Food and agriculture are essential to meeting the climate goals set out under the Paris Agreement, with the ambition of limiting global heating to 1.5°C.
Food production is linked to 35% of total manmade greenhouse gas emissions. And it isn’t just how we make food that’s the problem. How we consume it needs to change too. If food waste was a country, for instance, it would be the third largest emitter in the world behind the USA and China.
As the challenges facing global food producers this year have demonstrated, farmers are on the front line of climate change. Extreme weather, swings in precipitation patterns and changes in temperature are felt by farming communities around the world, negatively impacting yields and livelihoods.
At the same time, evidence is mounting that food production can be part of the climate fix. Regenerative agricultural practices, for instance, have been hailed as an important tool to sequester carbon in the earth and replenish degraded soils.
When the food production is so intrinsically linked to climate change, many observers were left disappointed in 2021 when food barely managed to make its way onto the political agenda at COP26 in Glasgow. With its heavy focus on clean energy and finance solutions, the outcomes of COP26 as they relate to food – a loosely framed methane commitment and a pledge to accelerate action against commodities driven deforestation – were slim pickings indeed.
This year, advocates of food sector transformation are determined to make their voices heard. A coalition of international food organisations is hosting the first ever Food Systems Pavilion at COP27.
Participating organisations include co-hosts Clim-Eat, Coalition of Action for Soil Health (CA4SH), EIT Food, Environmental Defense Fund, FOLU, Good Food Institute, Infarm, SNV and Yara International; session partners Aleph Farms, Food Tank, Just Rural Transition, One Acre Fund and Rabobank; and supporting partners World Farmers’ Organisation, World Food Forum, YPARD, IAAS World and YOUNGO.
“COP26 failed to recognise the role of food systems in strengthening climate adaptation, mitigation and resilience. And, therefore, more than 15 organisations and their extensive networks have come together to put food on the agenda in Egypt,” Infarm’s Kate Cooke, Global Director of Partnerships, told FoodNavigator. “The Food Systems Pavilion co-hosts intend to redress the balance at COP27, showcasing solutions and pushing for action, while also building on successes of last year such as the 2021 global methane pledge and the Policy Action Agenda for the Transition to Sustainable Food & Agriculture.”
‘Our ability to produce food is fast being eroded’
Failure to act on food system transformation through both mitigation and adaption efforts will be disastrous for millions of people around the world. Hunger is already becoming more commonplace. Around 2.3 billion people in the world (29.3%) were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021 – 350 million more compared to before the outbreak of the COVID‑19 pandemic, according to figures from the World Health Organization. Drought and other extreme weather linked to climate change are making matters worse for the most vulnerable populations globally.
Dr Agnes Kalibata, President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) as well as the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit and FOLU Ambassador, emphasised the urgency of dragging the food system up the political agenda. “We must ensure that food dominates the COP27 agenda. It has been the missing piece in climate negotiations for far too long,” she stressed.
Looking at Africa, Dr Kalibata continued: “Our ability to produce food is fast being eroded, our adaptation capacity is the weakest, and how food is produced in parts of the world creates problems we must address.” Without ‘urgent action’ on climate change, she suggested an additional 100m people in Africa could be pulled into ‘extreme poverty’ in the next eight seasons, that’s more than 10m people every year between now and 2030.
But it isn’t all bad news – at least if the necessary action is taken now – the Pavilion partners insisted. Transforming the world's food systems could generate $4.5trn annually in new economic activity and help to create a net-zero, nature-positive world, while also ensuring social justice and food security, they argued.
“Transforming our food systems unlocks opportunities to significantly reduce GHG emissions, mitigate the impacts of climate change, and provide solutions to some of the most pressing environmental and social issues of our time… Timely action on food systems is essential to stop more people from sliding into poverty and food insecurity - it is good for both people and the planet,” Dr Kalibata said.
Common ground for food as a positive agent of change
To achieve this transformation, Clim-Eat founder Dr Dhanush Dinesh believes that ‘new visions’ are needed to reimagine how the food system will operate, including the ‘central role of farmers and small-scale agriculture as positive agents of change’.
“To address these issues publicly and collaboratively, we are bringing together farmers, food producers, NGOs, businesses, youth, Indigenous Peoples, governments and intergovernmental organisations,” Dr Dinesh explained. “We believe COP27 will represent a critical turning point for our food systems.”
This approach recognises the importance of bringing together diverse voices from across the supply chain as well as public, private and civil society. The Pavilion partners are committed to work collaboratively to showcase solutions, overcome barriers and, interestingly, ‘tackle trade-offs’.
In a discourse that so often pits different vested interests against one another, balancing these trade-offs and securing consensus – while still pushing through the changes that need to lower the impact of food on climate – is no mean feat. Take the discussion around animal agriculture, arguments over whether we need to transition towards plant-based diets, and the emergence of new technologies such as cellular agriculture as case in point. Few discussions will ignite such intense and polarizing debate.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, Didier Toubia believes. Toubia is CEO of Aleph Farms, a leading innovator in the cellular meat space and a Pavilion partner. “Inherently as human beings, we tend to think in the frameworks of either/or,” he told us. “To create the kind of overhaul needed to address the vicious cycle of food and climate, we need to think bigger than that. What is required for addressing critical and important challenges impacting all of us is a series of solutions working in concert with policy agendas.”
Toubia is confident it is possible to build consensus around the changes needed for the health of the planet and the people on it. “At the end of the day, our interests are broadly aligned. We want to feed people and do right by the planet. We are embracing this inclusive approach to amplify our voices... We’re hoping to see more discussion on how to bring about a just transition in our food systems and how to make it beneficial for all players in the ecosystem to support change.”
From land-use to food waste: The action Pavilion partners are backing
So, what concrete action does the ‘inclusive’ vision of Pavilion partners back?
Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio, Policy and Engagement Associate at the Food and Land Use Coalition and Senior Resilience and Adaptation Advisor at the World Resources Institute, told us it is vital that a joined up approach is taken to policy, making the connections between climate change, nutrition and social outcomes.
“World leaders should adopt a holistic view of food systems, connecting nutrition goals with climate and other sustainability aims, to achieve human and planetary health. This includes committing to ending hunger and encouraging more sustainable food production practices, while also supporting innovation and investment strategies and citizens in making healthier, more informed choices,” Rumbaitis del Rio suggested.
With the devil in the detail, Rumbaitis del Rio outlined particular areas of focus. These include scaling nature-based solutions within food and land use systems, preventing further deforestation, and adopting more ‘productive and regenerative’ land use practices. “These solutions together can deliver significant benefits for climate adaptation, biodiversity protection, food and nutrition security, improved livelihoods as well as climate mitigation,” the sustainability expert explained. “There’s of course no silver bullet and these solutions will look different in different parts of the world.”
Rumbaitis del Rio was quick to stress that all actors in the system need to play a positive role. “We need our farmers, and they need to be recognised as integral parts of these systems and as part of the solution. Farmers must be supplied with appropriate information, protection, and support,” she said. “Food, land and agriculture sector companies across the value chain [also] have a role to play in supporting food and land use systems transformation. In particular, the world’s leading agricultural commodity traders need to come forward with an ambitious and time-bound roadmap on how they will eliminate deforestation by 2025.”
In terms of policy, trade leaders need to offer ‘technical and financial support’ to producer countries and Nilsson argued around $400 billion of the over $600 billion annual agricultural subsidies budget should be ‘repurposed’ to support more sustainable food production.
Financing is also needed. The Food and Land Use Coalition is currently identifying and matching financing strategies to country-level investment opportunities to help inform the flow of finance into food and land use systems. “The world’s banks should also commit to implement the commitment to nature made by 30 financial institutions at COP26,” Rumbaitis del Rio suggested.
Food waste and diets also require adjustment. “Reducing food loss and waste by just 25% would save costs of $455 billion per year in damage to people and the planet, including food security, by 2030.”
While this obvious win is something most of us can agree on, calls for changes to our diet are more contentious. Nevertheless, Rumbaitis del Rio continued: “Convergence towards a ‘human and planetary health diet’ includes producing and consuming more nutritious foods, a diverse protein supply, and lowered intake of sugar, salt and highly processed foods.”
All of this, Rumbaitis del Rio and the Food Pavilion partners believe, will help us move towards a food system that is fit for the future. To secure supplies today, however, it is imperative that mitigation plans are also developed and put into effect. And these need to focus on those most at-risk of feeling the consequences of climate change.
“We urgently need to adapt the world's food systems to the changing climate. This means investing in new innovations that will help farmers cope with greater heat, droughts, salinity intrusion and other impacts, but also stopping maladaptive practices that magnify climate risks. It also means strengthening policies and coordination mechanisms that support farmers, particularly smallholder farmers, in taking actions to build resilience to climate impacts and to broader crises such as the food price crises we are currently seeing. Current climate finance is inadequate. Estimates are that less than 2% is targeted toward smallholder farmers—this needs to increase urgently.”
The links between nutrition, food security and climate change will be uncovered at Climate Smart 2022. FoodNavigator's digital broadcast event will stream from 20-22 September. Hear from a packed line-up of speakers, including WWF, Rainforest Alliance, the Advertising Standards Agency, Mars, PepsiCo, and many more.