- This year’s UN climate conference, COP 28, will dedicate a day recognising the role of food systems in addressing climate change.
- Food production, transportation and storage contribute significantly to carbon emissions and are equally vulnerable to climate change.
- Weaning fossil fuel from the food system and reducing food loss and wastage can reduce emissions from the food and agriculture sector.
Sustainable food systems will be a key consideration at the UN climate change conference this year, with a day dedicated to food, agriculture and water, at the event where world leaders gather from November 30 to December 12 to negotiate efforts towards addressing climate change.
The 28th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), also known as COP28, will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where one of the things that countries will analyse is food systems in the context of carbon emissions and the impact of climate change.
In an open letter issued on October 30, around 80 global organisations, including WWF, the Food Systems Partnership, and others, have called on the UNFCCC to recognise the importance of transforming food systems in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. The letter noted, “Food systems are a significant contributor to the climate crisis, accounting for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, they are also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, which undermines food security and adaptation.” The outcomes of COP28 must include a clear path to food systems transformation nationally, the letter demanded.
Earlier this year, in July, the COP28 Presidency, represented by Mariam Almheiri, the UAE Minister for Climate Change and Environment and COP28 Food Systems Lead, urged governments to demonstrate leadership by signing the first-ever Leaders Declaration on Food Systems, Agriculture, and Climate Action. Speaking at a session at the Food Systems and Climate Action at the UN Food Systems Summit Stocktaking Moment in Rome, she said that the Declaration will invite national governments to align their national food systems and agriculture strategies, with their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), and National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs).
Separately, the UN Global Stocktake synthesis report from September this year, also emphasised the critical role of food systems in achieving net-zero targets. The report highlighted that demand-side measures in the agriculture sector, such as shifting to sustainable, healthy diets, reducing food loss and waste and intensifying sustainable agriculture without further land expansion can reduce emissions, halt deforestation and free up land for reforestation and ecosystem restoration.
Food and energy nexus
A recent briefing paper assessing food and energy system linkages, published in the first week of November, claimed that food production, transportation and storage are responsible for at least 15% of the fossil fuel emissions, annually (equivalent to 4.6 Gigatonnes of CO2 emissions), equal to the combined emissions of all European Union countries and Russia. The accompanying discussion paper, both published by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food (GAFF) and Dalberg Advisors, recommended weaning off fossil fuels from the food system.
However, the dependence of the food system on fossil fuels will not directly reduce even as most countries move towards renewable energy. Patty Fong, the Programme Director of Climate and Health and well-being at the GAFF, an alliance of philanthropic foundations, that published the briefing and discussion papers, told Mongabay India, “There is sizeable fossil fuel use in food systems that the decarbonisation of the electricity supply and the uptake of electric transport simply cannot address alone.”
The GAFF analysis highlights that as demand for fossil fuels, for transport, power and heating, declines due to electrification and demand reduction measures, the fossil fuel industry is investing significantly in petrochemicals to create plastic food packaging and petroleum-based pesticides and fertilisers. In the U.S. alone, investments in petrochemicals amounting to $164 billion were estimated for the period 2016-2023, Fong points out from the analysis. In an email interview with Mongabay India, she also refers to a 2018 commentary which notes that food-related plastic packaging and fertilisers together account for approximately 40% of petrochemical products manufactured. According to the estimates in this commentary, by the International Energy Agency (IEA), petrochemicals are expected to be the driving force behind nearly half of the growth in oil demand by 2050, surpassing sectors such as aviation and shipping.
The IEA commentary also predicts that ammonia production will grow by almost 40% by 2050 based on current economic trends. Referring to this, Fong added that over half of fossil gas consumption will be dedicated to producing hydrogen, which is a key ingredient in ammonia production.
In a separate report from 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) forecasts that the use of nitrogen fertilisers could increase by an additional 50% by 2050.
Country climate plans must consider food sustainability
The recent GAFF discussion paper, on why the collaboration between food and energy systems players is key, notes that existing agricultural subsidies are responsible for the loss of 2.2 million hectares of forest per year globally, incentivise fossil fuel use and lock in unsustainable methods of production.
Meanwhile, a separate report on the state of food and agriculture, by FAO, published this year, has said that subsidies are one of the most important ways in which governments support food and agriculture. Redirecting these subsidies can enhance environmental sustainability and human well-being without compromising economic prosperity. The report bases its estimates on which focuses on the true cost accounting (TCA) which is an approach that factors in not just the direct costs such as raw materials and labour but also considers its impact on the natural and social environment.
The recent GAFF report notes that very few countries have included agriculture in their climate plans. An earlier 2022 report, also by GAFF, on climate financing had found that 70% of NDCs lack adequate detail on the funding needs for climate action in food systems plans, based on its review of NDCs.
Referring to these findings, Fong, from GAFF, added that government leaders must commit to weaning their domestic food systems off fossil fuels by updating their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to prioritise further action on food and farming. She added that the UAE including food systems as a key theme of COP is a welcome and long overdue step.
Talking about expectations from COP 28, Fong of GAFF said, “The UAE is a major petrostate and opposed to the phase-out of fossil fuels, so we urge countries that are serious about tackling the climate crisis to go further and faster than the minimum bar set by the COP28 hosts. It is not enough to phase-down fossil fuels – to avoid climate catastrophe, we must commit to a phase-out.”
Food loss and waste
Food loss and waste (FLW) is a contributor to greenhouse emissions, accounting for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), according to the UN Environment Programme.
The 2019 State of Food and Agriculture report by the FAO notes that about 14% of the world’s food, which is worth around $400 billion every year, gets lost between harvest and the stores. Additionally, the UNEP’s Food Waste Index Report 2021 reveals that another 17% of food is wasted in stores and by people, especially in homes.
The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 12.3 seeks to cut global food waste per person in half at the retail and consumer stages and decrease food losses throughout production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.
Changing the way food is produced and making global food distribution more equitable would not only tackle a considerable source of emissions – it would also address dire inequalities in access to food, say experts that Mongabay India spoke to.
In a conversation with Mongabay India, Felicitas Schneider from the Thuenen Institute, a research institution based in Germany, highlights the significant potential for reducing GHG emissions by reducing food loss and waste. Currently, 8-10% of global GHG emissions stem from food production that goes unconsumed. Additionally, this uneaten food also consumes a substantial amount of water, she said.
Therefore, it is imperative to address food loss and waste as a crucial aspect of transitioning to a more sustainable food system. This is not limited to specific regions or countries but holds relevance globally. “Contrary to some discussions, food losses are not exclusive to transitional and developing countries. It is prevalent in developed nations, too, where it happens not due to infrastructure issues but to consumer habits, international food supply chains, and the marketing standards maintained by retailers,” she said while talking to Mongabay India.
When asked about his expectations from COP 28 concerning FLW, Nachiket Kotwaliwale, the director of the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology, said that food loss generally occurs due to technological challenges. In contrast, food wastage is a result of lifestyle choices. While various technical interventions are emerging to minimise food loss, a lifestyle change is essential to reduce food wastage. In this context, political and religious leaders can play significant roles, as they have a substantial influence in shaping public perceptions, he said.
Banner image: A peas seller, in Varanasi. COP28 dedicates a day to food systems where countries will analyse it in the context of carbon emissions and the impact of climate change. Photo by Jorge Royan/Wikimedia Commons.