Will our food break the climate or save it?

Will our food break the climate or save it?
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After years of steady decline, hunger has recently been on the rise worldwide. By the end of 2019, 690 million people did not have enough food to eat — and that was before the pandemic. Now, new estimates reveal that the number of hungry people shot up by as many as 161 million in 2020 alone.

On top of the pandemic’s devastating socioeconomic consequences, this global hunger crisis is being exacerbated by another global crisis: climate change. Climate impacts are jeopardizing harvests around the globe. And at the same time, the way we produce, distribute, consume and waste food is a major contributor to the climate crisis. 

For too long, we have thought of the climate challenge as a problem that is exclusively caused by the world’s energy systems. But recent studies show that, long before humans began burning fossil fuels, land conversion for agriculture was already a major driver of warming.

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We now know that the global food system is responsible for a whopping third of all planet-warming emissions, making it one of the largest contributors to climate change. Agriculture is also the primary driver of biodiversity loss and a significant source of marine pollution.

Enter the UN secretary-general’s Food Systems Summit, to take place in September, and the “Pre-Summit,” which is happening in Rome this week. 

While the Food Systems Summit will gather governments and other stakeholders to shed light on the pressing challenges and the many opportunities food systems present — from hunger and malnutrition to affordability, to obesity, to sustainability and waste — it provides a unique chance to redefine the interaction between the food that sustains us and the global climate system.

This moment requires nothing less than a wholesale transformation of our global food systems. Fortunately, there are a number of interventions that we can make now.

Reducing food waste — which contributes to a staggering 8 to 10 percent of global emissions — and adopting sustainable dietary patterns can deliver significant climate and health benefits.

On the farm, increasing productivity, diversifying croplands, adopting sustainable livestock practices, improving soil and water management techniques, and restoring degraded or abandoned land can reduce emissions while enhancing food security, biodiversity and climate resilience.

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Given the global food system’s immense contribution to climate change — and its potential to become an important solution to the challenge — governments are beginning to focus on actions that can reduce emissions while building resilience against climate shocks.

The European Union, for example, has been working on reforming its agricultural policy with new, more robust environmental and climate provisions. World Food Prize Winner Rattan Lal, of Ohio State University, and others have highlighted the staggering potential of farmland to store carbon by restoring landscapes that were degraded.

The United Kingdom (U.K.) is in the process of revamping its approach to agriculture by moving away from payments for agricultural outputs towards a new model that rewards farmers for delivering public goods — arguably the most significant agricultural policy reform by any developed economy since New Zealand phased out agricultural subsidies in the 1980s.

But climate action goes beyond domestic policy reform. New public-private coalitions are emerging as we recognize the transformative potential of collective action.

During President BidenJoe BidenFighter jet escorts aircraft that entered restricted airspace during UN gathering Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp MORE’s Leaders Summit on Climate in April, the United Arab Emirates and the United States announced the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate), which seeks to ramp up investments in agricultural research and development to address climate change.

The Just Rural Transition Initiative, launched at the secretary-general’s 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, brings together governments, farmers' organizations and other key stakeholders to advance new policy reform initiatives — including repurposing public support to agriculture to improve economic, social and environmental outcomes.

Countries like Indonesia, Peru, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo are working to protect carbon-rich peatlands around the world that are threatened by expanding agriculture.

Such a diversity of solutions and approaches is necessary because food and agricultural systems are so complex and varied. Just like in sectors such as energy and industry, there are no silver bullets for fixing food systems. Only by forging new partnerships and developing a broader set of social, technical and policy solutions will the necessary progress be made. 

This week, governments will gather for a Food Systems “Pre-Summit” in Rome. This will be an important moment to advance new coalitions of action and garner support for promising solutions at the intersection of climate-food issues in several key action areas. 

First, protecting natural ecosystems by stopping deforestation and overfishing is imperative to protect the finite resources necessary for food production.

Second, adopting nature-positive solutions on farms can boost farm productivity and reduce pressure on ecosystems while helping farmers become more resilient to climate change. 

Third, rehabilitating degraded farmland can restore ecosystems while storing carbon in soil and plants. 

And finally, developing the capacity of people, land and sea to withstand extreme environmental events, economic shocks and conflict will be key to the long-term resilience of the global food system.

As governments prepare for the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow at the end of the year, they should think of the UN Food Systems Summit in September, and the pre-Summit this week, as important corollary events to solve a piece of the climate puzzle that is too often overlooked. The power of food systems to tackle the climate challenge should be at the very heart of those deliberations. 

Martin Frick is the deputy to the Special Envoy for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. Ryan Hobert is the managing director for Climate and Environment at the United Nations Foundation.