Nature and Biodiversity

How to turn the food system from a driver of climate change into an accelerator of climate action

A person harvesting crops, illustrating the need for climate action in the food system

Climate action can be joined up with the world food system Image: Photo by Phoenix Han on Unsplash

Razan Al Mubarak
President of IUCN and United Nations Climate Change High-Level Champion for COP28, United Nations
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  • A vicious cycle means that the global food crisis is fuelling the climate crisis and the resulting climate change impacts are driving food insecurity.
  • The world must get behind 4 key solutions to its food problem.
  • At COP28, all those involved in the food sector are being asked to commit to transforming the food system to deliver for people and climate by 2030.

According to the World Food Programme, more than 333 million people are acutely hungry right now, as the impacts of drier, harsher conditions make crops wither. Food prices are sky-high, plates are empty and there is no respite in sight. At the root of this hunger is a vicious cycle that sees the global food crisis fuelling the climate crisis and the resulting climate change impacts driving higher food prices and insecurity.

The challenge lies with a global food industry that contributes almost a third of greenhouse gas emissions and drives 90% of deforestation. The resulting, intensifying climate impacts — droughts, floods, extreme temperatures, rising sea levels — are making it harder to maintain the food production that stocks food shelves worldwide.

Kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of food Image: United Nations

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

This broken food system is creating a world in which some 2,750 excess calories are produced per person per day, yet 700 million people face hunger and nearly one in three cannot afford a healthy diet. We cannot tackle climate change without transforming the way we produce and consume food.

Starting on 30 November, the COP28 climate conference in the United Arab Emirates will elevate the links between food and climate change, launching a leaders’ declaration calling on countries to put food and agriculture transformation at the centre of their climate action pledges. Additionally, together with Gonzalo Muñoz, UN Climate Change High-Level Champion of Chile’s COP25, I am working with businesses, investors, cities, regions and civil society to drive action under the UAE presidency’s Food Systems & Agriculture Agenda.

Change is happening, largely led from the ground up. Farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists and ranchers are using local and traditional knowledge to work with nature, adapt to climate change impacts and keep up production. Now, we need national and local governments, businesses, investors, philanthropists and civil society to help scale up these changes by instigating four major solutions to the global food problem.

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1. Scale regenerative production

First, adopt the nature-friendly, regenerative, agro-ecological farming practices that smallholder farmers and pastoralists already use. Today’s food systems are often energy-intensive and reliant on fossil fuels, particularly for pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and plastics. Agro-ecological farming uses local and traditional knowledge to adapt to changes in a way that protects soil health, increases biodiversity and preserves nature.

Image: Global Alliance for the Future of Food

Indigenous Peoples, local communities and women should be at the centre of this shift, as they best understand their land, their climate and their families’ needs. If female-headed households in southern Ethiopia, for example, had the same resources as male-headed ones, their maize productivity would increase by over 40%, on par with the latter’s, according to a study published in GeoJournal.

2. Switch to a healthier diet

Second, shift to healthier and more sustainable diets. The food system is off-kilter: around 9% of the population faces hunger, but nearly 40% of adults are overweight. Poor diets contribute to health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancers and obesity, and are a leading risk factor for premature death, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Healthier diets are also more climate- and nature-friendly, as they contain fewer animal-based foods and more plant-based foods, particularly pulses and plants, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Based on the average US diet, for example, replacing beef with poultry can feed 140 million more people.

3. Restore nature

Third, protect and restore nature. Nature could contribute up to a third of the emissions reductions needed by 2030 to limit warming to 1.5C and help countries adapt to climate change. Examples of this include tree cover shielding people from heat and rain and mangroves and coral reefs buffering coastlines from rising sea levels. This should include protections for Indigenous Peoples and local communities, who take care of 80% of the planet’s remaining biodiversity.

Positive steps are emerging. A coalition of 36 financial institutions committed in 2021 to stem the commodity-driven deforestation in their portfolios. While, governments and philanthropists agreed in 2021 to recognize and advance the roles of Indigenous Peoples and local communities as guardians of forests and nature.

4. Reduce food waste

Fourth, reduce food loss and waste. Around 13% of food produced globally is lost between harvest and retail and 17% is wasted, according to the UN. This requires a concerted public awareness campaign that encourages people to curtail their food waste, as well as improved cold storage infrastructure for food shipments and consistent standards for use-by labelling.

The UAE is aiming to halve food loss and waste by 2030 by identifying problem areas in the food chain, developing solutions, influencing behavioural changes, developing technologies and raising community awareness. Through the 123 Pledge, launched at last year’s COP27 climate conference in Egypt, public and private sector members are also committing to halve food loss and waste by 2030.

Image: Ne’ma, the UAE Strategic National Food Loss and Waste Initiative

By acting on these four solutions, we will begin to turn the food system from a driver of climate change into an accelerator of climate action.

As part of our work mobilizing robust climate action from businesses, investors, cities and regions, the High-Level Champions are already working with partners – from farmers and fishers to corporations, investors, cities and consumers – to accelerate efforts on all four fronts. We launched a Call to Action in November urging all actors involved in food systems to commit to transforming the food system to deliver for people, nature and climate by 2030. We will be calling on everyone at COP28 to sign on and get moving.

A healthy, well-fed population is fundamental to creating a healthier, more resilient future for all.

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