How to Feed the World Part II: Scaling Inclusive Sustainability

Editor’s Note

This article—Part II in a three-part series on feeding the world—explores the necessity of a transformation to sustainable agriculture and why focusing on comparative yields is a misleading way to evaluate the potential of sustainable food production. Part I of this series explored the urgency of food system transformation, key differences between the current industrial-agriculture system and sustainable approaches, and what goals should drive a sustainable model. Part III compares the most promising models of sustainable food production, looking especially at their multisectoral potential, scalability, and climate change benefits.

A broad international consensus has emerged that the world’s industrialized agriculture system needs to change urgently and substantially. Calls for a system-wide transformation of agriculture have been issued by a range of health and science authorities, including the American Public Health Association, the UN-convened International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology for Development (IAASTD),[1] the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals,[2] the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), particularly its “Climate Change and Land” report,[3] the World Economic Forum’s Food Systems Initiative,[4] and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,[5] among others.

Many of these authorities have called for a transition to “ecological” or “sustainable” food production. But can sustainable agriculture deliver adequate crop yields to feed the world?

THE POWERFUL Intersecting BENEFITS OF SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE

Agriculture sits at the intersection of many of today’s most urgent crises of environmental breakdown and socioeconomic disruption. As such, it offers a unique opportunity to redress multiple global issues at once. For example, pathways to improved food security can simultaneously mitigate climate change and reduce income inequality.

Today’s conventional agriculture industry, far from recognizing its pivotal position in the global meta-crisis (climate change, species loss, animal mistreatment, economic and social inequity, societal schisms, etc.), is actually a major driver of many of these crises. Despite producing a food surplus at the global scale, agribusiness fails to feed nearly 2 billion people each year while perpetrating enormous environmental damage, social and economic disruption, and brutal daily abuse of billions of farmed animals. These harms, unfortunately, are intrinsic to the industrial agricultural model because of its narrow focus on profits and will intensify if current trends in population growth, meat and energy consumption, and food waste continue.[6]

Productivist food systems undermine the common good on behalf of agribusiness profit.]

By contrast, sustainable farming offers pathways for addressing these combined human and environmental crises. While there are numerous approaches to sustainable food production, many recognize and leverage its potential for contributing to the common good. As the American Public Health Association (APHA) puts it, a sustainable food system “provides healthy food to meet current food needs while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come with minimal negative impact to the environment. A sustainable food system also encourages local production and distribution infrastructures and makes nutritious food available, accessible, and affordable to all. Further, it is humane and just, protecting farmers and other workers, consumers, and communities.”[7]

In sum, as the APHA suggests, sustainable agriculture is rooted in the value of the common good.

Extractive versus regenerative food systems

Productivist food systems like industrial agriculture can be termed “extractive” in that their tight focus on yields and profits demands that nature and humans be treated as resources from which to extract value (e.g., fossil fuel-derived agrichemicals) without commensurate payback (e.g., paying fair wages or undertaking environmental reparations).[8] In short, productivist food systems undermine the common good on behalf of corporate profit. Sustainable food systems are, by contrast, “regenerative”[i]—not just providing diverse and nutritious food for humans but also helping restore healthy ecosystems, keeping carbon out of the atmosphere, rebuilding community well-being with fair, meaningful livelihoods and respect for local knowledge, supporting the dignity and autonomy of individuals, and reducing dependence on external inputs.

Extractive and regenerative approaches activate entirely different streams of practices and outcomes, including in food markets, distribution systems, diets, research emphases, and people’s roles throughout the food chain.[9]

Sustainable solutions for IndUStrial harms

Industrial agriculture inflicts intersecting clusters of harms on a wide range of food system stakeholders. Sustainable agriculture offers intersecting clusters of solutions for industrial harms related to food provision, climate and environment, and justice.

Food Provision

Replace Industrial Food Insecurity…

Far from adequately “feeding the world,” industrial agriculture has caused widespread food insecurity. Its tendency to depress rural economies impoverishes the smallholders who currently account for more than half of the chronically undernourished people in the world.[10] Industrial agriculture is also poorly positioned to handle the heat waves, drought, and flooding that are projected to increase as global warming proceeds, leading to crop failures and yet more acute food insecurity. The lack of biodiversity on industrial farms also makes crops more vulnerable to the expected rise in invasive pests and plant diseases as the average global climate warms.

The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed the fragility of global food-supply chains, whose breakdowns throughout the pandemic are expected to dramatically worsen world hunger into the foreseeable future.[11]

… With Sustainable Food Sovereignty

Sustainable agriculture favors local production as well as local ownership and control of farming resources (a growing global movement called “food sovereignty”[12]). This creates a far more resilient supply model characterized by proximate responsiveness to local or regional needs as well as locally appropriate choices of crops and production methods. Moreover, research has shown that ownership of land strongly encourages sustainable agriculture practices due to an owner’s long-term investment in the property.

Local ownership also strengthens local economies, further improving food security. Locally oriented practices tend to be low-cost (for example, not requiring heavy machinery), making them an affordable model for smallholder farmers in both developing and developed economies.

Finally, sustainable agriculture improves food security through its focus on preserving the quality of agricultural lands and water sources—imperative not just for the most vulnerable populations but for all humans, both now and into the foreseeable future. One report estimated that implementation of sustainable approaches to irrigation worldwide could provide an additional 840 million people with food while conserving critical water resources.[13]

Climate and Environment

Replace Industrial Degradation…

Industrial agriculture’s extensive use of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) generates massive methane emissions, which are the primary reason agriculture has become one of the top five sectors driving global climate change. It also helps explain why climate-change impacts are already estimated to have caused a 21% loss in agricultural productivity since 1961—notwithstanding industrial agriculture’s intensive focus on increasing yields throughout this period.[14]

Conventional agriculture’s harm to the earth’s air, land, and water goes well beyond climate damage, including soil depletion and erosion, toxic air pollution, and “dead zones” in rivers and coastal waters. They also cause societal disruption in the forms of disease, hunger, displacement, and conflict.

…With Sustainable Restoration

Sustainable agriculture has a unique capacity to help rebalance the earth’s carbon cycle by both cutting emissions and storing more carbon in the soil, reducing global warming potential.[15] Organic and other ecologically motivated farming approaches that foster soil’s microbial diversity also increase soil’s capacity to hold water, a vital need as climate change raises the risk of extreme weather events, including droughts and flooding. One study found that during a drought year, an organic corn-growing system had 37% higher yield than an equivalent conventional system and that organic soybean yields were 52–96% higher than the conventional system’s.[16] Healthy soils and proper nutrient management can also strengthen plants’ resistance to infestations of pests and disease.

 “While climate disruption is now inevitable, vulnerability is still largely under human control.”

–Frances Moore Lappé

Beyond climate benefits, sustainable farming methods can prevent or reverse environmental damage in multiple ways: rebuilding biodiversity and soil fertility, reducing topsoil erosion, minimizing use of polluting agrichemicals and heavy machinery, and reducing or eliminating production of farmed animals (one of the highest sources of emissions in industrial agriculture). In turn, sustainably managed farms can reduce pressure on adjacent forest and wild ecosystems, ensuring their continued capacity to provide ecosystem services such as water purification, habitat for pollinators, and carbon sequestration. All of these environmental advantages also support food security.

Animal, economic, and Racial Justice

Replace Industrial Injustice…

Industrially farmed animals endure cruel and abusive treatment throughout their brief lives. These inhumane practices erode the dignity of farmers in the system, who work as contractors to agribusinesses and must follow their production requirements while losing authority over their operations and incurring heavy debt. These injustices extend to farming communities since CAFOs tend to pay low wages, while smaller farms cannot compete with agribusinesses’ lower costs of production and economies of scale. A 2018 economic analysis of rural Iowa found that as factory farms spread, net farm incomes dropped by 46% while incomes in nearby towns and cities dropped by 40%.

In the US, structural racism is deeply woven into the industrial food system. CAFOs are disproportionately located in lower-income and BIPOC[ii] communities, and immigrants make up an estimated 73% of farmworkers—making these groups the most vulnerable to the severe health risks of living and working with CAFOs. Structural racism is pervasive inside the industry, too: while statistics are lacking, Black managers or administrative officers in agribusiness are rare. According to census records, 95% of American farmers are white; in 2017, the average full-time white farmer earned $17,190 in farm income while the average full-time Black farmer earned only $2,408.

…With Sustainable Justice

Sustainable food production—supported by economic and policy changes needed to help farmers shift away from industrial production—returns control and profits to local communities. And while transitioning to sustainable agriculture does require new knowledge and additional labor, low-input sustainable practices can help farmers save costs by replacing expensive agrichemicals and patented seeds with heirloom varieties, biological pest control, and organic soil amendments. Several forms of sustainable agriculture, such as agroecology, esteem traditional and Indigenous knowledge and methods, melding them with the knowledge systems of western agricultural science.[17]

In sustainable agriculture models that include animal farming, animals typically live in smaller numbers in natural environments. Some approaches exclude animals, reflecting the growing call to switch to plant-based diets.

THE Misleading Comparison BETWEEN ORGANIC AND INDUSTRIAL YIELDS

Despite the myriad evident benefits of sustainable agriculture, much of the debate around how best to feed the world centers on a single metric: the “yield gap” between conventional and organic crops. (Sustainable agriculture models other than organic are rarely evaluated in terms of comparative yield, so organic must serve as a proxy here for sustainable food production generally.)

Numerous studies have attempted to quantify this gap, with the most recent estimates ranging from 9–25% lower yield for organic production.[18] Since not enough cropland exists to allow global adoption of organic agriculture at these lower yields, the question matters.

Yield-gap analyses are often rigorous and detailed, accounting for variables such as geographic region, nitrogen availability, crop types, and differences in crop management. However, virtually all start with the assumption that conventional and organic agriculture can be directly compared. In reality—as demonstrated by the “clusters” above—the two models arise from vastly different paradigms with distinct histories, goals, and values. Recognizing this transforms the yield-gap picture.

For more than half a century, industrial agriculture’s productivist approach has focused narrowly on delivering maximum yield. With substantial government financial and research support[19] and extensive private funding, agribusinesses have developed commodity crop varieties that are specifically optimized for maximum yield, as well as animals bred to maximize and streamline meat and dairy production.

By comparison, organic agriculture has received negligible public funding. Only a few modern varieties have been developed to produce high yields under organic management.[20] Directing additional public support toward organic crop research and improving yields of organic varieties through management practices and traditional breeding are the first steps toward leveling the playing field between conventional and organic farming. Until this is done, head-to-head yield comparisons with commodity varieties are a misleading exercise, unfairly equating apples with oranges.

When whole-system analysis is performed, the “yield gap” can shrink considerably. In fact, sustainable agriculture in the Global South has been found to increase crop yields for farmers in low- and middle-income nations by an average of 79% while improving ecological health and reducing pesticide use.[21]

In addition to providing food, sustainable agriculture supports ecosystem services such as biodiversity, climate resilience, improved soil fertility, cached water and reduced flood damage, and pollination of 75% of humans’ essential food crops, among others. The global value of ecosystem services has been estimated at $125–140 trillion annually—more than one-and-a-half times the 2020 global GDP of $85 trillion. In one small example of their importance, if all mangrove trees disappeared, 18 million more people would be flooded every year (a 39% increase), with property damages rising by 16% ($82 billion).

Whether focused on singular yields or whole systems, the problem of feeding the world’s expanding population will never be solved solely by increasing yields (as agribusiness narratives suggest). Hunger is largely a problem-driven primarily not by yields, but by economic and social structures within the industrial food system that exclude lower-income populations from access.[22] From 2015–2019, for example, hunger rose despite rapid expansion of industrial agriculture.[23]

Nonetheless, increased food production—accompanied by significant structural reforms—is critical both to address population growth and to generate adequate livelihoods for poor farmers, who constitute the largest share of those facing chronic hunger.[24]

HOW WOULD SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE FEED THE WORLD?

Can sustainable agriculture scale to feed the global population? The answer is yes—provided there is a restructuring of farming priorities and distribution systems to serve the common good rather than to grow the profits of mega-corporations and their shareholders. This means a systemic transformation, including pervasive adoption of ecologically sustainable approaches; a decentralization of most farming to local or regional models; shorter supply chains; production tailored to local resources and needs; a widespread shift to plant-centered diets; replacement of most meat and dairy with alternative proteins; inclusive food distribution; and minimal food waste.

A recent study of organic crop yields found that a sustainable food system embodying the strategies above “can deliver adequate global food availability” to more than 9 billion people in 2050 while improving all environmental indicators, including the need for cropland.[25]

With a restructuring of farming priorities and food distribution systems, sustainable plant-forward agriculture can feed the world.

AchievING SYSTEMIC TRANSFORMATION

A global transition to sustainable agriculture will be a historically expansive undertaking that, in addition to reestablishing or protecting more traditional forms of farming, will require overcoming the path dependency and lock-in effects that have allowed industrial agriculture to maintain influence among scientists, policymakers, financial firms, and international policy forums.[26]

[possible pull quote: Successful agricultural transformation will require overcoming the “lock-ins” that allow industrial agriculture to maintain its influence among scientists, policymakers, financial firms, and international policy forums.]

Civil society organizations (CSOs) focused on food system transformation, as effective as they already are, must work together to apply stronger, sustained pressure on governments to act in the public interest. The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food)[iii] argues that CSOs need to “fundamentally reevaluate [their] plans, priorities, and horizons.”[27] IPES-Food recommends four strategies right now: first—since the challenges facing the food system span national borders—extend across multiple scales, including through joint strategizing; second, broaden alliances and restructure relationships; third, strengthen future robustness with a commitment to foresight practices and “horizon scanning”; and fourth, be ready for change and disruption.[28]

Powerful corporate lobbying and inconsistent government policymaking will continue to challenge or co-opt civil society efforts. Close collaboration across thematic and geographic divides will create a powerful counterpoint and capture the public’s attention with unified messaging.

Funders are more important than ever—both to support an agricultural transformation movement that is finally gaining a unified focus and public momentum and to invest in the research that is desperately needed to make sustainable agriculture a viable contender at the global level. Research needs to be not only agroecological, oriented to eliminating yield gaps, but also socioeconomic—identifying barriers to adoption of sustainable models.[29]

The public has great power to advance the movement by educating themselves and others on the true harms of conventional agriculture and voting for, advocating for, and publicizing their preferences to policymakers.[30]

THE TIME IS NOW

Against the backdrop of accelerating climate change impacts, burgeoning hunger,[31] widening economic inequality, and increasing social division, the need to transition to sustainable agriculture with broad benefits to the common good could hardly be more pressing. Adoption of sustainable agriculture by high-income nations is especially timely given the practical and political dominance of agribusiness in these economies. Integrating traditional and Indigenous farming knowledge would powerfully enhance and accelerate this effort. With supportive public policies, international cooperation, and regional initiatives to develop and disseminate best practices, agriculture can become a powerful force for simultaneously improving human development, animal welfare, and environmental health.

Rising above the historical “yield debate” and recognizing the unparalleled systemic benefits offered by sustainable agriculture is essential for building the food system of tomorrow.


[i] “Regenerative” is used here in the literal sense of enabling renewal or restoration after injury, and is not intended to refer to any specific framing of “regenerative agriculture” per se.

[ii] BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. We recognize this serious drawback and use the term only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.

[iii] IPES-Food is an international, independent panel of civil society experts that includes representatives from Indigenous and peasant organizations, food movements, youth climate activism, multilateral institutions, the scientific community, and business.


[1] International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD), Agriculture at a Crossroads: Global Report, Beverly D. McIntyre et al., Eds. (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2009), https://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/9569.

[2] Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA), A Sustainable Food System for the European Union, Evidence Review Report No. 7 (Berlin: SAPEA; 2020), http://dx.doi.org/10.26356/sustainablefood.

[3] P.R. Shukla et al., eds., Chapter 5: Food Security in “Climate Change and Land: An IPCC Special Report on Climate Change, Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse Gas Fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems” (IPCC, 2019), https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl.  

[4] World Economic Forum Food Systems Initiative, “Incentivizing Food Systems Transformation” (January 2020), https://www.weforum.org/reports/incentivizing-food-systems-transformation.  

[5] E.S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H.T. Ngo (editors), Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Bonn, Germany: IPBES Secretariat, 2018), https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3831673.

[6] Lauren C. Ponisio, Leithen K. M’Gonigle, Kevi C. Mace, et al., “Diversification Practices Reduce Organic to Conventional Yield Gap,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282: 20141396, http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.1396.

[7] American Public Health Association, “Toward a Healthy Sustainable Food System,” Policy Number: 200712, November 6, 2007, https://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2014/07/29/12/34/toward-a-healthy-sustainable-food-system.

[8] I. Gutierrez-Montes, M. Emery, E. Fernandez-Baca, “The sustainable livelihoods approach and the community capitals framework: the importance of system-level approaches to community change efforts,” Community Development, 2009, 40:106–113. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15575330903011785.

[9] Molly D. Anderson and Marta Rivera-Ferre, “Food System Narratives to End Hunger: Extractive Versus Regenerative,” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, vol. 49, April 2021, 18–25, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2020.12.002.

[10] Molly D. Anderson and Marta Rivera-Ferre, “Food System Narratives to End Hunger: Extractive Versus Regenerative,” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, vol. 49, April 2021, 18–25, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2020.12.002.

[11] “Six-Fold Increase in People Suffering Famine-Like Conditions Since Pandemic Began,” press release, Oxfam, July 9, 2021, https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/six-fold-increase-people-suffering-famine-conditions-pandemic-began.

[12] IPES-Food and ETC Group, “A Long Food Movement: Transforming Food Systems by 2045” (2021), http://www.ipes-food.org/pages/LongFoodMovement.

[13] Lorenzo Rosa et al., “Global Agricultural Economic Water Scarcity,” Science Advances 6, no. 18 (April 2020), https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aaz6031.

[14] Ariel Ortiz-Bobea et al., “Anthropogenic Climate Change Has Slowed Global Agricultural Productivity Growth,” Nature Climate Change 11, no. 4 (April 2021): 306–12, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01000-1.

[15] Tiziano Gomiero, David Pimentel, and Maurizio G. Paoletti, “Environmental Impact of Different Agricultural Management Practices: Conventional vs. Organic Agriculture,” Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 30:12 (2011), 95–124, DOI:10.1080/07352689.2011.554355.  

[16] D.W. Lotter, R. Seidel, and W. Liebhardt, “The Performance of Organic and Conventional Cropping Systems in an Extreme Climate Year,” American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, vol. 18, no. 3, 146–154 (2009), https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-journal-of-alternative-agriculture/article/abs/performance-of-organic-and-conventional-cropping-systems-in-an-extreme-climate-year/C58A4083CDC83AC79FE4304794641B26.

[17] FAO, The 10 Elements of Agroecology: Guiding the Transition to Sustainable Food and Agricultural Systems (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2019), www.fao.org/3/i9037en/I9037EN.pdf.

[18] Klaus-Peter Wilbois and Jennifer Elise Schmidt, “Reframing the Debate Surrounding the Yield Gap between Organic and Conventional Farming,” Agronomy, February 13, 2019, www.mdpi.com/2073-4395/9/2/82/htm.

[19] Liz Carlisle and Albie Miles, “Closing the Knowledge Gap: How the USDA Could Tap the Potential of Biologically Diversified Farming Systems,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 3, no. 4 (2013): 219–225.

[20] E. Lammerts van Bueren, S.S. Jones, L. Tamm et al., “The Need to Breed Crop Varieties Suitable for Organic Farming, Using Wheat, Tomato and Broccoli as Examples: A Review,” NJAS Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, vol. 58, Issue 3–4, 193–205 (2011), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.njas.2010.04.001.

[21] N. Pretty et al., “Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries,” Environmental Science and Technology 40, no. 4 (February 15, 2006): 1114–1119, https://doi.org/10.1021/es051670d.

[22] Kelly F. Austin, Laura A. McKinney, and Gretchen Thompson, “Agricultural Trade Dependency and the Threat of Starvation: A Cross-National Analysis of Hunger as Unequal Exchange,” International Journal of Sociology 42, no. 2 (2012): 68–89.

[23] FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, WHO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019: Safeguarding Against Economic Slowdowns and Downturns (Rome: FAO, 2019).

[24] Lauren C. Ponisio and Paul R. Ehrlich, “Diversification, Yield and a New Agricultural Revolution: Problems and Prospects,”  Sustainability, 8(11), 1118 (2016), https://doi.org/10.3390/su8111118.

[25] Adrian Muller, Christian Schader, Nadia El-Hage Scialabba, et al., “Strategies for Feeding the World More Sustainably with Organic Agriculture,” Nature Communications 8:1290 (2017), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-017-01410-w.

[26] Molly D. Anderson and Marta Rivera-Ferre, “Food System Narratives to End Hunger: Extractive Versus Regenerative,” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, vol. 49, April 2021, 18–25, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2020.12.002.

[27] IPES-Food and ETC Group, “A Long Food Movement: Transforming Food Systems by 2045” (2021), http://www.ipes-food.org/pages/LongFoodMovement.

[28] IPES-Food and ETC Group, “A Long Food Movement: Transforming Food Systems by 2045” (2021), http://www.ipes-food.org/pages/LongFoodMovement.

[29] Lauren C. Ponisio, Leithen K. M’Gonigle, Kevi C. Mace, et al., “Diversification Practices Reduce Organic to Conventional Yield Gap,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282: 20141396, http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.1396.

[30] Boyd A. Swinburn, Vivica I. Kraak, Steven Allender et al., “The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change: The Lancet Commission Report,” The Lancet, vol. 393, no. 10173, 791–846 (February 23, 2019), https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)32822-8.

[31] Megan Durisin, Elizabeth Rembert, and Tatiana Freitas, “A Tenth of the World Could Go Hungry While Crops Rot in Fields,” Bloomberg.com, August 30, 2020, www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-08-31/hunger-is-threatening-to-kill-more-people-than-covid-this-year?sref=PNswn24w.

About the author

Stray Dog Institute

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

By Stray Dog Institute

About the Author

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

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