Nine farmers. One researcher. One planet. How can we feed more people using the same earth?

You've already heard it hundreds of times: If we want to save the planet, we must change the way we live. We must drastically reduce our intake of meat and dairy products. Ideally, we should all stop flying, too. And the worst part is, it's really all true! A large part of the responsibility lies with us as individuals in the choices we make. But we have to tackle the systems themselves as well—not least of which is the food system. And here, perhaps the most important people are our farmers, who face the seemingly impossible task of producing food for more and more people, in the same amount of space, while reducing their climate impact. 

"Globally, we have already reached the limit on the amount of land that should be used for cultivation and food production"

Globally, we have already reached the limit on the amount of land that should be used for cultivation and food production—while the population is expected to increase to 10 billion people by 2050.

So we have to act. Farmers, politicians, researchers and businesses alike. Adam Arnesson at Jannelund’s Farm in Mullhyttan, southern Sweden, is well on the way. Since 2015, he has been involved in a research project that is showing very promising results. By increasing the proportion of vegetables grown, his farm has reduced its carbon footprint by half, and is now able to feed twice as many people. Adam has also managed to maintain Jannelund's biodiversity and open landscapes.

We will come back to Adam. But first, we need to state that it takes more than a single farmer to have a farming revolution. Many more are needed. But we had to start somewhere, so together with Elin Röös, researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), we launched the Farmer Seeking Farmers initiative in 2019 as an invitation to farmers to participate in developing sustainable agriculture within the framework of an EU-funded research project (UNISECO). The only requirement was that the farmers have some form of livestock production, were willing to increase their proportion of crops for human consumption (i.e. plants that people can eat) and were prepared to stick with it for at least three years.

Choosing among the over 100 farmers that registered, we ended up with our final nine optimistic farmers. And in spring 2019, the project kicked off!

Now it might sound like we took this all a little too lightly. After all, we're talking about a total change in land use, with completely different requirements, and investments already made. But there is a plan, and for the participants, we hope this can be what they call in management terms a ”win-win” situation. While helping to save the planet, farmers are also given the opportunity to build an economy that looks to the future. Demand for plant-based foods is only set to increase, and in time, politics (and perhaps the subsidies) will also manage to keep up. 

The Farmer Seeking Farmers project will be completed in autumn 2021, and the results will be compiled and used for new projects, hopefully led by farmers such as Adam, the Swedish project ambassador. 

“The challenge is mostly yourself.”

Back to the planetary caretaker. Eco farmer. Twitter farmer… Back to Adam Arnesson from Mullhyttan, Sweden, who has been called a lot of things, since he is not the typical farmer who fights in silence. In fact, he didn't even want to be a farmer when he was a kid.

But a thought grew in Adam's mind while he was studying. An idea to manage the family farm and put his own stamp on it. In the ‘90s, his mum Berit and dad Thomas adapted the farm to meet the requirements of Swedish KRAV. Adam himself witnessed the change all over—from the ditches to the air, among the flowers and the bees. But now it was time to take the next step.

“As I see it, sustainable agriculture is about so much more than just producing food. It unites everything. Biodiversity, pollination, clean water... As a farmer, you’re responsible for a whole ecosystem. So if you have animals, they can be seen not only as meat, but as a way of taking care of the planet, too. The meat then becomes a by-product, so to speak,” Adam explains.

Hence the label of “planetary caretaker”. And if you see yourself as such (which sounds like a sensible thing in light of the climate crisis), then the big challenge lies in producing even more food using the same surface area, but without compromising on sustainability.

“As a farmer, you’re responsible for a whole ecosystem.”

The main idea was to increase the proportion of vegetable crops for human consumption (i.e. food that people can eat). So Adam started using his land in a slightly different way. One section grows peas and legumes, another vegetables. And the oats that had previously gone to the animals now go into making oatmilk instead.

“It went pretty much as we'd hoped. We doubled the amount of food in calories coming out of the farm and reduced the carbon footprint by half. At the same time, we’ve managed to maintain biodiversity and keep the landscapes open.”

Fantastic results from a climate perspective—although, of all people, it’s farmers who know what the concept of economic reality means. And this too is looking positive, as Adam now has more money in his pocket. At the same time, diversification (i.e. not putting all his eggs in one basket) has meant less risk—a must for other farmers looking to follow in his footsteps.

“If we’re now going to take the step towards more vegetable crop production, we need to know which crops we’re going to grow, how best to grow them and make sure we’re paid fairly for them. We also need to build up knowledge about new crops. This means that companies developing the products become extremely important. We need to work together more and share the risks.”