The food we eat has everything to do with a warming planet

A third of global greenhouse gases come from food systems. We can do better to push the climate action agenda forward

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Food is more than sustenance – it represents health, joy and culture. But behind the food we eat is a complex system that represents 10 per cent of global gross domestic product and directly affects the lives and livelihoods of the 8.1 billion people in the world.

As such, global food and water systems have been prioritised through key events such as the UN Food Systems Summit, UN Water Summit and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change dialogues. Still, 783 million people faced hunger in 2022, 1.3 per cent up from pre-pandemic levels.

Food systems account for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and are thus a significant opportunity to progress the climate action agenda. For instance, changes in rice cultivation practices can reduce methane emissions by up to 40 per cent with no negative impact on crop yield.

The 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (Cop28) hosted by the UAE is thus seeing food systems centred on the agenda with the Emirates Declaration of Resilient Food Systems, Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Action calling for integrating food systems strategy into countries’ nationally determined contributions, national adaptation plans and national biodiversity strategies and action plans. Tying food systems’ transformation to Cop28 outcomes means resilient food and water systems could be a tangible reality.

Geopolitical tensions, the energy-food-water-health crises, inflationary pressures and rising costs have exacerbated challenges for food security, which means that strong leadership is needed to secure a positive food future. Three areas represent opportunities for investment in 2024.

The first is leading change with farmers. Food production must move towards secure nature-positive, water-positive and inclusive outcomes; that’s where agricultural practices that can protect and restore soil health and biodiversity come in.

Regenerative agriculture can yield an 80 per cent decrease in soil erosion, retain 20,000 additional gallons of water per 1 per cent increase in soil organic matter and increase biodiversity in soil by 10 per cent. Most importantly, this transition could increase farmer profitability by up to 200 per cent.

Food production must move towards secure nature-positive, water-positive and inclusive outcomes

However, the ground truth around implementation can present diverse challenges down to variables such as water availability, soil type, primary crops, product markets, policy environments, farm size and access to finance. Local communities must, therefore, adapt agricultural methods to local conditions to be effective and sustainable.

Farmers, as stewards of the land, understand most how to maximise land and resource use and opportunities. Financial and value chain actors can support across the supply chains to de-risk and incentivise changes for more regenerative agricultural practices. These practices can secure crop productivity and farmer livelihoods while ensuring environmental sustainability and land resilience to new climate realities.

Co-designed with farmers, new green products and services can facilitate new practices, including financing instruments to de-risk investments, insurance and credit products, capacity building, technologies, standards, branding and preferred market access. These new products and services could help the 500 million or more smallholders that produce 30 per cent of our food lead and benefit from transitions.

The second area is technology and innovation. 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 fertilisers, advances in bio-solutions, enhanced digital agriculture leveraging data and artificial intelligence, irrigation and soil health technologies, synthetic biology and personalised 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 UAE and US, 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 co-operation 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. FMC4Food will focus on crucial agri-food commodities, namely rice, dairy, beef cattle and row crops, which account for around 70 per cent of global emissions.

The third area in need of investment is water. Food and water are inextricably linked; 70 per cent 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 per cent of climate disasters, such as drought or flooding, are water-related.

The UAE is all too familiar with a water-scarce reality. Agriculture accounts for 85 per cent of water usage in the region, exacerbated by extended drought and lack of constant freshwater supply. As groundwater reserves deplete faster than replenished, initiatives that can improve water governance and help close the water loop will be increasingly important to ensure water and food security. That will include reducing wastage, cutting pollution, minimising runoffs and deploying energy-efficient solutions to recover and provide fresh water.

At Cop28, the UAE and Brazil are hosting the first Ministerial Dialogue on Water-Resilient Food Systems that will see commitments from countries and non-state actors to move the needle on the food-water nexus in the run-up to Cop30 in 2025. Emerging technologies, finance and co-operation 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.

Leadership matters. The Emirates Declaration is the first step towards galvanising the political will to bring meaningful and holistic changes to the food system. The next step is to catalyse and mobilise public-private-philanthropic partnerships to translate ambition into action and progress. This move requires courage, imagination and bold leadership from all stakeholders.

Cop28 could be a turning point for the world’s food and water systems and business-as-usual is not an option if we want a future without food and water scarcity.

Published: December 08, 2023, 6:00 PM
Updated: December 19, 2023, 3:25 PM