Climate change: Food systems are key to our collective survival

The recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was not only the bleakest warning to date of the inevitable and catastrophic impact of climate change, but it was also the clearest recognition that “food systems” are key to our collective survival.

With some 240 mentions throughout the report, the world’s top climate scientists made clear that the transformation of global food systems would be instrumental in meeting global goals for human rights, equality and climate change.

As a result of last year’s UN Food Systems Summit, more than 110 countries have new national pathways to transform how we produce, process, consume and waste food to contend with and slow down climate change. Governments now have a matter of months until the next climate talks in Egypt to align their strategies and set the course to leverage food systems both to reduce emissions and to support the people and sectors worst affected to successfully adapt.

It is no surprise that some of the regions facing the greatest impacts of climate change are also those that announced common regional positions at the Food Systems Summit to reinforce each other’s action. The economic importance of agriculture to Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Islands, coupled with their high exposure to climate risk, make adaptation through food systems a matter of life and death. But these countries cannot act alone even though they are the most impacted; in fact, they need all countries to act together globally for us to stay on course for limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Therefore, all countries, rich and poor; emitters and non-emitters; resilient and vulnerable are out options. We must now take up the challenge of integrating a food systems approach across all government departments to effectively turn these national pathways into real results on the ground for people, planet and prosperity.

As a former government minister, I urge ministers and secretaries of state around the world to resist the temptation to work in isolation and become entrenched solely in their own discrete portfolios.

Foreign and environment ministers tend to do much of the negotiating around these global issues on climate, but the platforms for inter-ministerial engagement used by the UN Food Systems Summit must continue to allow this topic to become a common issue across all ministries.

The cabinets that get this right will make the most progress and access the most support for their priorities, from agriculture and environment to trade and health, as well as treasuries and finance ministries in particular. Agricultural losses to drought between 1983 and 2009 amounted to $166 billion, according to the IPCC, yet transforming food systems can help unlock $4.5 trillion in new business opportunities every year and mobilize smart capital for greater investment in more sustainable food systems.

With greater collaboration across issues, agencies and departments, governments can begin implementing comprehensive packages of measures that make good on their commitments, recognizing that it might take a while to get things right — all the more reason to start sooner rather than later.

At the UN climate summit COP26 in Glasgow last year, a number of partnerships came together from Regen10, to AIM for Climate, to the AFR100 restoration initiative and many more, all bringing together policymakers as well as businesses, non-profits, international agencies and farmers. When combined with the commitments coming out of the Food Systems Summit, they offer potential to impact key players on the frontline of food systems.

Take Regen10, for example. The plan is to work with more than 500 million farmers to adopt regenerative production methods and transform agricultural systems, while also ensuring around $60 billion per year is deployed to finance the transition.

By fostering greater collaboration at a national level, governments are also likely to treat international forums like the COP climate talks and the Food Systems Summit — which has its first biennial stock-take at the end of next year — as part of the same process to address our shared global challenges. The world will neither cope with nor address climate change without also rethinking food systems, making the two issues intrinsically linked.

As the IPCC sets out, adapting to climate change becomes harder with every fraction of a degree of warming, binding successful adaptation to global efforts to reduce emissions. The report is clear that the poorer countries, the small island states and the already vulnerable among us will suffer the most. Through food systems, countries have an opportunity to advance adaptation while reducing emissions, but the window for effective action is narrowing.

By uniting and maximizing the solutions to multiple existential threats, governments — and the ministers in their cabinets — could make this year the turning point in the survival of the planet.

Agnes KalibataPh.D., is the former special envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the 2021 Food Systems Summit, as well as President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

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