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Want to Fight Climate Change? Transform Our Food System.

Past U.N. climate summits neglected food. That needs to change at COP27.

By , an independent journalist who writes about food systems, climate change, and political economy.
A person stands in an agricultural field, with mountains behind them.
A person stands in an agricultural field, with mountains behind them.
A Kurdish farmer sows seeds in a field at a farm in the Rania district near the Dukan Dam northwest of the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah in the autonomous Kurdistan region, where reservoir waters have been receding due to a combination of factors including lower rainfall and severe drought, on July 2. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

The world’s food systems are among the biggest contributors to climate change—and one of its biggest casualties. Yet at past United Nations climate summits, negotiations have largely overlooked food. That needs to change at this year’s conference, known as COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Simply put, there is no way of tackling the climate crisis without fundamentally overhauling the world’s food systems. A 2021 analysis by Our World in Data showed that even if fossil fuel emissions magically disappeared, emissions from just the food sector would take the world beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the aspirational target set in the 2015 Paris agreement.

That alone should be enough to spur action at COP27. But rising food insecurity has made the problem impossible to ignore. Egypt, which holds the COP27 presidency, is among the countries suffering the worst consequences of the global food crisis. Egypt has said its representatives will bring food systems into sharper focus at this summit. NGOs and other institutions have also been more active in raising awareness around the issue. Already, on the summit’s second day, 14 of the world’s largest food firms launched a plan to end deforestation in some of their major supply chains by 2025.

The world’s food systems are among the biggest contributors to climate change—and one of its biggest casualties. Yet at past United Nations climate summits, negotiations have largely overlooked food. That needs to change at this year’s conference, known as COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Simply put, there is no way of tackling the climate crisis without fundamentally overhauling the world’s food systems. A 2021 analysis by Our World in Data showed that even if fossil fuel emissions magically disappeared, emissions from just the food sector would take the world beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the aspirational target set in the 2015 Paris agreement.

That alone should be enough to spur action at COP27. But rising food insecurity has made the problem impossible to ignore. Egypt, which holds the COP27 presidency, is among the countries suffering the worst consequences of the global food crisis. Egypt has said its representatives will bring food systems into sharper focus at this summit. NGOs and other institutions have also been more active in raising awareness around the issue. Already, on the summit’s second day, 14 of the world’s largest food firms launched a plan to end deforestation in some of their major supply chains by 2025.

Given this push, food systems will feature more prominently in Sharm el-Sheikh than they have at any other U.N. climate summit. But in order to translate awareness around food systems into tangible action down the line, ministers, negotiators, and pressure groups must build off of this momentum and use all the tools they have at COP27 to push for food system transformation.

Former U.N. climate summits provide little to build on in Sharm el-Sheikh. The 2015 Paris accords, negotiated at COP21, generally neglected food systems. Nationally determined contributions (NDCs)—the nonbinding national plans at the center of the accords—do not adequately address food systems emissions or envision greener food production. A 2021 study of NDCs from 14 countries and the European Union found that most did not mention food policies. Only two of the NDCs analyzed—from Brazil and Canada—provided a financial roadmap for transitioning to more sustainable food systems.

The fragility of the world’s food systems only exacerbates the adverse effects of crop losses.

Last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, also did little to address these challenges. The summit saw several announcements and pledges pertaining to agriculture and food systems, but none of them detailed any enforcement mechanisms. Furthermore, food systems did not feature prominently in the formal negotiations and were not mentioned in the final Glasgow Climate Pact.

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the body that oversees the COP summits, does have one mechanism for addressing issues related to food systems: the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture that launched in 2017. It includes a series of workshops and meetings at COPs and between them, which are supposed to lead to strategies for agriculture-related climate action. However, it has remained peripheral at U.N. climate summits and has yet to provide any significant recommendations to the UNFCC.

None of these efforts has been enough to change a sector that contributes to one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and that, in turn, urgently needs to adapt to climate change. Climate change affects agriculture and food systems directly (by reducing yields and causing livestock losses) and indirectly (by reducing water availability and increasing the prevalence of pests and diseases). Just consider the impacts of the extreme weather events this year. The “biblical” floods in Pakistan brought widespread destruction of crops and livestock. In Australia, recent floods have damaged staple crops. Drought and heat waves have resulted in reduced outputs in Argentina, China, India, the United States, and Europe. In the Horn of Africa, famine is looming due to multiyear drought.

Already, climate change has led to reduced yields of the world’s three staple crops—wheat, maize, and rice—which provide around 50 percent of all calories consumed globally, and an increase in threats that pests, such as desert locusts, pose to crops. In the future, climate impacts will worsen. Climate models predict, for instance, that by 2100, global rice yields could decline by up to 11 percent, and that in a 4-degree warmer world, vegetable yields could decline by 31 percent.

The fragility of the world’s food systems only exacerbates the adverse effects of crop losses. Currently, more than 800 million people suffer from hunger, a number that has increased in the last few years. After around a decade of decline, food insecurity began to worsen around 2015. In 2018, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization attributed this pattern to increased conflict, particularly in Africa, and climate impacts. The COVID-19 pandemic—which caused supply chain disruptions, declining incomes, and high food prices—made matters worse, as did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has disrupted the global food trade, especially wheat and fertilizer markets.

According to the World Food Programme, in a 2-degree warmer world, 189 million additional people could become food insecure. In a 4-degree warmer world, that number could increase by 1.8 billion more people, primarily in the developing world. By 2050, food prices could rise due to climate change by up to 29 percent, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

If the negotiators at COP27 truly want to make food systems less carbon-intensive and more resilient to climate change, they will need to address a wide variety of issues. These include infrastructure and supply chain issues, the enormous problem of food waste (which affects around one-third of all food produced), and rising meat and dairy consumption (which accounts for nearly 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions). COP27 stakeholders will also need to identify ways to help farming adapt to a changing climate, including by promoting crops that are more climate resilient and require less water, such as millet.

Perhaps the complexity of food systems is one reason they have been so difficult to address at international summits. But at COP27, the sheer magnitude and immediacy of the food crisis—driven partly by the Ukraine war, partly by climate change, and partly by the design of our food systems—has made the problem impossible to ignore.

For the first time, this year’s climate summit is hosting food and agriculture pavilions across the two weeks that will host discussions on key challenges facing food systems. While these initiatives may not translate to any substantial decisions at COP27, since those usually take time, they will bring much-needed attention to the issue.

The COP27 schedule also includes an “Adaptation and Agriculture” day on Nov. 12, which will feature several discussions on how to address challenges related to food systems. The day will also see Egypt launch a new initiative called Food and Agriculture for Sustainable Transformation (FAST), which will aim to ramp up climate finance contributions for food systems.

An initiative like FAST is important because food-related climate finance is woefully inadequate. A study released last month by advisory company Climate Focus found that between 2016 and 2020, only $9 billion, or 3 percent of global public finance, went to food systems. But, according to an estimate by Ceres 2030, the world may need around $350 billion annually. The details of the FAST initiative have yet to be announced, and it is unclear which countries will support it, but it could potentially be a useful mechanism for raising food systems finance.

All of the above will happen outside the negotiating rooms. In the formal negotiations, a key space to watch will remain the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, despite its many limitations. Last year, in Glasgow, it was supposed to report back to the UNFCC with a plan to deal with agricultural issues. But there were several disagreements over the text, especially over whether to include a reference to “agroecology,” or the promotion of sustainable farming methods, and how much to prioritize mitigation, or reducing emissions, versus climate adaptation. Instead of finalizing a text, negotiators said they would recommend “a draft decision for consideration and adoption” in Sharm el-Sheikh.

To make headway this time around, Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture negotiators will have to come up with a substantive text with consensus on key issues. They also need to provide an overdue roadmap for how the U.N. framework can implement their recommendations, including laying out the institutional architecture that would address agriculture. The next step will then be for the broader COP process to incorporate those strategies and recommendations. All of this is unlikely to happen in just one climate summit, but given the much-needed attention on the food crisis at COP27, now is a good time to push for substantive progress.

Kabir Agarwal is an independent journalist who writes about food systems, climate change, and political economy. His work has appeared in the Washington PostSouth China Morning PostJacobin, and the Wire. He writes the Unequal newsletter. Twitter: @kabira_tweeting

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