Producing the world’s food causes about one-third of planet-heating emissions, even as climate change makes the job even harder, plaguing farmers with more frequent floods and droughts.
Despite all this, and the need to nourish the planet’s expanding population, food has barely made it onto the diplomatic table at the annual United Nations climate summits - until now, after the Covid pandemic and Russia-Ukraine war disrupted global supplies.
This year, at the COP28 talks in Dubai, a high-level declaration backed by 134 countries has placed food, how we grow it, and its relationship to climate change firmly on the international radar.
The nations that endorsed the declaration on Friday, representing more than 5.7 billion people, agreed to incorporate food and farming into their national climate action plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to more extreme weather.
“Countries must put food systems and agriculture at the heart of their climate ambitions,” Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, climate change and environment minister for the United Arab Emirates, told a COP28 launch event.
The declaration represents a “turning point” as countries look to address food system emissions and support farmers in dealing with the impacts of climate change, she added.
But critics pointed out that it does not explicitly mention fossil fuels - the main driver of greenhouse gas emissions.
Growing risk of hunger
Developing nations are particularly vulnerable to the harm rising temperatures could do to food supplies and food security.
About 80 per cent of the global population at greatest risk from climate-driven crop failures and hunger live in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, the World Bank says.
The (COP28) declaration doesn’t set out how governments will tackle food emissions, and makes no reference to fossil fuels. This is a glaring omission.
Patty Fong, programme director for climate and health, Global Alliance for the Future of Food,
Edward Davey, partnerships director for the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), said very few countries have incorporated food and land use into their national climate plans so far.
Davey - who worked on the COP28 food systems declaration - described it as a “quantum leap”, because so many countries have now committed to do so in the next round of plans due by COP30 in Brazil in 2025.
A particular focus of efforts to make food systems more climate-resilient are small-scale farmers, who produce about one-third of the world’s food and are struggling disproportionately with climate shifts.
“The critical role which small-scale family farmers play is recognised in the declaration - which is a good start,” said Esther Penunia, secretary general of the Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development, a network of organisations representing 13 million family farmers.
“But there are no guarantees - it’s up to governments to translate the declaration into action in their national climate plans and on the ground,” she added.
The declaration aims to boost measures to support vulnerable producers, communities and agricultural workers, such as early warning systems, social safety nets, school feeding programmes, nature conservation and better water management.
Gates and UAE announce US$200 million in funding
At the COP28 launch event, the UAE and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a joint $200 million investment for agricultural research, technical assistance and scaling-up existing innovations like regenerative agriculture.
Tech guru Bill Gates said he first became aware of climate change when he visited Africa and was shocked by the effects of crop failure on malnutrition and child development.
“We really owe it to the poor farmers to give them better tools,” he said.
Gates said much of the new funding will go to CGIAR, a global research partnership focused on food security, which he said had saved more than 1 billion lives in its decades-long history through innovations to improve agriculture.
“That’s right up there with the very best health interventions like vaccines,” he said.
Enock Chikava, the Gates Foundation’s director of agricultural delivery systems, said research needed to be relevant for local contexts as some key food crops have been neglected, including cassava, millet and sweet potatoes.
“What that means is you can’t just do that research in Europe and try to copy and paste,” he said. “It is understanding the needs of those farmers.”
A distraction from fossil fuels?
While the new focus on food systems was broadly welcomed, some campaigners said it sidestepped the thorny issue of phasing down fossil fuels, which oil and gas-producing nations like the UAE have been reluctant to tackle.
Patty Fong, program director for climate and health at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a campaign group, said food systems account for at least 15 per cent of annual fossil fuel use.
“The (COP28) declaration doesn’t set out how governments will tackle food emissions, and makes no reference to fossil fuels,” she said in a statement. “This is a glaring omission.”
Intensive agriculture causes carbon to be released from the soil, while chemical inputs like fertiliser are made from fossil fuels, and rice paddies are a source of methane emissions.
But Davey from FOLU said the language on emissions was strong, including “shifting from higher greenhouse gas-emitting practices to more sustainable production and consumption approaches” by adopting eco-friendly farming methods and diets.
“All this food stuff is… not happening in any way to detract from those big issues,” he said. “It’s substantive in its own right.
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