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Unlocking the feedback loop of food security and climate – 100 million farmers at a time

a farmer in a field in china in a story about food security

As we embark on significant transitions, farmer empowerment is critical. Image: Unsplash/Natalia Chernenko

Maria Elena Varas
Lead, Regional Partnerships, Food Systems Initiative, World Economic Forum LLC
Doris Yu
Senior Vice-President, China, Yara International ASA
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

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  • The impact of climate change on availability and affordability of nutritious foods will be on the issues discussed at the World Economic Forum's 2023 Annual Meeting of New Champions in Tianjin.
  • Food and agriculture is expected to be one of the most severely hard-hit sectors, with the impact particularly felt in low-income countries.
  • We must recognize the connection between climate and food security, and develop holistic, resilient and 'climate smart' solutions.

As they gather at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of New Champions in Tianjin, China, global leaders will focus on how to build greater economic strength, including addressing challenges faced due to climate change and extreme weather – and its implications on the availability and affordability of nutritious foods.

According to a report published in the journal Science, the El Niño climate patterns are expected to have a significant impact on weather patterns and average global temperatures across the world – potentially paving the way for breaching 1.5ºC by 2024.

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It is expected that El Niño and La Niña weather patterns will generate global economic losses of $84 trillion dollars by the end of the 21st-century, even if current pledges to reduce carbon emissions are met.

One of the sectors to be more severely hard-hit is food and agriculture and particularly the livelihoods of millions of growers and farmers across the world. As it has been in previous years, the impact will be mostly felt in countries with a large number of smallholder farmers.

Meeting the pressing need to produce foods and nourish a growing population – and doing so while reversing greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss – will require the firm commitment of multiple stakeholders to pivot from current unsustainable production systems to one that is economically viable and environmentally sustainable.

Achieving a nature-positive food future can only be achieved through partnerships across the food value chain. Such a future that focuses on sustainable food security, climate neutrality and stakeholder prosperity will require a consolidated, joint effort by everyone – companies, governments, experts, nongovernmental organizations, farmers and consumers – to implement the global frameworks and drive this paradigm shift.

How do we build greater resilience to ensure food security and enhanced livelihoods for growers and farmers around the world? We can start by tackling this issue through the following key actions:

1. Recognize the feedback loop between food security and climate as critical for resilience-building

Food and agricultural systems are crucial to economic growth, accounting for more than 25% of some countries’ gross domestic product (GDP), whilst being responsible for approximately one-third of the world’s GHG emissions, fresh water withdrawals and drivers of nature loss.

The interconnectedness of food production, livelihoods and climate thus requires a holistic approach, bringing together solutions for sustainable land management, mitigation, adaptation and biodiversity conservation.

A set of agriculture practices – known as “climate-smart” and “regenerative” – can positively transform the impact of food and agricultural systems on the planet and people, by reducing the number of people at risk of hunger by 12%, whilst decreasing the amount of cultivated land by 10 million hectares, and reducing food-related GHG emissions by 17%.

2. Place farmers and micro, small and medium enterprise agri-entrepreneurs at the centre of the transformation

As we embark on significant transitions, farmer empowerment is critical. This includes ensuring they have access to the best agronomic knowledge and data, financing and insurance, technology, and offtakers which can help them achieve enhanced livelihoods, while contributing to sustainable food security at home and around the world. Re-evaluating grower economics will also be essential to critical for farmers’ success.

Catalysed by the World Economic Forum and championed by private sector and farmer organizations, 100 Million Farmers supports and amplifies this agenda, putting the farmer and producer communities at the centre of this transition.

The initiative supports the adoption of regenerative agriculture and climate adaptation practices at the farm level. Targeting one-fifth of the world’s farmer population, the platform aims to reach a tipping point with untapped potential to meet food security goals, provide economic livelihoods for farmers and lead the race to achieving climate targets.

The international community has a significant opportunity to press for additional global attention to the importance of placing farmers at the centre of food and water systems transformation.

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As an example, Yara’s focus on smallholder empowerment is critical and relies strongly on digital technology and on the company’s global digital hubs. ln 2021, Yara launched its Wenwennong (Farmer Connect) platform in China. After just 18 months, 2.5 million eco-users who are farmers, agronomists and local experts are already connected and sharing soil and crop nutrition knowledge and artificial intelligence-enabled crop diagnoses.

3. Focus on farmer finance

It’s worth noting that food systems generate about a third of global emissions, yet it only receives less than 4% of climate finance. Most smallholders are unbanked, and since they are typically engaged in subsistence farming, they are deemed too high-risk to be allowed to secure financial lending and risk-mitigation insurance.

Without these, farmers cannot invest in advanced machinery or technologies that could help them expand their production capabilities. Lack of insurance increasingly puts smallholders at extreme risk of financial ruin, due to unpredictable climate change and/or manmade disasters.

However, farmer finance has the potential to generate $4.5 trillion in new market opportunities each year. Access to financing which can better help farmers achieve optimal soil health and more sustainable food production will help achieve the about 20% emissions reduction needed to reach 2050 Paris Agreement climate goals .

Bringing solutions and models for scaling transformative grower economics and identifying finance pathways to de-risk and incentivize conservation agriculture is key to for the widespread adoption of agricultural practices that will both adapt and mitigate climate change, positively influencing agricultural production and food availability.

Alternate and complementary income enhancement opportunities like carbon sequestration can further mitigate at-risk livelihoods – especially for smallholder farmers and growers – while contributing to reduced carbon emissions globally.

Such programmes are being implemented successfully in North America. This could similarly be a huge opportunity for China, the government of which has been working to increase organic carbon content in the country's soil. Since 2000, China has added 25 million tons a year of carbon to the nation’s soil. As a result, the country is sequestering 100 million tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) annually.

4. Soil matters. The role of soil health holds multiple benefits to ensuring this transition. We know that 95% of our food supply relies on healthy soils, yet nearly a third of agricultural land globally is degraded. Solutions that foster better and more efficient implementation, on-farm management, policy-making, and partnerships for healthy soils are essential.

Understanding the power and necessity of the components of healthy soil, including stored organic carbon, nutrient density, biodiversity and water retention is critical to growing healthier, more nutritious food, and transforming the global food system into a carbon sink rather than a carbon emitter.

By prioritizing soil health and employing regenerative agricultural practices, farmers can contribute to the production of crops that are not only abundant but also rich in essential nutrients, promoting human health and wellbeing.

Resilience-building for food and climate

At the Annual Meeting of New Champions, or the "Summer Davos", resilience-building for food and climate will be front and centre. Leaders from all over the world will meet to amplify these key points in support of a transition.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

As the second largest economy in the world, China is in a unique position to shape a transition. In September 2021, the Chinese government unveiled its 14th Five-Year National Agriculture Green Development Plan, which for the first time systematically planned for the green development of the country’s agriculture sector. At the same time, the Agricultural Bank of China has implemented a robust plan to offer green bonds and support China’s green transition.

As the international community meets this month and later this year takes stock of progress after the United Nations Food Systems Summit and prepares a robust food agenda at COP28, it is critical that we continue to place the farmer at the centre of the transition, ensuring finance and knowledge tools are available to build resilience – and ultimately tackle global challenges on food security and climate change.

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May 21, 2024

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