Food systems change: a low-hanging fruit for climate change mitigation?

Experts at GLF Climate put forth best routes for reducing food’s contributions to climate change

A local farmer in China, which provides 20 percent of the world's food and fibers. Hamad M, Flickr
7 November 2021
7 November 2021

Also read the wrap-ups for day 1 (forests) and day 3 (5th Investment Case symposium) of the event.

Our global food system produces about a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – largely through agricultural practices and land-use change. 

Curbing those emissions will be crucial to meeting the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement on climate change, seeking to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and preventing disastrous levels of human-induced climate change. But as societies struggle to meet the nutritional needs of our existing population – let alone the 10 billion projected to inhabit the planet by 2050 – is a planet-friendly plateful for each of us really within the realm of possibility?

On 6 November 2021 – the second day of the Global Landscapes Forum’s Frontiers of Change event held alongside the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow – scientists, policymakers, private sector representatives, Indigenous peoples, farmers, activists and more gathered both online and in-person to grapple with this critical proposition.

The discussions were imbued with cautious hope. Speakers were largely in agreement that the means for creating a climate-smart food system are well within our reach – but they’ll require considered, consistent effort at multiple scales.

“There’s no single solution to this: changes need to happen at every level, from individual choices to macro-policies at the national and global level,” said Harvard School of Public Health nutritionist and epidemiologist Walter Willett. “But that also means that almost everybody can play an important role here.”

Eating smarter, healthier and fairer

Willett outlined some of his team’s work on the Planetary Health Diet – a diet that could nourish a global population of 10 billion without overstepping planetary boundaries. It’s very much possible to achieve, he said, but requires significant cuts in the amount of red meat, eggs, dairy and starchy vegetables that many of us currently eat – and a boost in consumption of fruits, vegetables and legumes.

Speakers from the private sector stressed that this doesn’t have to equate to austere meal choices. Scientist and entrepreneur Patrick Brown provided a compelling alternative in his keynote presentation on Impossible Foods, one of the largest plant-based meat substitute companies.

Willett also referenced the increased variety of plant-based foods on offer. “One of the great things about the global connections we have now is that many cultures have learned to produce really tasty, enjoyable [plant-based] foods, which more and more of us are learning about now,” he said.

As the founder of the Cacao Project, Filipino chef, farmer and entrepreneur Louise Mabulo is at the frontline of building those kinds of connections, across both continents and timescales. Her organization helps cultivate resilient and climate-smart livelihoods for farmers in the Philippines – and educate consumers at the other end of the value chain, too.

“For us, the future of food is inherently intersectional,” said Mabulo, “with culture; with our standard of living; with our own health and safety as a community in one of the most climate vulnerable regions in the world; and with environmental health as much as human health.”

Mabulo also emphasized the importance of justice within any food system transformation. “You can’t teach food system revolutions and reforms to someone with a hungry stomach,” she said. “And whether that’s in a rural agricultural community, or in the depths of urban food deserts, climate action needs to be accessible and equitable for all in order to have a real lasting impact – especially for the most vulnerable communities.”

That means making sure that any land-use changes are informed by the lives and realities of producers on the ground. During the event, several methods were offered to facilitate this process. The High Conservation Value (HCV) screening tool, for instance, combines desktop study, discussion with stakeholders and mapping to determine HCV sites across landscapes. Landscape Enterprise Networks (LENs), meanwhile, offer useful means of leveraging business interests to accelerate community-centric landscape restoration.

Making it ‘easier to be green’

Many speakers mentioned economic levers – such as ending subsidies for emissions-heavy agriculture – that need to be pulled in order to steer our food systems in a more sustainable direction.

Food waste is one key area where financial incentives are currently lacking, said Yolanda Kakabadse Navarro, Ecuador’s former Minister of Environment. Forty percent of the food currently produced on this planet is lost or wasted: if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter.

“That is crazy,” said Kakabadse Navarro. “In addition to being crazy, it’s unacceptable in every way – especially when today, more than 800 million people are going to bed without food.” She said that governments, civil society and the private sector need to work together to create better incentives and raise awareness about the issues at hand.

During a plenary, a new initiative was launched that aims to address some of these challenges in a comprehensive fashion: the World Bank and Global Environment Facility’s Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) Impact Program.

The initiative takes an integrated approach to addressing the challenges relating to unsustainable land use, within the landscape and across key value chains. “FOLUR will provide countries with needed support to tackle institutional and market failures and repurpose resources in the public sector,” said Karin Kemper, global director for Environment, Natural Resources and the Blue Economy at the World Bank. 

“The program can engage governments to incentivize sustainable land use,” she said, “for example, repurposing public expenditures on agriculture can lead to an 8 percent avoided loss of natural land, and a [USD] 56 billion gain in return.”

Restoring degraded land to farmland is a key part of the proposal. “If just 12 percent of the world’s degraded lands were restored to production, we could feed another 200 million people, and farmers’ incomes would be raised by USD 40 billion per year,” said Kemper. “So there’s a very powerful and intense dependency between agriculture and the natural world, with so much potential to improve livelihoods through better land management and restoration.”


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