Agri-food systems and their contribution to climate change action
12 November 2022, Egypt: This month at COP27, Heads of State, climate activists, government and civil society representatives, and private sector leaders, meet in Egypt to assess past actions and confirm plans on an array of issues critical to tackling the climate emergency – from urgently reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building resilience and adapting to the inevitable impacts of climate change, to delivering on the commitments to finance climate action in developing countries. The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said:
“A third of Pakistan flooded. Europe’s hottest summer in 500 years, the Philippines hammered, the whole of Cuba in a black-out. And here, in the United States, Hurricane Ian has delivered a brutal reminder that no country and no economy is immune from the climate crisis.” He added: “Climate chaos gallops ahead, climate action has stalled.”
During the COP27 deliberations, one of the thematic days is “Adaption and Agriculture Day”. This will provide an opportunity to discuss solutions for climate change adaptations to build the resilience of agriculture and our agri-food systems to withstand extreme climate events. Building food systems that are resilient to external shocks – climate change, pandemics, and others – is crucial, especially for vulnerable populations. However, discussing adaptations misses out on an important dimension of climate action – the contribution of specific agriculture and agri-food systems to climate change and the mitigating measures to reduce the environmental impacts of our food systems.
The global environmental impacts of agri-food systems are well documented. Agriculture uses half of the world’s habitable land. 82% of our calories come from 23% of our agricultural land – the rest is used for grazing and land used to grow fodder crops. The expansion of agriculture into forested areas (37% of our habitable land) threatens biodiversity and our resilience to climate change and climatic events. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), of the 28,000 species threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List, agriculture is a threat to 24,000 species.
Discussions on mitigating climate change focus on clean renewable energy, decarbonization of sectors such as transport and construction, improvements in energy efficiency, transition to low-carbon transport and many others. This is understandable as 74% of greenhouse gas emissions arise from industrial and associated processes. However, the remaining 26% comes from agriculture. The broad categories are 31% from livestock and fisheries, 21% from crop production, 24% from land use and 18% from supply chains (processing, packaging, transport and retail). About one-quarter of the calories (and the accompanying micronutrients) produced are lost as food loss or waste – spillage during processing and transportation, spoilage during storage or waste by retailers, restaurants, and consumers. This wastage amounts to 3.3 billion tons of carbon equivalent. To produce this food we consume land, water, energy, and fertilizer inputs, all of which come at an environmental cost.
Currently, agriculture accounts for 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally. For large consumers such as India, freshwater withdrawals have doubled from 350 billion cubic meters to 688 billion cubic meters over the period 1975 to 2010. The movement of water is both physical and ‘virtual’. The physical movement of water can occur through changes in initial allocations of surface and groundwater resources mainly from agricultural to urban, environmental, and industrial users. Water can also move ‘virtually’ as the production of water-intensive food, goods, and services are concentrated in water-abundant localities and are traded to water-scarce localities.
The pollution of water bodies with excess nutrients, or eutrophication, is a major environmental problem. The runoff of nitrogen and other nutrients from agricultural production systems is a leading contributor to the eutrophication of freshwater resources. Eutrophication is a serious environmental concern causing water quality to deteriorate sometimes to the extent of being incapable of supporting life. Agriculture causes 78% of the global ocean and freshwater eutrophication.
Food, therefore, lies at the heart of tackling climate change, reducing water stress, and pollution, restoring lands back to forests or grasslands, and protecting the world’s biodiversity. In such a scenario how can the private sector, governments, research organizations and other actors in the food chain contribute to climate change action?
- Boosting the natural resource efficiency of agriculture is an important step towards reducing emissions from production processes. Producing more food per hectare, per animal, per kilogram of fertilizer, and per litre of water will help create low-impact, sustainable agri-food systems.
- Improving soil and water management can boost food production, especially in Africa where soil degradation is a serious issue. This will curtail the need to bring more land under agriculture.
- Promoting nature-positive food systems characterized by a regenerative, non-depleting and non-destructive use of natural resources by increasing resource efficiency to produce more with fewer external resources and creating synergies between the system components will help reduce costs and negative externalities.
- Adoption of food loss and waste reduction targets aligned with Sustainable Development Goal Target 12.3, which calls for reducing, by 2030, food loss and waste by 50% by governments and companies in the food sector.
- Collaboration between major actors in the food supply chain and governments to identify food loss and waste hotspots, devise actions to reduce them and quantify progress. Many technological innovations will be needed, such as improved handling equipment that reduces damage, new methods that slow food degradation even without refrigeration, sustainable packaging, low-carbon transport and others.
- Shifting behaviors towards more sustainable foods without requiring large changes in dietary behavior. To enable consumers to make informed decisions on the environmental impacts of food and drink products, a transparent and standardized method to assess the environmental impacts of multi-ingredient processed food products will be an important start.
There are many more opportunities for the agriculture sector to contribute to climate change action. Reducing emissions from food production will be one of our greatest challenges in the coming decades. At COP27, if world leaders and agri-food sector players can bring their ideas and finances to the table to decarbonize agriculture it would be a critically important contribution to climate action.
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