The clock is ticking

Suleiman Yakubu on why food system reform must be centre stage at COP28.

The clock is ticking. The world stands at a critical juncture in the fight against climate change. The food we eat not only contributes to climate change, but if urgent action is not taken, its supply will be severely affected by the impact of rising temperatures and changing weather patterns.

Later this year, global leaders and stakeholders will meet at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) to deliberate on the urgent actions required to address the looming effects climate change will have on both people and planet. Food system reform must be central to these discussions.

Climate change and the global food system are intimately intertwined. The consequence of this close bond poses a huge threat to millions of people, but disproportionately affects women in the low- and middle-income countries, and those living in poverty and suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

Our global food system is a significant contributor (more than a third) of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. Simultaneously, climate change adversely affects agriculture. Extreme weather events, changing in growing seasons, and unpredictable precipitation patterns threaten food production and food security for millions worldwide. It is a vicious cycle.

Climate change and malnutrition are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin. It is predicted that if we fail to prevent the effects of climate change, by 2050, the risk of hunger and malnutrition could rise by 20 percent. Undernutrition is already an underlying factor in 45 percent of deaths in children under the age of five. Climate change will only make this number rise.

To mitigate climate change and ensure a sustainable future, it is crucial to reform the food system. This reform should encompass sustainable agricultural practices, reduction of food waste, conservation of biodiversity, and equitable access to nutritious food.

“COP28 presents a unique opportunity to forge a path towards a sustainable future where food systems are resilient, equitable, and capable of mitigating climate change.”

By transitioning to sustainable and regenerative agriculture, we can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the food industry and enhance its resilience to climate change impacts. The economic gains could be massive – estimated at US$ 5.7 trillion a year by 2030, and $10.5 trillion a year by 2050.

Social returns include creating new jobs and markets in the fields of sustainable food production, transport, and consumption, estimated to be worth $4.5 trillion by 2030. 

This is not a simple task and won’t just happen overnight; improving food systems requires a comprehensive approach to innovation that encompasses multiple facets.

First, we need to improve collaboration and work with a diverse range of stakeholders, including the most vulnerable.

Secondly, businesses must operate in a more inclusive and collaborative manner, engaging with a wider range of partners to have positive social and environmental impacts by adopting nature-positive and sustainable approaches while ensuring equitable livelihoods.

Thirdly, we need to optimise the use of data, knowledge, and technology, utilising both existing and new sources, such as scientific, indigenous, and other forms of expertise. These improvements will come from establishing open processes that facilitate partnerships between the public and private sectors, resulting in value creation that cannot be achieved by any single organisation working alone.

“To mitigate climate change and ensure a sustainable future, it is crucial to reform the food system.”

Prioritising nutrition within the food system reform is vital. Malnutrition, in all its forms, is a global crisis that demands immediate attention. Climate change exacerbates this crisis, affecting the quality and availability of nutritious food.  Addressing malnutrition and fostering a transition to healthy diets not only saves lives but also contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The Power of Nutrition is doing exactly this – by convening partnerships it’s making significant impact through strategic investments that integrate high-impact and cost-effective nutrition interventions with climate initiatives, reaching vulnerable populations, especially pregnant women, young children under five years, and adolescents, who are most affected by the climate crisis.

For example, its programme in Malawi, in partnership with GiveDirectly and Save the Children, integrates nutrition with social protection programmes and early childhood development, together with the distribution of climate resilient seeds. This package of interventions holistically looks to improve dietary diversity, tackle household food insecurity, reduce poverty and strengthen resilience to climate change.

Despite gains made towards tackling malnutrition, challenges persist in mobilising the required resources to achieve the global nutrition targets and other related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, particularly in the face of competing development priorities and global economic circumstances.

It is estimated that an additional US$7bn per year over the next ten years is needed to reach the global nutrition targets and can yield tremendous returns of about 3.7 million child lives saved, at least 65 million fewer stunted children, and 265 million fewer women suffering from anaemia.

Mobilising the financial resources needed to accelerate progress against malnutrition will require that donors, countries, the private sector, and even consumers themselves act in “global solidarity” and apply innovative financing mechanisms. National ownership and domestic financing must be maximised, and each partner will need to contribute according to its financing capacity and comparative advantage.

Climate finance offers a unique opportunity to aid developing countries in mitigating climate change and its impact on food systems and nutrition. However, food systems currently receive only three percent of climate finance, despite accounting for one-third of all global emissions.

If the global community wants to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement, climate finance needs to fund food systems transformation such as safeguarding and revitalising nature, adopting regenerative agricultural practices, switching to healthier diets, diversifying protein sources, reducing food waste and loss, and bolstering resilient rural livelihoods and local food systems.

The time to act is now. The upcoming COP28 presents a unique opportunity to forge a path towards a sustainable future where food systems are resilient, equitable, and capable of mitigating climate change. By placing food system reform and nutrition at the forefront of the climate agenda, we can create a better world for current and future generations.

Together, we can make COP28 a turning point in the fight against climate change and its impact on our food systems and nutrition. Our future depends on it. - PA

A call to action from the Power of Nutrition

As global citizens, it is our collective responsibility to raise our voices and advocate for decisive action on the climate-food nexus at COP28. We urge world leaders and stakeholders to prioritise the following actions:

  1. Integrate food system reform into climate agendas: Governments and international bodies should ensure that food system reform is a key focus of climate discussions. Commitments and strategies to transition towards sustainable agriculture and reduce food waste must be at the forefront of climate action plans.
  2. Promote healthy and sustainable diets: Encourage the adoption of sustainable, nutritious diets that minimise environmental impact. This includes promoting plant-based diets, reducing meat consumption, and supporting local, organic food systems.
  3. Invest in research and innovation: Governments and private sectors must invest in research and innovation to develop sustainable agricultural practices, food technologies, and distribution systems that support climate resilience and food security.
  4. Foster international cooperation and partnerships: Collaboration on a global scale is imperative. Governments, NGOs, the private sector, and civil society must work together to share knowledge, resources, and best practices to accelerate sustainable food system reform.
  5. Engage and educate the public: Raise awareness and educate the public about the critical link between climate change, food systems, and nutrition. Empower individuals to make informed choices that contribute to a more sustainable future.