Food Security

Food systems are a priority for climate – let’s make them thrive

Vegetable in a store isle: Complex food systems affect lives, livelihoods and climate change.

Complex food systems affect lives, livelihoods and climate change. Image: Unsplash/Scott Warman

Gim Huay Neo
Managing Director, World Economic Forum
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Food Security

  • Global water and food systems impact people’s lives and livelihoods, and are a high-emitting sector for carbon emissions, making them a priority in multilateral dialogue.
  • Local contexts vary and agricultural methods must adapt accordingly, so farmers must be at the forefront and centre of change initiatives.
  • Technology and innovation will drive climate adaptation and food systems resiliency; several initiatives have emerged to catalyse the right investment, ecosystem and market conditions for suitable solutions.

Food is more than sustenance – it is health, joy, art, culture, and tradition in all societies. Behind the food we eat, is a complex system that represents 10% of the global gross domestic product and directly impacts the lives and livelihoods of the world population of 8.1 billion people.

Progress has been made in prioritizing global food and water systems through milestones like the UN Food Systems Summit, UN Water Summit and UNFCCC dialogues. However, the harsh truth is that up to 783 million people faced hunger in 2022, an increase of 1.3% from pre-pandemic levels.

Food systems account for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and hence present a significant opportunity to progress on the climate action agenda. To illustrate, changes in rice cultivation practices can reduce methane emissions by up to 40% with no negative impact on crop yield.

At the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in the United Arab Emirates, the food systems were placed centrally on the agenda. The Emirates Declaration of Resilient Food Systems, Sustainable Agriculture, and Climate Action calls for integrating food systems strategy into nations’ nationally determined contributions, national adaptation plans and national biodiversity strategies and action plans. This move is a substantial commitment to placing food systems transformation as core to the COP28 outcomes and making it a tangible reality.

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Seizing the opportunity

With the backdrop of geopolitical tensions, energy-food-water-health crises, inflationary pressures and rising costs, strong leadership is needed to navigate these challenges and complexities to secure a positive food future. Three areas represent opportunities for investment in 2024.

Lead the change with farmers

The way we produce food needs to be enhanced to better secure nature-positive, water-positive and inclusive outcomes. Agricultural practices that can protect and restore soil health and biodiversity hold a strong promise for the future. In fact, regenerative agriculture can yield an 80% decrease in soil erosion, retain 20,000 additional gallons of water per 1% increase in soil organic matter, and increase biodiversity in soil by 10 times. Most importantly, this transition could increase farmer profitability by up to 70%.

However, the ground realities of implementation vary and are often challenging. Water availability, soil type, primary crops, product markets, policy environments, farm size, access to finance and other differing circumstances mean that agriculture methods will have to be adopted by local communities and adapted to local conditions to be effective and sustained.

Farmers, as stewards of the land, have tremendous knowledge and know-how in land and resource utilization and optimization opportunities. Financial and value chain actors can support across the supply chains to de-risk and incentivize changes to adopt more regenerative agricultural practices. These practices can secure crop productivity and farmer livelihoods while ensuring environmental sustainability and making lands more resilient to the new climate realities. There is an opportunity to unlock a range of green products and services co-designed with farmers, including financing instruments to de-risk investments, insurance and credit products, capacity building, technologies, standards, branding and preferred market access.

The global community is at a critical juncture with organizations and countries making bold commitments on sustainable agriculture. This is the time to walk the talk on ensuring integrity and equity in the investments, to ensure that the 500 million-plus smallholders, who produce 30% of our food and are the backbone of our society, lead and benefit from these transitions.

Technology and innovation can be a gamechanger

Even as food production and consumption transform, unfortunately, climate shocks such as extreme heat and drought will intensify and become more frequent while malnutrition may continue to rise globally. Technology and innovation could change the game for scaling efforts to address these challenges and the potential is immense. Examples of payoffs include:

  • Improved seed varieties.
  • Microbial fertilizers.
  • Advances in bio-solutions.
  • Enhanced digital agriculture leveraging data and artificial intelligence.
  • Irrigation and soil health technologies.
  • Synthetic biology.
  • Personalized nutrition and alternative proteins.

However, creating the right environment to innovate food system resiliency at scale will take partnerships and collective effort. For instance, the Agriculture Innovation Missions for Climate, led by the United Arab Emirates and the United States, can help deliver the right solutions by investing in appropriate innovations. The World Economic Forum’s Food Innovation Hubs encourage the right type of public-private cooperation to boost technologies supporting arid climate production systems, driving low-waste and efficient supply chains and focusing on food diversity and nutrition.

Through collective action, partners can also send a significant demand signal for climate-smart agri-food commodities, which the First Movers Coalition for Food initiative strives to do by collating their collective purchasing power. The initiative will focus on crucial agri-food commodities, namely rice, dairy, beef cattle and row crops, which account for around 70% of global emissions.

Without blue, there is no green

Food and water are inextricably linked; 70% of global freshwater extraction is for agriculture. Water represents $58 trillion of the global economy, primarily through its direct role in the broader food system. The disruption of global hydrological cycles is also the first negative consequence of climate change and will severely impact the agricultural sector. Today, 90% of climate disasters are water-related, like drought or flooding.

As groundwater reserves are depleted faster than they are replenished, initiatives that can improve water governance and help close the water loop will be more and more important to ensure water and food security. This includes reducing wastage, cutting pollution and minimizing runoffs as well as deploying energy-efficient solutions to recover and provide fresh water for use.

At COP28, the first Ministerial Dialogue on Water-Resilient Food Systems was hosted, where countries and non-state actors will make commitments to move the needle on the food-water nexus in an integrated manner on the road to COP30. In addition to emerging technologies, finance and cooperation can drive water-resilient outcomes. There is also a critical need for stakeholders in the food systems to evaluate and incorporate water resilience in their policies, supply chains and use. Investing in defining the value of water per nutritional unit will enable better choices in production and consumption.

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Leadership matters

The Emirates Declaration offers the first step towards galvanizing political will to bring meaningful and holistic changes in the food system. The next step is to catalyze and mobilize public-private-philanthropic partnerships to translate ambition into action and progress. This requires courage, imagination and bold leadership from all stakeholders.
COP28 is a turning point. Business as usual is not an option.

It is time for all leaders, be they from public organizations, private companies or civil society, to capitalize on this momentum, double down and scale, invest in pace-setting initiatives, learn quickly and partner smartly. Through intentional and accountable collaboration, we can deliver a collective win – for humanity and the planet – for current and future generations.

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Related topics:
Food SecurityClimate and Nature
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