2020 Annual Report Agricultural research should restore our landscapes and enhance - not degrade - ecosystem services

View of farmland and forest in rural Kenya

View of farmland and forest in rural Kenya, during a flight to Marsabit in the north of the country.

Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Our researchers work across disciplines to make sustainable the landscapes that underpin food production.

In response to persistent famines in the early 20th century, global agricultural research focused on increasing food production. But with the successes and drawbacks of the Green Revolution, which boosted food availability globally, research priorities changed

Historically, agricultural research focused on improving food production and increasing yields. But this often came at the cost of building healthy, resilient systems, threatening food quality, output levels and ecosystems.

Today, agriculture accounts for 75% of the water used by humans and covers almost 40% of the Earth’s habitable land. About 23% of human-created greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and other land use, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. 

Even more worryingly, 25 –30% of food produced is lost or wasted. Projections between 2010 and 2050 show that if we continue to produce food the way we do now, the negative environmental effects of the food system could increase by 50–90%, reaching levels beyond the planetary boundaries considered safe for humanity. 

While agriculture has driven widespread degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change, urgent action can curb this trend. Agriculture that enhances nature must be at the forefront.

Farmers preparing the fields in Barotse floodplain

Building back better, from the ground up 

When properly managed, agriculture can improve food systems, provide ecosystem services, be a global carbon sink and positively impact water quality and quantity. 

With appropriate investments in land restoration and sustainable land management, economic returns from restored ecosystem services could be 3-6 times the initial investment. Many sustainable land management practices can become profitable within three to 10 years, according to the IPCC.

Throughout the history of the CGIAR centers that formed the Alliance, our multidisciplinary work has focused on advancing our knowledge of soil, crop, water and biodiversity, while understanding the socio-economic drivers of sustainable land-use decisions. 

We have helped farmers manage nutrients to meet increasing crop demand, manage soil biodiversity and enhance natural resource use among communities across different landscapes around the world. We have pioneered environmental, agricultural and socio-economic research. 

Our work on environmental incentives such as Payment for Environmental Services for agrobiodiversity and water conservation is a central component of our environmental economics research, which focuses on boosting crop productivity and managing whole landscapes for multiple environmental and socio-economic benefits.


Cabbage field in Sa Pa, Lao Cai province, Vietnam.

Connecting the dots across scales

As food systems gain recognition as one of the strongest ways to optimize human health and environmental sustainability, we have connected our research with this bigger picture. Our research champions long-term land-use-based solutions that can contribute to the global and national priorities and the Sustainable Development Goals. 

In the Amazon, we developed tools to assist firefighters in anticipating the severity of fires, linked with real-time detection tools and guidance on severity for quick action. Our tools can advise which diverse tree species or seed sources regenerate forests in Colombia, guide land-use planning and water management negotiations in Ethiopia, and support zero-deforestation business models to address deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon

Today, our work continues to connect these dots. We collaborate with a wide network of global partners to pair biophysical and socio-economic sciences to restore degraded landscapes. Together, we build sustainable management strategies for partners, including farmers, through encouraging incentives for nature-positive agriculture. 

In the Asia-Pacific, together with our partners, we promote improved soil health and sustainable farming systems through our Common Microbial Biotechnology Platform. In Brazil, we facilitate an Amazon Partnership Platform to engage the private sector in biodiversity conservation investments. 

Our latest science also connects with global agendas on conservation, human health and climate change. It explores the complex nexus of biodiversity, food, health and water, addressed by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This contributes to assessments on how countries have advanced in achieving targets for sustainable land use and food systems. We also contribute to IPCC assessments on the causal linkages between land-use systems and climate change.

Aligned with the One CGIAR strategy, we will continue to deliver pioneering tools and provide transdisciplinary evidence to guide decision-making for land, water and ecosystem management. Our unique combination of scientific expertise contributes to technological innovations that deliver benefits to land managers, farmers, private companies and communities while maximizing socio-economic and environmental benefits from agricultural landscapes.

Research Highlight

Curbing land clearing for food production is vital to reverse biodiversity declines

Land-use change to feed people is the leading driver of biodiversity loss. Research shows that changing this relationship is necessary (and possible) if we are to reverse trends on biodiversity loss by 2050. This collaboration was part of the WWF’s 2020 Living Planet report and included Alliance research Fabrice DeClerck.

Read our press release and the original research article in Nature.



More Research Highlights

The complex relationship between deforestation and diet diversity in the Amazon

As increasing areas of the Amazonian rainforest become agricultural land, food access for local communities is changing. It appears that the intensification of agriculture has decreased diversity in diets. Read our press release and the research

Keeping tabs on greenhouse gas emissions from tropical deforestation and peatland loss

Research on forest loss and degradation in Cameroon and Indonesia, and peatland degradation in Peru, can help countries better quantify greenhouse gas emissions and guide emission-reduction targets under the Paris Agreement. Read our summary of the research.


Sustainable Amazon Businesses in Peru

This project in Peru develops sustainable business models, analyses context-specific factors that influence deforestation and examines greenhouse gas emissions in value chains. In collaboration with Germany’s International Climate Initiative (IKI), the project addresses positive economic, ecological and social impacts. 


Water planning for Honduras inspires action in other nations

Developed by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, CIAT and partners, the “Agua de Honduras” (Water of Honduras) platform is expanding from western Honduras to other regions. Its award-winning tool, AGRI (AGua para RIego, or Water for Irrigation), is now being used by development agencies in Central America, Ethiopia, Grenada, Kenya and Rwanda.


Sustainable intensification requires a focus on ecosystem services

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), soil health management has focused on increasing crop productivity and, to some extent, the economics and efficiencies of inputs. But sustainable intensification cannot occur without full integration of associated ecosystem services (ES). This review documents the current state of knowledge on ES in agricultural lands in SSA.


Alliance forest work grows with the trees

In Peru and Ecuador, the Alliance mapped how climate and land-use change is impacting 50 tree species, and recommended interventions for better restoration and conservation. Read more about our work on forests around the globe here.