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This total storm has revealed the inefficiencies and shortcomings of global food systems, making people talk about an impending food crisis.
Last September, the UN Summit brought together key players in the food and agriculture sectors and made new national and international commitments to improve food systems for humans and the planet. The five summit lines of action identified effective solutions to end hunger and malnutrition and to ensure environmental sustainability across all value chains. Just before the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow in November, governments and businesses saw an ideal opportunity to take decisive action to transform food systems.
This feature has not been implemented. But as the UN’s key decade of food action ends, 2016 to 2025, we need to measure progress in months, not years, but COP26 has greatly upgraded food systems. Coal, cars, trees, cement, steel and cash continue to attract politics and media attention in the UN climate talks, while the much-needed change in the way food is produced and consumed is overlooked.
This is extremely short-sighted, as food systems are responsible for one third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Even if every other sector reached zero zero emissions tomorrow, it would be impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius without significant changes to food systems. Today, food systems use 70% of freshwater resources, occupy 40% of the land without ice and are a key driver of deforestation, the extinction of thousands of species and the destruction of the ecosystems on which we depend.
At the same time, food systems are failing to meet their primary goal of feeding the planet’s growing population. The rapid increases in hunger and malnutrition, exacerbated by work-related holidays due to COVID-19 and rising poverty levels, are reversing a decade of progress. Three billion people cannot afford healthy and nutritious diets, and as a result, millions are at risk of death, disease, and devastating physical and cognitive disabilities. There are widespread fears that the war in Ukraine will exacerbate food insecurity in developing countries.
And yet there is hope. A food system based on sustainable production, respect for natural ecosystems, the circular economy and responsible management of land and resources along the value chain will bring enormous benefits to human and global health, as well as increase employment and of means of subsistence.
In addition, the decisions identified at the United Nations Food Systems Summit are ready for implementation. Organizations dealing with health, nutrition, poverty alleviation and development have begun to overcome obstacles to collective action. By renewing the momentum created last year to reform food systems, we can ensure that the UN Decade of Action achieves its goal of “eradicating malnutrition in all its forms, everywhere, leaving no one behind”. And a stronger collective effort could help achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreements with crops that will last until 2030.
But this will not happen without political commitment, and governments and businesses, together with civil society partners, need to step up their efforts. The transformation we so desperately need will only be possible if we invest the time and resources to turn national and international commitments into action.
The next step is to make action on food systems the basis for the development of global climate policy in all major forums. These include: COP27 (to be held in Egypt in November) and each subsequent COP. global action plans for methane and deforestation; nationally defined contributions under the Paris Climate Agreements; post-COVID-19 recovery plans; green infrastructure programs; public health measures and sustainable trade initiatives.
High-level meetings during 2022 offer opportunities for consolidating and implementing national plans and commitments. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15), adopted in Kunming, China, is set to complete an ambitious new global biodiversity framework based on food systems. The G7, under the German presidency, could mobilize new financial commitments to fight hunger and protect nature. Indonesia’s G20 Presidency provides an opportunity for Member States to step up efforts to improve food system resilience, combat hunger and reduce food loss and waste. At COP27, the Egyptian Presidency may put food systems at the heart of the climate agenda by proposing projects such as “Agriculture, Nutrition and Food Systems Days” or “Nutrition Weeks”.
In the meantime, companies must meet their commitments to reduce hunger and malnutrition, provide healthy food, set and achieve scientific goals, and combat deforestation. Multilateral development banks, international organizations, sponsors and philanthropists can increase funding of any kind, with a clear focus on the need for sustainable healthy food. The World Trade Organization should put this issue at the heart of the world trade agenda.
We are already witnessing the effects of a food system failure as extreme weather events, economic instability, conflict and COVID-19 continue to wreak havoc. If we waste time now, these problems will get worse.
But another, more sustainable future is possible and solutions are possible. Achieving this goal requires the political will for immediate action.
Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, co-founder of Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition and Ambassador of the Coalition for Food and Land Management.
Oliver Camp, Senior Partner in the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.
© Project Syndicate 1995-2022