Food crisis and climate emergency cannot be separated, says senior UN official

Kaveh Zahedi says that answers to the world's problems can be found during Cop28 in Dubai

Iraq is one of the most vulnerable nations in the world to the effects of climate change, including water and food insecurity, according to the UN. EPA
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Countries face a series of crises that pose a risk to food security, a senior UN official has said.

Kaveh Zahedi, director of the office of climate change, biodiversity and environment at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, said countries had barely recovered from the coronavirus pandemic before a cost-of-living crisis hit and contributed to the fact 700 million people globally now face food insecurity.

Mr Zahedi told The National on Monday the situation was was being made worse by climate change and, when combined, these issues were “undermining hard-won development gains”.

It scares me. It is going to be hard to live in a number of countries. It is going to be too hot
Kaveh Zahedi, director of FAO's office climate change, biodiversity and environment

“I don’t think you can separate the food crisis from the climate crisis or food security from climate solutions,” said Mr Zahedi. “They are absolutely intertwined.”

Last week, the UAE’s Cop28 presidency said agriculture and food production would take centre stage at the climate summit in Dubai from November 30 to December 12.

Mariam Al Mheiri, Minister for Climate Change and Environment, said it was the “strongest push ever given to food systems and agriculture in the Cop process” and came on the same day that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said food systems were “broken”.

Mr Zahedi said food systems can be part of the solution and not only in cutting emissions but boosting resilience, ensuring access to food and allowing farmers on the front lines of the crisis to adapt to a changing climate.

Crisis is growing due to droughts, floods and heatwaves

There was not one global threat to food security but an array of factors – from supply chains to conflict to governance – with climate change now intensifying the crisis because of droughts, floods and heatwaves, and with water scarcity and biodiversity loss compounding the issue, he added.

But he said the FAO was keen to focus on solutions such as the power of regenerative agriculture and soil restoration that can help farmers to adapt and cut emissions.

“If you look at the narrative around climate and agriculture, it is always that [the sector is responsible for] 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

“It is always the problem statement. You don’t see that solution orientation [such as] addressing the fact a third of agricultural land is degraded.

“What happens if we invest in bringing that back to health? That’s what we will take into Cop28.”

Finance remains a significant barrier

Mr Zahedi said finance is one of biggest barriers to addressing these issues.

It was crucial, he said, for countries to deliver on the long-promised $100 billion a year climate finance pledge agreed to in 2009 and funding the loss and damage facility established last year at Cop27.

“Where are those losses and damages most being felt? Probably the smallholders; people living on the margins and the most vulnerable. We are not going to solve the food system agenda in a meeting room,” he said.

“[But] countries can’t do it alone. Of course, we need much more than $100 billion. But signals are important.”

Waking up to the problems

Aside from the Cop28 presidency’s focus on the issue, he said there was a “real awakening” taking place regarding the role of food systems in the official negotiations.

Food systems and agriculture, for example, were highlighted in the Cop27 closing decision text.

“It hasn’t always been seen as a central part,” he said.

“The focus has so often been on energy but without [food systems solutions], we are not going to solve climate change.”

The scale of the challenge was laid bare in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that showed how off track the world was in trying to address climate change.

“There was a throwaway line which shocked me,” Mr Zahedi said.

“It said under many of the scenarios, rain-fed agriculture would be no longer possible in large parts of Africa and South America. Can you imagine what kind of transformation you would need to cope with that?”

Despite the often bleak picture, Mr Zahedi said he was optimistic about the issue, particularly how the UAE presidency was “positioning” food and agriculture in the climate conversation.

Much like Cop27, Cop28 will have a pavilion dedicated to food systems and agriculture hosted by FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and the Rockefeller Foundation, where the focus will be on solutions such as drought resilience, regenerative agriculture, and tackling food loss and waste.

“It is extraordinary that a third of our food goes nowhere,” he said.

“That is a waste of water, energy and everything.”

When asked how the public can be galvanised into action, he said everyone is interested in having a liveable planet but the world was moving away from that.

“It scares me,” he said. “Why should people care? It is going to be hard to live in a number of countries. It is going to be too hot.

“Food is going to be unpredictable. It is an existential issue.”

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Updated: November 28, 2023, 10:33 AM