How to unlock a global transition? Technical solutions exist to sequester soil carbon in every agro-ecological niche . And pioneer farmers and ranchers are making this work commercially. The puzzle is how to now transition entire food systems to favour such practices, so that they scale up. Evidence and technical expertise will not cajole the system into changing. Instead, leadership is needed to create an enabling environment from which change emerges. Year on year, we must nurture a movement, forge new coalitions, create incentives, experiment and learn, and sell the opportunity far and wide. When seeking system change on complex problems, the Systemcraft framework invites exploration of five dimensions (see figure) through which to build the collective and adaptive effort required for impact at scale. It prompts key insights as we ask, “what next?” in order to scale up carbon farming.
Change the incentives: It is farmers and ranchers who must adopt new practices, so they must be at the heart of any systemic transition. Their dominant practices result from a web of incentives, ranging from subsidies, to consumer expectations, the agronomic paradigm and supply chain structures. A tipping point will only occur when such incentives instead favour practices that sequester carbon. Ultimately, farms must be more profitable when they store rather than withdraw at the great carbon bank that is soil. At that point, the most successful farmers will be those who innovate the best mix of practices for their specific ecological and market context. This rewiring of incentives must reward agriculture that delivers public goods, rather than hides externalities such as for water, climate or health. There are countless levers for shifting incentives: subsidy reform; carbon markets; ESG investment, lower insurance premiums; product certification; affordable measurement and verification of soil carbon. Some can be advanced globally, but many will need national efforts.
Organise for collaboration: The current system is maintained by all its constituents – consumers, buyers, input providers, policymakers and scientists, with farmers and ranchers at the centre. A critical mass of these will need to collaborate in reforming the food system that is largely working for them. That requires focussed coordination, anchored in the farming community with a strong mandate across the food system. Resistance to change will come in silent and explicit forms, often with legitimate concerns. The soil carbon movement will need to anchor itself in well-resourced, trusted backbone organisations at national-level, networked together to enable learning and advocacy at a global-level.
Set the Direction: Structural inertia makes system change hard. It is more likely when collaborators unify their efforts behind a very specific agenda. Soil carbon sequestration provides a targeted focus through which to achieve much broader goals related to soil health and forging a more sustainable and inclusive food system. It also immediately implies a focus on those agro-ecological regions where the science, politics and economics all signal the greatest potential for sequestration. Can the soil carbon movement coalesce behind some measurable, achievable, time-bound targets in those geographies?
Harness collective intelligence: Changing our food system is full of risks and opportunities. There will be unintended consequences. Perhaps, for example, introducing rotational grazing forces some crop harvests to be grown on new land. Equally, innovations will emerge that deserve wide-scale adoption. Evidence and practice must dance together. A soil carbon movement must facilitate learning and communication across stakeholders and geographies to ensure positive net impacts for farmers, society and our ecosystem.
Make it matter: Our current food system is underpinned by an agricultural paradigm that emerged in the mid-20th Century, harnessing new breakthroughs in chemistry and engineering to affordably feed burgeoning urban populations. Carbon farming practices build from both indigenous and new 21st Century understanding of biological processes and how nature-based solutions work to sustain productive ecosystems at both farm-level and globally. Transitioning the food system requires a fundamental mindset shift to farming as ecological stewardship, in which food is grown in ways conducive to life. The pathway to system change will unfurl if the soil carbon movement draws in diverse stakeholders behind an inspiring narrative about the many benefits of a reimagined food system.