How To Protect Our Food Systems From Climate Impacts
A newsletter about food systems, climate change and everything connected to them
I just discovered that this little newsletter has been featured on the Substack’s homepage. Woop!
Thanks to all the new subscribers who joined via there and elsewhere. I hope you find the content interesting. If you want to know more about the newsletter and my background, you can find it here.
That has made my week, which has so far been extremely stressful because I’m wrangling with Italian bureaucracy. That’s also why this week’s newsletter is late!
Six ways to climate-proof our food systems
In case you haven’t heard, our food systems are in trouble.
Even before the latest spike in food prices (by two or three times as much in many poor nations),
- hunger and malnutrition levels, which stopped their downward trend in 2014, have started climbing again,
- healthy diets are out of reach for 1 in 3 people partly because our incentives are all out-of-whack,
- food systems employ the largest number of people around the world, but mistreat their workers (farmers, farm workers, food service employees, etc) terribly
- they are responsible for a third of total manmade greenhouse gas emissions, and
- the leading cause of biodiversity loss.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has worsened it all. The FAO, the UN’s food and agri agency, said its latest scenarios show the conflict could force an additional 18.8 million people to become chronically hungry by 2023.
We may be seeing many more scary headlines about food shortages suddenly, but trust me, the problems date back decades.
In its annual flagship report, the Washington DC-based, non-partisan, non-profit International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) focused one of these biggest problems - the linkages between climate change and food systems. AKA the “unhappy marriage” I talked about in an earlier issue.
IFPRI’s report last year focused on the impact of COVID-19 on food systems.
At 160 pages, it’s nowhere hear as hefty as some of the reports on these issues. But the 12 chapters are dense. In fact, I’m not going to touch the chapters on energy access, gene-edited crops and data and tech this time and will cover them in another issue.
“For each tenth of a degree that the global average temperature rises above 1.5°C, human and environmental costs are expected to escalate at increasing rates. For the foreseeable future, climate change will continue to disrupt food systems with greater frequency and severity, unless action is taken now.”
What does this action look like? Depends on where you are in the system. If you’re growing food, then it means you need to adapt to changing growing conditions, water scarcity, droughts and floods, increased risks of destructive weather events, and related risks of disease and pests.
If you’re one of the players in the value chains, you need to consider how climate change will affect storage and logistics and plan accordingly. If you’re a processor, trader and consumer, failed harvests could lead to price volatility and more expensive food.
The good news is that there are already many solutions to cut food-related emissions, from soil-friendly farming methods to low-methane alternative proteins and supply chains powered by renewables.
You can read more about some of them in this story I wrote last year, and the IFPRI report provides six broad policy recommendations.
1. Invest in R&D
Investment in development and adaptation of “green” innovations for use in low- and middle-income countries could help reduce emissions from agriculture, forestry, and other land use - the largest source of GHG emissions from food systems - by about 40% to 50%.
Despite this, food systems R&D is notably underfunded, while erratic weather patterns are already slashing productivity in many countries. In addition, only 7% of total agricultural R&D spending has explicit environmental objectives, and even less includes social aspects of sustainable intensification.
Here, we’re talking about public funding because while private research has poured billions into R&D, it has been concentrated on just a few commodities, “notably cereals, soybeans, horticulture, meat, cotton, aquaculture, and oil and sugar crops” while roots, tubers, legumes, and indigenous crops have been neglected.
“The world can no longer rely on the main drivers of past agricultural growth — namely, expansion of cultivated land area and exploitation of natural resources — which have contributed to GHG emissions and resource depletion. Agricultural productivity must be boosted through yield increases, more efficient use of scarce resources, and a reduction in crop losses, rather than greater use of natural resources.”
2. Manage land and water in a holistic and inclusive manner
This includes strengthening land tenure and access rights to other natural resources for farmers, rural households, and communities. This fits with what farmers and experts I’ve spoken to over the years have said repeatedly - that lack of ownership (or) longer-term rental contract of land really affects their motivation to invest and improve it.
IFPRI is suggesting “integrated landscape approaches” which means we should look at how the different but linked components of the landscape can be managed in a way that will result in multiple wins.
For example, we know water storage is key to tackle both floods and droughts, but if we want to have more storage space, then we need to find sites in a watershed that are not only technically suitable and meet the needs of different groups, but we also need to make sure the storage is both constructed and maintained over time.
3. Promote healthy diets and make food production sustainable
Malnutrition in all its forms is rising everywhere and affects about 25% of the world’s population, said IFPRI. Here, I don’t just mean people not having enough food to eat. Overweight, obesity and deficiency in essential micronutrients are also malnutrition.
Often this is a result of healthy diets being unaffordable, but it is also because calorie-laden, ultra-processed foods are too cheap, too readily available and too heavily promoted.
All countries should adopt national food-based dietary guidelines and innovation policies should prioritise R&D for nutrient-rich foods (including fruits and vegetables) to make healthy diets more affordable, IFPRI said. Food labeling, certification, not taxing healthy foods and taxing unhealthy foods - as well as those with higher carbon foodprints - could also nudge customers to shift diets.
Chile provides an interesting example. It established a black warning label on foods with high levels of energy and added salt, sugar, or saturated fats, slashing the exposure of children and adolescents to such advertisements, by 44% and 58%, respectively. This NYT article from 2018 has more.
4. Improve efficiency of value chains, facilitate trade and reduce food loss
There’s a lot of emissions associated with energy use during storage, transport and processing as well as food loss and waste. I wrote about the latter in a previous issue. Greener cold chains could slash emissions as well as reduce spoilage. What’s not to love?
5. Provide social protection
Social protection systems currently cover about 2 billion people around the world. Just for context - there are currently nearly 7.9 billion of us in the world.
These include include targeted cash and food transfers, food vouchers, school meals, public works, old age pensions, and public sector insurance.
Well-designed systems increase household food security and assets, reduce poverty, increase savings, increase education, and promote resilience to economic shocks, including severe weather
6. Sort out the mess on subsidies and find more cash (they didn’t exactly put it in those words but the sentiment was there)
“Current financial flows — including agricultural support, international development funds, and private investment — are at best insufficient and at worst counterproductive to climate-resilient development. They often support unsustainable and unhealthy production while undervaluing environmental impacts.”
“Public support to agriculture, totaling an estimated $620 billion, should be repurposed toward R&D for green innovations and to incentives to producers to adopt climate-smart technologies and practices.”
They also identified this paradox that I had missed earlier.
“Despite large agricultural labor forces, many lower-income countries tax agriculture, while rich countries with few farmers generously subsidise the sector. In wealthier countries, smaller numbers of farmers tend to be more effective in lobbying for their interests than urban consumers, who spend less of their incomes on food than consumers in poorer countries.”
I wrote about the subsidy problem last year. The numbers may look different but they’re not. IFPRI is looking at the total support to agriculture, of which $540 billion is for individual farmers. My newsletter below focuses on the $470 billion from the $540 billion that the UN said distort prices and are harmful for the environment and human health.
The report also warned of complex calculations farmers have to make when they are deciding whether to switch practices. For example, chemical fertilisers are bad for the environment and human health, but farmers may be reluctant to use manure or other biological fertilisers if there’s going to be a massive difference in productivity.
Compensatory payments to losers and to offset adoption costs for producers could help win political support but there just needs to be more of the climate finance going towards reducing emissions from agriculture, forestry and land use (known as AFOLU among the in-crowd), it said.
“The bulk of these existing climate funds go to renewable energy (43%), energy efficiency (30%), and sustainable transportation (18%), while the share for AFOLU is only 3.6% of the total.”
This is all the more worrying because some of the key tools for emissions reduction, like such as carbon taxes and transferable emissions quotas, aren’t suitable for agriculture.
The silent killer
Drought is often called a “silent killer” because it doesn’t produce dramatic footage like tsunamis and storms and its impact can be slow. But it is no less devastating.
Between 2000 and 2019, over 1.4 billion people were affected by drought.
And since 2000, the number and duration of droughts has risen 29%.
Drought In Numbers 2022, from the UN, is 51 pages of mainly images and short texts that brings the issue to life. It’s a difficult read but not a complex or a technical one and it’s worth a look.
A fan of The Godfather? Or The Sopranos?
Well then, you might want to check out the latest episode of The Index, a podcast I’m hosting that looks at organised crime, based on the Global Organised Crime Index.
For most of us, the term 'mafia' is shaped by the countless Hollywood portrayals of organised crime families. But the reality, in Italy, is really quite different.
In a two-part episode, we dig into how entrenched these groups are in the country's legal and illegal economy, with the help of some stellar experts. Here is Part 1, which focuses on the mafia-type groups’ criminality.
As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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