Special Issue: The actions needed for sustainable food and land use systems

The Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land-Use and Energy (FABLE) Consortium's publication in Sustainability Science collects insights from 20 countries.

Authors: Sarah Jones, Katya Perez-Guzman, Paula Harrison, and Adrian Monjeau.


• Sustainable futures for food and land use systems are only possible with coordinated, major efforts around the world in the next decade.

• Local researchers from 20 countries applied FABLE's modeling tools and participatory approaches in different ways to identify country-specific pathways to sustainable futures.

• Policymakers need to introduce stronger incentives for consumers and businesses to shift their consumption and production patterns in line with these pathways.

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Ambitious actions are urgently needed to shift food and land use systems to a sustainable future

The Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land-Use and Energy (FABLE) Consortium members from 88 institutes and 20 countries have worked together to produce a FABLE Special Issue, a series of 14 peer-reviewed papers presenting the science and solutions from FABLE’s work to find pathways to sustainable food and land use systems. These pathways focus on conserving and restoring natural ecosystems, shifting diets, improving agricultural productivity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and less resource-intensive consumption patterns.

The editorial (Jones et al. 2023) synthesizes findings across the FABLE Special Issue papers. These include an overview of FABLE’s conceptual framework (Mosnier et al. 2022) and identification of sustainable food and land use system pathways in Argentina (Frank et al., 2022), Australia (Navarro Garcia et al., 2022), Sweden (Basnet et al., 2023), Canada (Zerriffi et al., 2022), China (Wang et al., 2022), Finland (Lehtonen et al., 2022), Germany (Rasche et al., 2022), India (Jha et al., 2022, Mexico (González-Abraham et al., 2022), Rwanda (Perez-Guzman et al., 2023, the UK (Smith and Harrison et al., 2022), and USA Wu et al., 2022).

The FABLE Special Issue shows that more ambitious actions are urgently needed to meet national and global sustainability targets on climate, biodiversity, freshwater use, and food security. Under current trends, none of the 12 countries participating in the special issue can reach their sustainability targets.

To meet Paris Agreement targets, deforestation must stop, and greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including the agriculture, forestry, and land use sector, must fall drastically by 2030. At the same time, meeting the provisional post-2020 global biodiversity goal of halting and reversing biodiversity loss requires a sharp increase in the area of natural ecosystems where biodiversity can thrive, through stronger conservation and restoration actions. Our current food and land use systems are a major source of greenhouse gasses and a root driver of biodiversity loss, while we live in a world where millions of people are not yet food secure and nutrition-related diseases are widespread.

This special issue shows which actions would wholly or partially achieve the unprecedented changes that are required to get food and land use systems on track. FABLE member Sarah Jones (the Alliance of Bioversity International and-CIAT), who led the special issue, explains: “We see that the same key leverage points are identified in multiple countries, such as shifting diets, improving agricultural productivity, decarbonising agriculture, and restoring large land areas back to nature. FABLE’s research is showing us that the goal of keeping the planet livable for our children is still within reach with a major, concerted effort. But if we stick to current policies, we will fail.”

Advancing tools for simultaneously achieving food, climate and biodiversity targets

The FABLE Consortium was created to foster cross-sector and cross-country understanding and learning, knowledge sharing, collaborations, and momentum, to strive to achieve our collective vision of a sustainable food and land use system. The collection of papers in the special issue introduces FABLE’s unique participatory, integrated modeling approach and tools.

These tools enable country teams to develop pathways for transitioning to sustainable food and land use that are tailored to local priorities.The papers show how collectively these pathways contribute to global sustainability objectives taking account of implications for international trade in commodities (Figure 1).

Figure 1: FABLE’s modeling approach in a nutshell (from Mosnier et al. 2022, Figure 2)

The special issue papers each make a unique contribution to advancing food system sustainability knowledge. For example, Rasche et al. (2022) and Smith and Harrison (2022) showcase different ways to elicit and include stakeholders’ feedback into sustainability pathways. Frank et al. (2022), Wang et al. (2022), Navarro Garcia et al. (2022) and Basnet et al. (2023) present methodological advances to extend the reach and policy relevance of FABLE’s food system models. While González-Abraham et al. (2022), Jha et al. (2022), Lehtonen et al. (2022), Perez-Guzman et al. (2023), Zerriffi et al. (2022) and Wu et al. (2022) explore ways to manage country-specific trade-offs and synergies across sustainability objectives.

FABLE member and co-lead on the Special Issue, Adrian Monjeau (CONICET & Fundación Bariloche, Argentina), explains: ‘For FABLE work in Argentina, we co-developed with multi-sector national stakeholders scenarios for future food and land use systems. We linked these scenarios with land use allocation tools to provide policymakers with maps showing how to actually implement some of the land use planning options that could help Argentina meet its food security, biodiversity and climate goals’.

Taking a different approach, the FABLE Rwanda team used FABLE tools to explore how implementation of Rwanda’s national development plan, Vision 2050, would impact on national sustainability targets. FABLE member and co-lead on the Special Issue, Katya Perez-Guzman (IIASA, Austria) found that in Rwanda, ‘shifting to healthier diets is best when it is compatible with national production of crops that underpin Rwandan livelihoods. However, these crops may not promote the healthy balance of micronutrients that Rwanda citizens need, so it is important to carry out cross-sectoral integrated analysis such as the one included in FABLE’s Special Issue to find the best balance between livelihoods, food security, nutrient intake and sustainability’ (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Rwanda’s current food consumption is highly dependent on goods important for livelihoods, but with differentiated impacts on food security and sustainability, such as bananas, cassava, and potatoes, shown in this picture. (Source: Photo 19287659 / Rwanda © Antonella865 | Dreamstime.com).

Stimulating dialogue for integrated, co-developed solutions

The major actions that are needed to transform food and land use systems will require behavior changes by governments, companies, civil society, communities and individuals. The FABLE special issue provides insights as to how FABLE’s participatory approach can foster cross-sector dialogue, understanding and cooperation, strengthening the foundation for change. This multi-sector stakeholder engagement ensures that the pathways tested are of interest to relevant stakeholders and are thus more likely to be implemented.

For example, FABLE member and co-lead on the Special Issue, Paula Harrison explains that ‘iterative engagement with stakeholders in the UK ensured that the pathways fit well with current government policy and future policy aspirations, maximizing their usefulness to policy development. This dialogue is fostering a step change in policy design where high quality evidence is central to developing integrated solutions for a sustainable future.’

Read the articles:

The issue was released as part of Sustainability Science, Volume 18, issue 1. Our new FABLE Special Issue explores these and other findings emerging from FABLE’s work. The specific articles can be accessed at the following links:

Jones et al. (2023) Integrated modeling to achieve global goals: lessons from the Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land-use, and Energy (FABLE) initiative. Editorial for the Special Issue.

Here, we discuss the key leverage points, methodological advances, and multi-sector engagement strategies presented and applied in this collection of work to set countries and our planet on course for achieving food security, biodiversity, freshwater, and climate targets by 2050.

Mosnier et al. (2022) How can diverse national food and land-use priorities be reconciled with global sustainability targets? Lessons from the FABLE initiative.

Here, we present a collaborative approach developed with the FABLE—Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land, and Energy—Consortium to reconcile both global and national elements for developing national food and land-use system pathways. This approach strengthens policy coherence and highlights where greater national and international ambition is needed to achieve global goals (e.g., the SDGs).

Basnet et al. (2022) Organic agriculture in a low-emission world: exploring combined measures to deliver a sustainable food system in Sweden.

In this study, we developed two scenarios to evaluate the role of organic farming in the broader context of Swedish food systems. Our findings show that expanding organic farming in the Base scenarios increases the use of cropland and agricultural emissions by 2050 compared to the 2010 reference year.

Frank et al. (2022) A multi-model approach to explore sustainable food and land use pathways for Argentina.

Here, we present mid-century food and land-use system pathways to achieve biodiversity, freshwater use, food production and greenhouse gas emission targets, co-developed with the government, research and civil society stakeholders. Preliminary results suggest Argentina is well suited to meet multiple SDGs, provided businesses, civil society and government agree to several key commitments, including completely halting deforestation, promoting afforestation and reforestation, and increasing agricultural productivity to spare natural lands.

González-Abraham et al. (2022) Long-term pathways analysis to assess the feasibility of sustainable land-use and food systems in Mexico.

We generate national-level land-use pathways to mid-century in terms of agricultural production, land use change dynamics, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and availability of land supporting biodiversity under varying assumptions of national policy and productivity changes. Results suggest that Mexico can feasibly adopt a sustainable land-use pathway that provides adequate nutrition for the population by 2050, limit agricultural expansion, reduce GHG emissions, and expand forested lands.

Lehtonen et al. (2022) Development towards low carbon and sustainable agriculture in Finland is possible with moderate changes in land use and diets.

This paper aims to show how agriculture in Finland, traditionally dominated by livestock production, could decrease GHG emissions significantly and simultaneously respond to other sustainability concerns. We conclude that transition to low carbon and more sustainable agriculture is possible without risking food security at northern latitudes.

Jha et al. (2022) Pathway to achieve a sustainable food and land-use transition in India.

In this paper, we construct three potential pathways for India to achieve its emissions target by 2050 involving differentiated ambitions of mitigation action. The exercise reveals the indispensability of healthy diets, improved crop, and livestock productivity, and net-zero deforestation in achieving India’s mid-century emission targets from the agriculture sector.

Navarro García et al. (2022) Multi-target scenario discovery to plan for sustainable food and land systems in Australia.

Here we use scenario discovery to systematically explore the effect of different parameter ranges on model outputs, and design resilient pathways to sustainability in which multiple target achievement requires a broad portfolio of solutions. The results suggest that there are options to achieve a more sustainable and resilient Australian food and land-use system with better socio-economic and environmental outcomes than under current trends.

Perez-Guzman et al. (2023) Sustainability implications of Rwanda’s Vision 2050 long-term development strategy.

Vision 2050 is Rwanda’s long-term development strategy, yet little is known about its potential trade-offs for the country’s biodiversity, forest cover, and GHG emissions. Shifts to a healthier diet in the Vision 2050 pathway would only be compatible with national agricultural priorities if these diets favor consumption of foods that underpin sustainable livelihoods in Rwanda, such as beans, cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, banana, and corn.

Rasche et al. (2022) A stakeholders’ pathway towards a future land use and food system in Germany.

This paper reports results from surveying different stakeholder groups on their opinions about realistic changes in the food and land use system in Germany up to 2050, developed four stakeholder pathways, and used an accounting tool to determine the effect of each pathway on indicators such as land use, GHG emissions, and biodiversity conservation potential. If followed, the common stakeholder pathway (based on all stakeholder responses) would lead towards a sustainable food and land use system, but only if the underlying assumption of a drastic diet change towards more plant-based products comes true. Stakeholders from the academic and public sectors were more likely to assume that such a change was realistic than stakeholders from the private sector.

Smith and Harrison et al. (2022) Sustainable pathways towards climate and biodiversity goals in the UK: the importance of managing land-use synergies and trade-offs.

This paper presents evidence from three pathways to mid-century that were co-created with UK policymakers. We highlight key trade-offs and synergies, which are important to consider for designing and implementing emerging national policies. These include the strong dependence of climate, food and biodiversity targets on dietary shifts, sustainable improvements in agricultural productivity, improved land-use design for protecting and restoring nature, and rapid reductions in food loss and waste.

Wang et al. (2022) Reforming China’s fertilizer policies: implications for nitrogen pollution reduction and food security.

Here, we use an agro-economic land system model (MAgPIE) in combination with a difference-in-differences econometric model to provide a forward-looking assessment of China’s fertilizer policies in terms of removing fertilizer manufacturing subsidies and implementing measures to improve agricultural nutrient management efficiency. Our model results indicate that enhancing soil N uptake efficiency and manure recycled to soil alongside fertilizer subsidy removal can largely reduce N fertilizer use and N losses and abate N pollution in the short and long term, while food security remains largely unaffected.

Wu et al. (2022) Contributions of healthier diets and agricultural productivity toward sustainability and climate goals in the United States.

Here, we explore the GHG emissions impacts of seven scenarios that vary U.S. crop yields and healthier diets in the U.S. and overseas. Our findings suggest that healthy U.S. diets can significantly contribute toward meeting U.S. long-term climate goals for the land use sectors.

Zerriffi et al. (2022) Pathways to sustainable land use and food systems in Canada.

This paper reports on the use of a model for Canada’s land use to 2050 to assess three different pathways. The results show not only the importance of increasingly stringent policies in meeting the targets, but also the role that population and consumption (e.g., diets) play in meeting the targets.

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