Food systems transformation is a critical solution to climate crisis mitigation and adaptation, reducing food insecurity, and environmental degradation, according to researchers and representatives from business, civil society, and indigenous and farmer communities gathered at a virtual press event.
Agriculture and food systems are a major cause of and casualty of the climate crisis, responsible for roughly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions but also losing resilience in the face of climate extremes. Hunger and malnutrition are on the rise, especially among small-scale producers in low- and middle-income countries who grow one-third of the world's food. Additionally, food systems are a major driver of poor health, inequality, and insecurity.
Food systems, which are the way we grow, process, package, transport, and consume our food, contribute to not only a third of global greenhouse gas emissions but also many negative environmental and social impacts, said Patty Fong, the Program director of Climate and Health & Well-being, at The Global Alliance for the Future of Food.
"One-third of the food that's produced in the world is either lost or wasted. Food systems, especially industrialised food systems, are highly energy-intensive and reliant on fossil fuels throughout the value chain, from the production and use of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, and plastics to the production of crops, fish, meat, and dairy, processing and transport, distribution, and cooking. Food systems drive 90% of deforestation and 60% of biodiversity loss. They account for 70% of the world's freshwater use. And they're a major cause of poor health and nutrition. Two-thirds of the people living in extreme poverty are agricultural workers and their families."
"Food systems are also a victim of climate change. Climate change is affecting agricultural productivity, reducing food security, disrupting food supply chains, and eroding the livelihoods of billions of people," she said.
"Business as usual is no longer an option," Fong added. "If we want to provide nutritious food to a growing global population and achieve our global climate and nature-related goals, we must transform our food systems."
The event exchanged important details on the mounting evidence that supports this claim, highlighting the interconnectedness of food systems and climate change. This also comes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, droughts, and heat waves exposing the fragility of our existing food systems and worsening global food security and hunger.
The food sector's contribution is essential to meeting the Paris Agreement goals. Global food consumption alone could add nearly 1°C to warming by 2100. Food systems are also a major driver of biodiversity loss, with agriculture being the leading cause of deforestation and habitat destruction. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has warned that the world is not on track to meet the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement, urging decisive action.
Food systems harm biodiversity, pollute the planet, and sicken people
Building on what Fong had already said, Dr. Tim G. Benton, Research Director of the Environment and Society Programme at Chatham House added that food systems create huge externalities, or external costs, on people and the planet. Benton added that about a third of greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system as a whole, from land use change, driving deforestation from cattle, and from nitrogen and ammonia used in fertiliser. Overall, about a third of the surge of greenhouse gases comes from the production of crops, and about two-thirds comes from animal source food.
"Beyond deforestation, about 50% of habitable land is used for agriculture, of which about half is degraded in some way. Of that land use, about 50% is used for animal agriculture and about 20% for crops. The biodiversity costs are multivariate, including intensive monocultural landscapes with no space for nature, pesticide use, pollution, and a whole range of other different things."
"Food systems are also probably the major cause of pollution on a global basis. This includes soil runoff from agricultural fields, nitrogen fertiliser, pesticide runoff into watercourses, and ammonia pollution," he said. "Ammonia pollution is a major problem because it becomes particulate matter in the atmosphere, which has a significant health impact, killing about 5 million people around the world through respiratory problems. Agriculture is also the major user of water resources across the world. As patterns of water extraction and supply change due to climate change, this is increasingly a problem in many parts of the world."
"Transforming the food system is front and center in tackling global environmental and health challenges. To tackle the food system transformation, we have to think about what is grown, how it's grown, where it's grown, and how much is grown, and therefore what is consumed," Benton added. "Transforming the food system is key to tackling climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and human health and well-being."
Family farmers are most vulnerable, but also solution providers
Millions of people in Africa are already facing the devastating impacts of climate change, with inadequate funding making the situation even worse. By 2030, up to 118 million people living in extreme poverty in Africa could be exposed to drought, floods, and extreme heat.
Estrella "Esther" Penunia, Secretary General of the Asian Farmers' Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA), asked a poignant question: who are the most vulnerable and victimised people in the food system?
"We believe that it is family farmers, especially small-scale family farmers, who are the most vulnerable and impacted by climate change," said Penunia. "Family farmers depend on agriculture for a living, and agriculture depends very much on the climate. Unpredictable weather patterns, droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events can spell disaster for family farmers' yields and incomes."
"Climate change can also lead to sudden death for family farmers, especially during floods. In 2013, Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) destroyed 600,000 hectares of agricultural land in the Philippines, causing $700 million in damage and killing 10,000 people. But even when there are no sudden deaths, unpredictable weather patterns can have a devastating impact on family farmers. Less rain and more sun can affect the flowering of plants, leading to lower yields and incomes," she added.
"Despite the challenges, family farmers are stewards of climate resilience. They are solution providers who are working to adapt to and mitigate climate change. For example, family farmers are practicing regenerative agriculture, agroecology, sustainable forest management, and sustainable fisheries management. These practices can help to improve soil health, increase water retention, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve biodiversity."
"The results of these practices are higher yields, higher incomes, and empowerment for family farmers. By providing solutions to the climate crisis, family farmers are able to improve their own lives and the lives of their communities," added Penunia.
"But we need the support of governments, development partners, the private sector, and civil society organizations. We need favorable policies and programs to scale up and to scale out the work that we do. To be able to scale up and scale out the work that we do, we need sufficient financing that is directed to agriculture and direct financing to small-scale family farmers. Only 4% of all climate financing goes to agriculture. And only 1.7% of that goes directly to family farmers. If we can scale this, and have sufficient direct financing, our organizations and cooperatives can be effective agents of change," she said.
Food Systems at the Center of COP28
Professor David Nabarro, Senior Advisor to the COP28 Food Systems Team, discussed the importance of food systems and the upcoming COP28 summit.
COP28 promises to be a watershed moment, with food systems transformation made a top priority of the presidential action agenda. Farmers, businesses, and civil society will be coming out in force to support this critical moment.
"I've been working in the area of agriculture and food since 2008, and I've noticed some really interesting changes taking place in how these issues are being handled internationally and by individual governments," he said. "For me, the watershed was in 2021, when the United Nations Secretary-General invited government leaders to come together and focus on food as a systems issue. His basic premise was that food is not simple. It's not just about what we produce and what we eat. Food touches so many aspects of human existence and the future of our planet that it has to be treated as an interdependent systems issue."
Nabarro stressed the many benefits of food, including nutrition, income generation for farmers, and its impact on climate and the environment. He also drew attention to the role of women in food systems, noting that they make up 75% of food workers but are paid much less than men.
"Women work in the food system - 75% of food workers are women - yet they're paid much less than men. Whatever we look at in food, it's super complex, but it needs to be untangled. You can't sweep it away," he said.
He expressed optimism about the upsurge in interest in working with food since the 2021 Food Systems Summit. He noted that governments, different sectors, and scientific disciplines are now working together in new ways to engage stakeholders fully, including farmers, food workers, and consumers.
"Now for the first time, we're going to see food at the centre of one of these annual COP meetings on climate," he said. "And that's because climate is damaging food systems. But food systems are also influencing the climate. For that reason, a declaration has been prepared and heads of state and government are being invited to sign it."
Food systems transformation is a key solution for climate change, and non-state actors have a critical role to play. We need to urgently scale up action now, and COP28 is an opportunity to set the trajectory for progress, added Gonzalo Muñoz, chair of the non-state actors pillar at COP28 and former UN Climate Change High-Level Champion.
"It is brilliant that we've seen rising momentum and energy over the past few years on food systems, thanks in large part to civil society at COP27 and COP26, and to processes such as the UN Food Systems Summit. But we need to urgently scale action now, using the opportunity that we have at COP28 to set the trajectory to COP30 in 2025 when countries will submit their revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)."
"At COP28, we're launching a non-state actor call to action for transforming food systems for people, nature, and climate. This call to action welcomes the Emirates Declaration and supports its implementation. It calls out explicitly the need to develop targets and metrics by COP29 at the latest, so we can be able to report on progress. It also calls out the critical need to respect and value the traditional knowledge of indigenous people and the local knowledge of farmers, fishers, and other food producers."
Diane Holdorf, Executive Vice President of Pathways at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), commended the COP28 presidencies for prioritising agriculture and food systems as key drivers of climate solutions.
"The latest IPCC assessment report, the most authoritative and up-to-date summary of climate change impacts and mitigation states that agriculture, forestry, and other land use can deliver large-scale greenhouse gas emission reductions and enhanced CO2 removal and storage for decades or centuries," added Holdorf. "The report concludes that the largest potential emission management areas are reducing deforestation, adjusting dietary shifts, and using regenerative agriculture measures such as soil carbon sequestration."
"Action is critical not only to mitigate climate change but also to strengthen resilience and adapt to climate change for the farms on which farmers and the global food system depend. Businesses are already taking a lot of action, particularly since the first UN Food Systems Summit," she said. "A significant focus at COP28 is to accelerate actions on regenerative agricultural practices, which drives integrated outcomes for climate, nature, and farmer livelihoods. It also helps to drive the inclusion that is so necessary for success."
The upcoming UN climate change conference, COP28, will be held in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, from November 30 to December 12, 2023.