Tackling climate challenge through food and agricultural innovation


Buried among the flurry of announcements made at the Leaders Summit on Climate was a new initiative to address a substantial driver of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: food systems. One-third of global emissions come from the production, distribution and consumption of food around the world, and yet, the agriculture-climate connection is often overlooked.

The Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (or AIM for Climate) addresses this critical piece of the climate puzzle by committing participating countries to significantly increase agricultural research and development (R&D) over the next five years to reduce GHG pollution and enhance the resilience of our food systems. Spearheaded by the United Arab Emirates, with support from the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, Denmark, Israel, Singapore, Australia, and Uruguay, the initiative will seek to garner the support of dozens more countries ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit in September and UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November. We at the UN Foundation, along with many of our partners, are actively working to support the summit and the conference. 

Transformative R&D in the agri-food sector can be a crucial vehicle for tackling climate change. Sustainable farming practices can help farmers build resilience against future environmental and economic shocks — and many of them also offer significant climate mitigation opportunities. 

Among the most important practices that would significantly benefit from increased R&D are improved soil management, reduction of food loss and waste, precision agriculture and enhanced livestock management. 

First, better soil management on farms, including practices such as reduced tillage, can build carbon in the soil while increasing productivity. Higher yields will likely help ease the pressure to cut down more forests, thereby avoiding emissions from land use change — not to mention preserving biodiversity and ecosystems. We still have much to learn about how to most effectively store carbon in the soil, but scientific research and innovation can guide us toward steeper emissions cuts by uncovering optimal management strategies for healthier, more productive land.

Second, reducing food loss and waste, which accounts for a whopping 8 percent of global GHG emissions, is ripe for accelerated advancement through R&D. For example, we can drastically cut food waste by developing new ways to conserve farm products in every step of agricultural value chains.

Third, innovation helps farmers grow more food on less land while using fewer chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, which reduces GHG emissions. Already, in the United States, crop breeding and farm equipment R&D helped reduce the carbon intensity of agriculture by 10 percent between 1990 and 2015.

Fourth, livestock production systems will also benefit from R&D in a number of areas, including improving breeding and animal health, and developing feed additives and supplements that reduce methane emissions from ruminant livestock. 

More generally, agricultural innovation makes farmers and their farms more resilient. Over the past several decades, farmers and researchers have developed crops that are more resistant to stressors such as droughts, floods and pests, as well as more nutritious and productive. Future R&D investments will need to be expanded to enable farmers to adopt new crops, animal breeds, and farming systems that are better suited for a warmer climate.

And the economic and social benefits of R&D are substantial. A recent publication found that every dollar invested in international agricultural R&D yields a $10 return. We also know that investments in innovation reduce food prices — one recent study found that doubling public agri-food R&D would reduce global food prices by nearly 10 percent. Investing in crop production in arid areas alone over the next 10 years could generate $700 billion in net benefits. And while innovations developed in one country benefit that territory directly, they also spill over into other nations overtime, delivering substantial benefits internationally.

Yet despite the many environmental, economic and social benefits, food and agricultural R&D is chronically underfunded in many countries. Of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year by governments to support agriculture, less than 6 percent is spent on research and technical assistance. That is critically insufficient when we also know that, to offset the adverse impacts of climate change on global food systems, investments in R&D may need to double over the coming decades.

President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate demonstrated that global momentum on climate is building. Food and agriculture cannot be ignored in the quest to rein in emissions and bolster resilience. The next few months present an unparalleled opportunity to advance the AIM for Climate initiative and move food and agriculture to the center of climate action by focusing on the transformative role innovation can play. 

Ryan Hobert is the managing director for Climate and Environment at the United Nations Foundation.

Tags agricultural emissions agricultural practices Agriculture carbon emissions Climate change Climate Summit COP26 Food industry greenhouse gas emission Joe Biden

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