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Why We Need a Just Rural Transition

The urgently needed transformations in food and land-use systems to address and adapt to climate change must meaningfully engage food producers and rural communities by placing justice, equity, and rural livelihoods at the center of their efforts
Farmer using enabling technology to improve rice growth and disease prevention, Thailand. (photo by Tawanroong via Shutterstock)

This publication is part of a series of commentaries authored by advisory group members of the Just Transition Initiative (JTI). This series highlights the diverse perspectives and expertise of the JTI advisory group on different aspects of the low-carbon transition and its implications for equitable development.

The IPCC report last month was a distressing reminder that human activity is causing irreversible change to the planet on a devastating scale—the effects of which are already impacting the most vulnerable populations.

Much of the focus tends to fall on the energy sector, and issues such as fossil fuel divestments, the elimination of subsidies, and the promotion of renewable energy technologies. The significant social and economic impacts arising from such policies and investments have provided the rationale for the concept of a just transition.

 But with food, agriculture, and land use responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions, just transition pathways for food systems are also needed. This is important for many reasons and goes beyond the need to address emissions.  Research shows that growth in food and agriculture is 2–4 times more effective at reducing poverty than growth in other sectors. Agriculture workers and their dependents currently make up two thirds of the 740 million people facing extreme poverty. The impact of the global pandemic, changing weather patterns, degraded soils, water scarcity, biodiversity loss, lack of labor, and changing market demands are among a growing list of complex challenges faced by our food producers that require both locally-tailored and systemic solutions. 

This isn’t just about addressing the growing social inequality between urban and rural populations and ensuring food producers have living incomes.  It’s a prerequisite for addressing one of the most pressing challenges of this coming decade—providing nutritious, affordable food for a growing global population while protecting the vital natural systems that sustain life. 

Despite all the technological advances of the past century, around two billion people still suffer from food and nutrition insecurity. With the global population projected by the United Nations (UN) to rise to 10 billion by 2050, the pressure on our lands, seas, and natural resources will continue to grow. 

We all stand to benefit from resilient, sustainable food and land-use systems that provide a wide range of nutritious, affordable food.  But this will only come about if we focus our collective efforts on the role of food producers and accelerate a just rural transition.  We need fair processes and fair outcomes. Fair processes mean that food producers have a meaningful say in the future being envisioned. Fair outcomes mean the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the transition are equitable, not regressive.

The Just Rural Transition Initiative (JRT) was launched at the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 to address these challenges at the global, national, and local levels. A multistakeholder community, JRT has focused its efforts to date on three key enablers—each of which can unlock significant opportunities to accelerate a just rural transition.  

Repurposing policies and public support to food and agriculture

The global food and agriculture sector receives more than USD720 billion in public support each year, but much of this is not currently geared toward addressing the mounting challenges faced by food producers described above. The majority of public support through price incentives, for example, goes towards commodities that have high greenhouse gas footprints, such as beef, milk, and rice. Unlike fossil fuel subsidies, the focus of the campaign is not elimination, but the repurposing of public support to food and agriculture. The improved targeting of public support and incentives for producers help improve food and nutrition security, strengthen soil and water quality, increase biodiversity, build resilience, and mitigate climate change, therefore delivering better outcomes for people, nature, and climate.

There is growing evidence from countries on how this can work in practice.  In 2015, to mitigate emissions from the overapplication of fertilizers, the Indian government began requiring 75 percent of urea—a nitrogen fertilizer—to be sold with a coating of neem oil. This offered the potential to improve nitrogen-use efficiency and boost crop yields. Costa Rica uses an incentive-based conservation approach involving the transfer of money to farmers that is conditioned on improvements in ecosystem services (such as clean water, healthy soils, or increased biodiversity). Switzerland’s 2014–2017 Agricultural Policy reallocated per-hectare and per-animal-head payments toward direct payments in support of biodiversity targets with positive results.

This year, as part of the UN Food Systems Summit and the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) Nature Campaign, JRT has supported engagement with over 40 governments, UN agencies, food producer organizations, among others, to share knowledge and experiences, as well as build momentum around the opportunity for repurposing public support.  The Policy Action Agenda for a Transition to Sustainable Food and Agriculture sets out pathways and actions countries can take to repurpose public policies and enable a just rural transition, while providing opportunities for other stakeholders to channel their expertise, knowledge, and resources.

Ensuring rural communities’ resource and land tenure rights

There is strong evidence that protected areas managed by indigenous peoples and rural communities are better at protecting forests and preserving biodiversity than areas managed by governments alone. These local communities invest over USD1 billion of their own resources into forest management and conservation, especially where their tenure is secure.

Whilst these groups currently manage 65 percent of the world’s land under customary tenure, only 18 percent is formally recognized by governments. Around 20 percent of adults in the rural areas of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean feel insecure about their land rights. Therefore, it is essential that governments formally recognize the land tenure and resource rights of these communities to enable them to fulfill their role in transforming our food and land use systems. Such actions can pay dividends. In Guatemala, for example, indigenous Mayan communities, who were granted rights to 350K hectares of forests in 1995, have enlarged the net coverage of forests, increased several species, and created over 7,000 jobs through their restoration efforts.

The JRT has convened an expert Working Group on Land Tenure, Social Equity and Inclusion, consisting of leaders representing major nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and coalitions, UN Supporting Bodies, indigenous peoples’ organizations, and the World Bank, among others. The collaborative consultation process in June 2021 led to the publication of a new brief—“Land Tenure in a Just Rural Transition: Restoring Our Relationships to Land and Natural Resources”. It made the case for why just and equitable land tenure should be the centerpiece of a just rural transition by drawing on the partners’ research, evidence, and case studies.

Investing in the transition

While public finance is important, the business and investment community also has a vital role to play. The Food and Land Use Coalition’s analysis has shown that additional annual investments of USD300–350 billion could cultivate an estimated USD4.5 trillion a year in sustainable business opportunities by 2030, generating prosperity for all food-system actors. Addressing this financing gap offers a chance to align markets with the natural, social, and economic systems on which they depend, as the world “builds back better” in its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In collaboration with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, JRT is working to ensure that financing reaches rural communities at the scale required. This is not only essential to meeting the world’s sustainable development challenges, but also offers investors a concrete opportunity to make Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) investing a reality. ESG funds, expected to increase threefold between now and 2025, can provide new business opportunities, augment increase supply chain resilience, and offer strategic ways for businesses to stay ahead of the curve.

An example of JRT’s work in accelerating financing solutions is our work on sustainable rice finance in collaboration with the Sustainable Rice Landscapes Initiative (SRLI)—a consortium whose members research, implement, and scale techniques that reduce the environmental impact of rice. Half the world’s population rely on rice as their main staple food, with the crop supporting an estimated 144 million smallholders worldwide. At the same time, rice production emits greenhouse gases at the level equivalent to that of the aviation industry. Balancing the need to reduce this global environmental impact, whilst maintaining production essential to diets and livelihoods, requires a landscape-level approach in which value-chain actors act in coordination. Working with partners, including FAO, Clarmondial, and the Sustainable Rice Platform, we have identified potential sustainable rice finance mechanisms and are bringing together public and private sector actors to co-develop these in specific contexts, thus promoting sustainable production whilst also supporting resilient rural livelihoods.

Toward a Just Food System of the Future

We have a significant opportunity to transform food and land use over the next 10 years. However, our efforts to transform these systems will falter if they neglect the social implications of this transition and fail to support food producers and rural communities in adapting and responding to new and diversified ways of working.  It’s time to listen to food producers and rural communities and place justice, equity, and rural livelihoods at the center of efforts to tackle the climate emergency.

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from the Resource Library

Actions to Transform Food Systems under Climate Change

This report identifies the current failures of the global food system and defines four areas in which it can be transformed to meet food and nutritional demands and combat climate change.


“This report identifies the current failures of global food systems in eliminating food insecurity, providing nutritious food, and mitigating climate change. The global food system is currently a major contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and fails to provide an adequate pathway to meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

To correct these food system failures, the authors recommend 11 transformative actions across four distinct categories: rerouting farming practices to eliminate GHG emissions and increase female and youth participation; de-risking farm livelihoods to increase resiliency against variable weather and extreme events; reducing emissions through dietary shifts and reductions in food waste; and realigning policies and finance to support social movements and spur innovation.

The costs of not reforming global food systems include increased food and nutrition insecurity, decreased smallholder participation, increased rural poverty, increased gender disparities and social inclusion, lost opportunities for rural youth, increased sensitivity to changing climate and extreme weather events, and loss of biodiversity.”

Potential of Climate-Smart Agriculture in Reducing Women Farmers’ Drudgery in High Climatic Risk Areas

This case study examines the potential for climate-smart agriculture to reduce the labor burden on women farmers in Rupandehi and Chitwan, two Nepalese districts affected by climate change.


This case study analyzes the potential for climate-smart agriculture (CSA) to reduce women farmers’ labor burden in Nepal. CSA practices seek to improve agricultural productivity, build resilient food production systems, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. CSA, in addition to reducing labor hours, has a significant role in expanding women’s access to agricultural resources and inclusion in decision-making processes. Therefore, CSA is an important tool in the transformation of global food systems in response to climate change.

Nepal was selected because of its low rank on gender-related development indicators, its increasing feminization of agriculture due to male out-migration, and its increasingly frequent extreme weather events. Rupandehi and Chitwan were randomly chosen as focal areas from a list of predetermined hotspots that have high levels of climate risk, poverty, and women’s participation in agriculture. The study sought to determine which CSA practices most reduced women’s labor burden in agriculture. The authors identify direct-seeded rice, zero-tillage machines, laser land leveling, and green manuring as the most effective practices.

Transitioning to Sustainable Agriculture Requires Growing and Sustaining an Ecologically Skilled Workforce

The authors suggest that agribusiness practices in the United States that pursue productivity as the primary goal, have been trending in an unsustainable direction and propose that place-based knowledge development, agroecological practices, and decentralized decision-making are key to sustainability in the agricultural sector.


The article argues that agricultural practices in the U.S. are unsustainable and unjust to farmers, largely because of agribusiness and supporting policies. Over the past century, U.S. agriculture has been trending in an unsustainable direction, rapidly replacing knowledgeable people with non-renewable resources and eroding rural economies in the process. The authors suggest that U.S. policies, technologies, and economic pressures have tended to “deskill” rural labor—a trend that has been linked to labor under capitalism in general. They cite a national census that counted 6.5 million farms in the 1920s, with only 2.04 million left by 2017.

The authors argue that agroecological farming systems mimicking natural ecosystems that create tightly-coupled cycles of energy, water, and nutrients are already known to farmers and researchers. As such, they offer a well-studied pathway to an agricultural transition. A critical and under-appreciated feature of agroecological systems is that they replace fossil fuel- and chemical -intensive management with knowledge-intensive management. The authors argue that the biggest challenge in achieving agricultural sustainability is the replacement of non-renewable resources with ecologically-skilled people in ways that create and support desirable rural livelihoods.

The authors suggest ways in which U.S. policy could pivot to enable and support the ecologically skilled workforce needed to achieve food security and decent livelihoods. They highlight the need to: provide enabling conditions for new farmers to enter the system and sustain a decent livelihood; develop agroecological skills and supporting policy tools (or removal of policies that currently act as a barrier); decouple farmers from the trap of overproduction and low market prices; and strengthen farmer-to-farmer networks to promote knowledge exchange. The authors also briefly lay out the history of discrimination and injustice in the agricultural system in the U.S. and highlight the need for a foundational commitment to justice to guide the allocation of resources, affirm rights, and prioritize the agricultural needs of historically marginalized groups.