climate change

Opinion: Food systems transformation critical to reducing emissions

Changing the way we produce and consume food could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 10.3 billion tonnes a year. Photo credit: FAO / Victor Sokolowicz.

By Patty Fong

The co-author of a new report explains how most governments are overlooking a principal route to cutting emissions.

The devastating war in Ukraine has understandably distracted media and political attention from climate change and related issues. But for those who did manage to absorb the findings of the latest publication from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the news was grim.  

The report concluded that more frequent extreme weather and climate events have exposed millions to acute food insecurity and reduced water security. Looking ahead, it warned that half to three-quarters of the global population could be exposed to “life-threatening climatic conditions” by 2100. 

The IPCC authors also highlighted the likelihood that climate change “will increasingly put pressure on food production and access, especially in vulnerable regions”. The top line message was that the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”. 

The Ukraine conflict has dramatically underlined the imperative to shift to cleaner energy sources, not just to reduce emissions, but to dilute the influence of oil and gas on geopolitics. This has given a much-needed boost to the drive to wean the world off fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy.  

However, a recent analysis by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, in partnership with Climate Focus and Solidaridad, reveals that most governments are largely overlooking another source of huge potential emissions savings: food systems transformation. Food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste account for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, most countries’ national climate plans, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), submitted as part of the UN climate talks, fail to address these issues systematically or comprehensively. As a result, they are set to miss the opportunity for significant emissions reductions, alongside a range of related benefits for health, the environment and the economy.  

Conservative estimates suggest that changing the way we produce and consume food could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 10.3 billion tonnes a year. This is slightly more than the combined emissions from global transport and residential energy use in 2019 and is equivalent to at least 20% of the cut needed by 2050 to prevent catastrophic climate change. To put it another way, without the transformation of the industrialised food systems, it will be impossible to keep global warming below the critical threshold of 1.5C.   

There are multiple ways in which food systems around the world could be reformed to make them more climate-friendly, while also improving diets and nutrition, advancing animal welfare, and supporting nature and sustainable livelihoods. They include shifting away from industrial-scale production that uses lots of fertiliser and degrades the environment; directing public subsidies towards ecologically beneficial forms of farming, healthy food, and resilient livelihoods and communities; and promoting nutritious, sustainable diets adapted to local ecosystems and contexts. The mix of reforms will be different in each place but our analysis shows that across the board, countries are missing this chance.  

Of the 14 NDCs that we analysed in detail (Bangladesh, Canada, China, Colombia, Egypt, France, Germany, Kenya, Senegal, Spain, South Africa, the UK, US and Vanuatu) none fully accounted for emissions from food imports, particularly those linked to deforestation and the destruction of nature and ecosystems, in spite of pledges made at the UN climate meeting in Glasgow last year to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. Similarly, none of the plans assessed includes specific measures to promote healthy and sustainable diets.  

Germany was the only country we looked at that committed to moving away from harmful subsidies that prop up intensive agricultural practices and contribute to higher emissions. While France was the only one whose NDC included comprehensive measures to reduce food loss and waste. China passed an anti-food-waste law last April, accompanied by a large-scale “clear your plate” campaign, but this is not reflected in its NDC, demonstrating a need shared with many countries for greater policy coordination and coherence. 

Of all the countries we looked at, Colombia, Senegal and Kenya had the most ambitious measures in place to promote agroecological and regenerative locally-led agriculture practices.  

Our analysis demonstrates where the opportunities lie at a country level and also includes generally applicable lessons for how countries can incorporate inclusive food systems transformation into their emissions-reduction plans and reap the associated health, environmental and societal benefits. It gives governments and other actors a toolkit to drive such food systems reform.  

All parties to the UN climate talks have been asked to submit strengthened NDCs by the end of this year. With food systems reform offering such accessible wins, there is no good reason for countries not to include it in their NDCs. And with climate impacts accelerating and the window for meaningful action closing, there is no time to lose. 

First published in China Dialogue.

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