World must 'decouple' food production growth from harming environment, WEF president says

The UAE and more than 20 leading food companies will create up to $20 billion combined procurement commitment

The World Economic Forum's First Movers Coalition will involve businesses leveraging their purchasing power to decarbonise heavy-emitting sectors. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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The world must “decouple” the increase in food production from the agricultural sector's impact on the environment, the president of the World Economic Forum said at Cop28 in Dubai on Friday.

“We need to produce enough food for the global population but our aim is also to decouple growth in agriculture and food from harming the environment,” Borge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum, said at the Business and Philanthropy Climate Forum at Cop28.

Food systems account for more than 30 per cent of global CO2 emissions and are critical to achieving the Paris Agreement and limiting global warming to below 1.5C.

Boosting demand for sustainably produced and low-emission agricultural commodities can accelerate the food industry's transition to net zero, according to the WEF.

About 70 per cent of freshwater consumption is related to food and agriculture, according to WEF.

“We're looking at how to secure more crop per drop, which makes a huge difference if you can produce the same with less of a footprint,” Mr Brende said.

“If we're going to reach net-zero by 2050, food and agriculture has to be a part of the solution.”

More than 20 major food companies have joined the WEF's First Movers Coalition, a global group of businesses leveraging their purchasing power to decarbonise heavy-emitting sectors, the organisation said on Friday.

The WEF, with support from the UAE government, along these 20 corporate and research entities in the food sector, on Friday launched the First Movers Coalition for Food.

The UAE and these food companies will create a combined procurement commitment with an estimated value of $10 billion to $20 billion by 2030.

The initiative uses companies' combined purchasing power for sustainably produced farming products to speed up the adoption of sustainable agriculture and funding of the energy transition.

By joining this coalition, food companies are signalling to farmers and the supply chain that there is demand for green products. This will accelerate the adoption of environmentally-friendly farming methods and green technologies and processes.

Around 74 per cent of the world's deforestation is related to food and agriculture, so companies need to produce food in a way that uses less land, particularly where there's important biodiversity, Mr Brende said.

“This consciousness is of course important from the companies but also I think the companies are very smart … and they know that consumers really care about this,” he said.

Climate change is having a “huge impact” on food production because arable land is shrinking, he added.

Having the food industry at the discussion table and at Cop28 “makes a huge difference”, said Antoine Bernard de Saint-Affrique, chief executive of Danone.

It is a good time for the food sector to be at the discussion table because “we are reaching a tipping point for regenerative agriculture … it is in action at a number of places, still in pilot stage, but over quite large scale,” he said.

“The challenge now is to transform fast, and to transform at scale, with the farmers at the heart.”

Rapid action is needed as this is a matter of food security, environmental protection and social stability because 80 per cent of food comes from smallholder farmers, he said.

Only 4.3 per cent of the world's climate finance is spent on agrifood systems, even though food production contributes a third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, creating “a total disconnect” between emissions and green financing, he said.

“This absolutely must change which is why it is absolutely critical to leverage solutions that do exist and move to a radical, aggressive approach,” he said.

This entails public-private partnerships and investments from companies, governments and philanthropy, he added.

“We need finance instruments that help de-risk the energy transition and put the farmers at the centre.”

Updated: December 01, 2023, 6:44 PM