In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions and broader environmental concerns, many countries are looking to improve the efficiency of agriculture while reducing their carbon footprint. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which curtailed exports of maize, wheat and cooking oil from two of the world’s key producers, has given this more impetus and raised broader concerns about global food security.

While many countries have moved to shore up supply chains and improve agreements with suppliers, some are also looking towards sustainable agriculture, or farming that is sustainable on an environmental, social and economic level. Although more sustainable methods of farming require higher labour costs, the UN Environment Programme estimates they have the potential to create up to 30% more jobs than conventional farming, noting that sustainably produced products generally command higher sale prices.

Sustainability Efforts

With MENA countries importing half of their food – and this figure reaching as high as 90% in the GCC – the region has been a leader among emerging markets in terms of adopting sustainable agriculture solutions and implementing new technologies. In 2020 Kuwait’s NOX Management teamed up with Hamburg-based agri-tech company &ever to open a commercial indoor vertical farm just outside Kuwait City. Spanning 3000 sq metres, the farm utilises internet-of-things sensors to digitally control seeding, germination, harvesting, temperature, humidity, emissions and air flow, which helps it use 90% less water and 60% less fertiliser in comparison to traditional methods of farming.

In 2021 Oman managed to fulfil 101% of its dates requirements and achieved self-sufficiency rates of 84% for milk, 58% for poultry meat, 52% for red meat, 66% for vegetables and 49% for fruits. To further boost these figures, Nitaj, the Oman Investment Authority’s food investment and development arm, announced plans to set up 23 new food-related ventures at a cost of around OR366m ($951.2m) between 2022 and 2026, creating an estimated 4100 new jobs.

Regenerative Agriculture

While incorporating many of the principles of sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture goes a step further by rehabilitating the environment to a state where it is able to naturally regrow food on its own. By increasing soil biodiversity and organic matter, regenerative agriculture renders soil more resilient, making it more capable of withstanding the impacts of severe weather events and long-term climate change.

According to a 2021 study by Bain & Company and Nature United, transitioning to regenerative agriculture could help farmers halve emissions and increase profits. However, the study cautioned that farmers would need four years on average to realise these benefits and would likely damage profitability during the transition. Another study, by the Ecdysis Foundation, found that farms with regenerative practices were 78% more profitable than conventional farming, thanks to lower input costs for seeds and fertilisers, as well as the ability to sell to more lucrative end markets.

To this end, in 2020 food and beverage giant Nestlé launched a regenerative agriculture plan to invest $1.3bn by 2025 to assist 500,000 farmers and 150,000 suppliers around the world improve soil, organic matter and fertility. The project aims to help farmers retain water and improve drainage, protect and restore biodiversity, and trap carbon. The company is also developing more environmentally friendly crops, including higher-yielding coffee and cocoa varieties, and is co-investing in their adoption by farmers in an effort to assume some of the costs and risks of the transition.

At the multilateral finance level, the Inter-American Development Bank is supporting projects to regrow pine and cacay trees in Colombia. It is hoped that the project will increase the yields of pine resin and cacay nuts, giving indigenous farmers new sources of income while helping mitigate the impact of deforestation.