The food systems challenge at COP 27
Food systems are getting a lot more attention at this year’s summit. But will that translate into any substantive outcomes?
The 27th edition of the Conference of Parties, more easily known as COP 27, has been ongoing for over a week. The annual United Nations summit is the only global platform where countries come together – or, more accurately, are supposed to come together – and take steps to avert climate change and also to adapt to climate change.
We are now in the last week of COP 27 and there has been little progress made on the food systems challenge. In fact, COP 27 is yet to make any significant progress on any issue. But the absence of food systems is among the most glaring because they are one of the most significant contributors to climate change and also among its biggest casualties.
My recent piece for Foreign Policy details why it's vital that COP 27 address the food systems challenge substantively.
To be fair, there has been more focus on food systems and agriculture at this COP than there has perhaps ever been at any other COP. There are a few food focussed pavilions holding seminars and discussions about both the problem that food poses and the risks it faces. They will go a long way in raising awareness and putting pressure on countries to act.
The hosts Egypt are among the countries suffering the consequences of increased food insecurity this year. They have taken a few potentially promising steps to bring more focus to food. That includes the launch of a new initiative whose goal will be to raise more climate finance for food systems. Only time will tell how successful this will be.
Are these initiatives and the increased focus enough to deal with the kind of challenge we face? Certainly not.
The increased awareness and pressure could go a long way in bringing food to the COP mainstream, which has, so far, largely neglected food systems. But, the sad truth is that the formal process of COP—the one through which decisions get taken and the only one which matters, in so far as it does matter—will probably continue to ignore the food systems question.
More details on how food systems have remained peripheral in the formal COP process are in the piece.
Since the beginning of COP 27, the formal process has made a bit of progress on how agriculture could be considered within the global climate change governance framework. But progress has been far too slow and far too little. It has also not yet given due consideration to “food systems” as a whole. That means the broad issue of food waste, diets, etc will remain overlooked even if agriculture gets a look in.
Why should food systems be integral to a climate summit?
There is no way that global temperatures can remain below 1.5 °C of warming without reducing emissions from food systems. Even if all fossil fuel emissions magically disappeared overnight, emissions from food systems alone would take the world beyond 1.5 °C of warming.
A third of total global greenhouse gas emissions come from food systems. These come roughly equally from land use changes like deforestation, food production including emissions from fertilisers, and pre and post-production including, for example, transportation and food waste.
Food systems are not only responsible for carbon dioxide emissions but are also among the biggest contributors to methane emissions, which are the second largest cause of climate change after CO2. Much of these emissions are down to livestock rearing for meat and dairy, but a lot of them also come from rice cultivation because its flooded fields create ideal conditions for methane-emitting bacteria.
Meat and dairy are often the proverbial elephants in the room. They contribute 14.5 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions and a degree of change in diets is needed if the world is to stay below 1.5 °C of warming, scientists have said. That is, of course, extremely complicated to even suggest.
On the other hand, food systems also urgently need to adapt to climate change. In a 2-degree warmer world, 189 million additional people could become food insecure and in a 4-degree warmer world, a staggering 1.8 billion more people might be food insecure, according to the World Food Programme.
Climate change affects agriculture in two ways – directly by impacting yields and indirectly by impacting water availability, and prevalence of pests and diseases.
It has already led to a decline in yields of the world’s three most important crops – wheat, maize and rice – which provide about 50 percent of calories consumed globally. While there has been some increase in yields primarily in high-latitude regions, those have been more than offset by declines in lower-latitude regions.
Things will get worse as temperatures rise. Climate models predict substantial losses in yield for major grains. By 2100, for instance, global rice yields could reduce by upto 11 percent. Fruits and vegetables will also suffer and the yields of vegetables could reduce by 31 percent in a 4-degree warmer world.
Climate change is also impacting biological systems in several ways. That has already led to an increase in threats that pests – such as desert locusts, for instance – pose to crops. Locust attacks have become more frequent and likely due to climate change. They are the most destructive migratory pest with a voracious appetite and can wipe out entire fields within minutes. Already 40 percent of global crop production is lost to pests, according to the FAO, and this will likely increase with climate change.
The adverse impacts of these losses on food insecurity would be orders of magnitude higher because of the way our food systems are organised. The IPCC estimates that because of climate change, food prices could rise by upto 29 percent by 2050 putting millions more at risk of hunger. It would also have implications for our diets, which are already high on calories and low on nutrients. They are likely to become even more nutrient deficient as the availability of key micronutrients reduces.
We are seeing the crisis up close this year
If there were any doubts over the likelihood of these outcomes, recent events should quell them. Let's only look at the impacts of extreme weather events this calendar year.
The “biblical” floods in Pakistan, caused tragic loss of life and led to displacement for millions. They also led to the widespread destruction of crops, affecting about 35 percent of the total area that had been planted. They have also led to the loss of livestock, which are integral to the livelihoods of millions.
While Pakistan’s neighbour India did not see floods of the same magnitude, its staple crops have suffered at the hands of climate change this year as outputs of both wheat and rice will decline for the first time in several years. If we move east, China’s record drought is likely to lead to a decline in the production of rice compared with last year. Down under in Australia, the recent floods have caused damage to wheat, barley, rice and canola crops.
In South America, Argentina’s prolonged drought has impacted 75 percent of its agricultural area. While in Europe, the warmer-than-usual summer and drought are projected to lead to reduced output of several crops. Similarly, drought in the United States has meant reduced outputs of key crops. And perhaps most worryingly of all the multi-year drought in the horn of Africa is contributing to a situation where famine is looming.
Globally production of cereals is forecast to see a decline, according to the FAO. The stock of wheat excluding that held by China (China is excluded from these calculations due to its low participation in global trade) is set to hit a 14-year low.
These impacts come on top of a situation where food insecurity had already been worsening in most of the world. After several years of near-secular decline, food insecurity saw a trend reversal beginning around 2015. In 2018, The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation put this pattern down to increased conflict, particularly in Africa, and an increase in climate impacts around the world.
On the back of that came the once-in-a-century pandemic that turned the world upside down for the better part of two years. Supply chain disruptions, declining incomes and high food inflation led to an astonishing 24 percent increase in the number of undernourished people in the world between 2019 and 2021, as per FAO data.
Just as the pandemic began to subside, Russia invaded Ukraine. Apart from the devastation and destruction this has brought to Ukraine, it sent global food prices into a tizzy. Within 10 days of the invasion, the price of wheat in global markets had jumped 40 percent. Some of this was down to concerns over supplies of wheat from Ukraine and Russia, both of who are key exporters. But a lot of it was because of pure speculation as an investigation of which I was a part revealed.
The war isn’t yet over, and a worrying atmosphere of uncertainty continues. Fertiliser supplies are likely to remain constrained because of the war and high energy prices which could lead to a decline in outputs next year. The growing debt crisis and falling foreign exchange reserves, primarily in the developing world, could further exacerbate food insecurity, as has already happened in Sri Lanka.
It is in this backdrop of what the historian Adam Tooze has more generally described as the “polycrisis” that ministers, negotiators and pressure groups are walking the COP 27 venues in Sharm-el-Sheikh.
Perhaps because of the magnitude and immediacy of the crisis, there is a lot more focus on food this time. Much of it is, unfortunately, still outside the core COP process.
While these may not necessarily translate to any substantial decisions about food systems at COP 27, as that translation is a rather slow process, they will certainly go a long way in bringing much-needed attention to the issue.
At the same time, it is also perhaps important to not put all our eggs in the COP basket, especially for something like food, which is difficult to untangle not only from climate change but also from affairs as disparate as religion and freedom, the implications of which go far beyond the dreary corridors of the climate change summit.