits and minimizes negative impacts.  By articulating the multiple sources of value from new solutions benefiting soil health, habitat protection, and resource use efficiency, we seek to expand the toolkit available to farmers in the face of climate change and other challenges. We can also lower the barriers facing farmers looking to adopt sustainable practices, such as 4R nutrient management practices and the targeted approaches central to precision agriculture, whether in smallholder systems or industrial agriculture.

 Our view is that the full potential of 4R type nutrient management approaches is realized as part of a broader array of management practices, at both farm and landscape levels. We see 4R not only as a stand-alone strategy, but part of an integrated package to be combined with some or all of an arsenal including cover cropping, reduced tillage, including crop residues and roots in soil management, filter strips, water management and diversified crop rotations.

 

Examples of collaboration with the sector underway include:
 

  • Working with TFI to start, grow and scale 4R nutrient management and certification in US croplands, as a central part of our target to reduce nutrient run-off into US waters by 20 per cent. It currently covers the western Lake Erie basin, Ohio, New York, Ontario, and Florida (launching the week of the IFA conference). It is under construction in Minnesota, Missouri and Indiana.

  • Company level collaborations with Mosaic (Florida and elsewhere) and CFI (mainly Iowa). These are examples of leveraging partnerships to advance an integrated package of “4R plus”: nutrient management in combination with conservation agriculture

  • Scoping and institutional mapping for future nutrient management work in East Africa and China

  • Inclusion of targeted nutrient strategy in recovery of degraded pastures for cropland expansion in the Brazilian Cerrado

  • Building out a nutrient strategy within a broader regenerative agriculture approach for Latin America: HAS – Healthy Agricultural Systems.

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