Putting food on the COP27 menu – part 1
Food: The missing piece of the climate puzzle
By Alice Ruhweza, Africa Region Director, WWF International and Tanya Steele, Chief Executive at WWF-UK
Nature is a climate hero
Having reached the halfway point between COP26 in Glasgow and COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, most would agree that we still have a long road for action to limit warming to 1.5°C. The Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine have impacted global resources and food security, and have rightly taken immediate political attention. But our long term food security in particular is tightly linked to the climate and nature crises and must be addressed alongside them.
Nevertheless, there were some key wins in Glasgow, including the important recognition of nature’s key role in the fight against climate change. World leaders from more than 145 countries committed to reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030 and offered nearly US$20 billion of funding for nature. The Glasgow Climate Pact also invited countries to include nature in their improved Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
Of course, the commitments made in Glasgow will not in themselves save people and planet – it’s the implementation of them that’s crucial.
Food: the missing piece in the climate puzzle
This year, COP will be held in Africa and there is a prime opportunity to extend these commitments to nature and tackle global food systems, allowing African countries to deliver their main message, which is that poorer countries bear the consequences of climate change and food insecurity despite their limited contribution to its causes.
Such a platform will prioritise climate justice and solidarity in international efforts to address critical issues such as climate finance, loss and damage, global adaptation targets, keeping the 1.5°C goal alive and acknowledging Africa's unique needs and circumstances.
The global food system is the number one contributor to biodiversity loss, deforestation, freshwater pollution and the collapse of marine wildlife, as well as being the second biggest contributor to climate change.
Why are food systems so important to climate action?
Food directly contributes to the destruction of nature
Crop and livestock production systems that occupy about half of the world’s habitable land are responsible for continued biodiversity loss. Globally, food production uses about 40% of available land and 70% of freshwater withdrawals, with agriculture responsible for about 75% of all deforestation.
A recent WWF report shows smallholder and commodity food production, livestock and wood fuel as the most significant drivers of deforestation. For example, in Mozambique, small scale agriculture accounts for over 90% of forest loss between 2001 to 2005. In Zambia, the demand for land for subsistence agriculture and expansion of commodities such as tobacco and cotton, coupled with poor farming practices, are the major drivers of deforestation.
Food production links to global health
Food production is a major reason for the emergence of infectious diseases and unhealthy diets are also the biggest cause of non-communicable diseases.
There is a global issue of food system inequality and insecurity. 3 billion people don’t have access to healthy and nutritious diets, while at the same time, 30% of all the food we produce is lost or wasted, which puts further pressure on our already fragile ecosystems.
Food production generates nearly one third of greenhouse gas emissions
The food system is also one of the main drivers of climate change, generating around 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions, as the graphic below shows.
If the current global trends of eating more meat and dairy prevail, our diets will almost double greenhouse emissions from food consumption by 2050. What’s more, the food we lose or waste contributes a further 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Science shows that even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted, current trends in global food systems would prevent us from meeting the 1.5°C target.
How do we begin to tackle these issues?
We must look at the food system as a whole – addressing agricultural production and emissions reductions, along with tackling food loss and waste. Doing so could cut emissions from food systems by as much as 63%, which could be crucial to keep 1.5°C within reach.
Despite the precarious state of our global food system, it is possible to feed 10 billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries and leave natural ecosystems intact – if we take a food systems approach to climate change and biodiversity. That means each stage is considered: the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal of food – as they each have social, environmental and economic consequences.
By transforming the whole food system, we can make it a fundamental part of the solution to the climate crisis.
Integrating changes from farm to fork
We urgently need to shift to nature-positive food production systems that will protect nature, rehabilitate the functions of degraded land and soil and use sustainable, regenerative agroecological practices. The massive level of food sourcing from Africa provides an opportunity for creating sustainable local, regional and global value chains. However, farmers and other supply chain actors require an enabling policy framework that incentivises trade.
Shifting to healthier diets and reducing food loss and waste will also enable widespread adoption of nature-positive farming practices, without increasing the pressure to convert more land and use more of nature’s resources to produce more food. For example, championing use of traditional vegetables grown in family farms in Africa, that have nourished communities for hundreds of years.
Agriculture: from carbon source to carbon sink
We need to decarbonise all sectors rapidly to achieve the 1.5°C Paris Agreement target, yet certain parts of the food system are still not included in climate negotiations and policy. Failure to account for all greenhouse gas emissions from the production, consumption and disposal of food, will prevent the world from achieving the Paris Agreement.
We know that the 1.5°C target will require some so-called ‘negative’ emissions – drawing carbon down from the atmosphere and storing it. Agricultural lands offer tremendous potential for storing carbon. Recent studies have shown that they could store up to half of the carbon necessary for keeping global warming to 1.5°C.
Some closing thoughts
It is clear that biodiversity is essential to keeping ecosystems healthy. The richer the variety of native plant and animal species, the better. But this variety is equally important for agriculture. Overreliance and lack of crop diversity poses a threat to our food security. However,we recognise that this is only one part of the food system and COP27 provides a unique opportunity to integrate climate and food systems.
Editor’s note: Look out for Part 2