They feed everyone. They provide livelihoods for billions. But they generate up to a third of greenhouse gas emissions. One-third of what they produce is never eaten. And they still leave 820 million people hungry, 2 billion without enough vitamins and minerals, and over 2 billion people overweight or obese.
They’re our food systems. And they’re failing people and the planet.
Today’s release of the special report on land, climate change, and food security by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sends a clear warning: Climate impacts are creating stress on land and food systems and negatively impacting farmers’ livelihoods. Climate change is already affecting farmers and exacerbating food insecurity, with the number of chronically hungry people again on the rise. At the same time, our use of land to grow food affects the level of warming and severity of climate impacts — like a vicious cycle.
We need solutions at scale to transform food systems: how food is grown, processed, marketed, distributed, eaten and disposed. Recent research and now the IPCC reflect on the potential for policy to catalyze actions to manage land more sustainably, to reduce food loss and waste, and to promote healthy, sustainable diets.
Thankfully, some countries are already heeding the call.
Costa Rica: Supporting coffee farmers to reduce emissions and increase efficiency
Costa Rica’s Coffee NAMA (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action) aims to reduce the coffee sector’s emissions and improve the efficiency of resource use. It targets the entire value chain, from farmers to exporters.
The project trains coffee plantations and coffee mill operators on how to adopt low-carbon production, access markets with favorable prices, and secure financial support and incentives in the form of low-interest credit, payment for environmental services systems and subsidies for capital investment.
France: Fighting food waste and supporting food insecure households
France’s Fight Against Food Waste Law bans large grocery stores from throwing away unsold food and makes it compulsory to donate it to charities or food banks. Non-compliance comes with stiff penalties: fines of up to €75,000 or two years imprisonment.
The law shows how food policy, when done well, can address multiple issues: cutting food waste and supporting low-income households. It demonstrates the value of targeting one of the main points in the food supply chain where waste occurs, therefore having greater potential impact.
Chile: Promoting nutrition through food labelling and advertising law
National policies must promote both healthy and sustainable diets. Chile is a strong example with its law that mandates clear labelling and restricts marketing of foods high in sugar, fat and salt. Though industry has criticized the law, the early sense is that it is shifting consumer and industry behavior as intended.
While this law only addresses nutrition, when measures are needed to support healthy and sustainable diets, this kind of labelling could be combined with environmental or social certifications (e.g. organic or fair trade) to inform consumers of the personal and planetary benefits.
Policies need to account for everyone, everywhere
These are a few of the numerous examples of policies to transform food systems, but food systems remain complex. They cut across multiple sectors and involve myriad actors with different motivations. There will be trade-offs. Managing these requires policy that similarly cuts across sectors and scales (local to national) — what the IPCC calls “policy mixes”— or “food systems” policy, as many others have called for.
Further, unequal power relations in food systems shapes who benefits and who is left behind, who is hungry and vulnerable to climate change. For example, women play significant roles in agriculture, particularly in developing countries, but often lack access to productive resources, are excluded from decision-making, and bear a disproportionate labor burden, especially for unpaid care work.
In the face of inequality, who shapes and makes policy matters. Many have called for participatory policy-making, and the IPCC strongly confirms that it not only improves governance, it makes for better policy.
More needs to be done at larger scale by all actors, and there is no time to waste. While early action delivers near- and long-term benefits, delayed action means more impacts and irreversible losses.
Some are already acting: the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS) has launched a new initiative to explore solutions addressing food systems in the face of climate change to generate change at the scale and pace needed. Policy is a critical means particularly for achieving change at scale, and it’s time for policymakers to act.
Governments gather next month for the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit. We are facing an emergency. But it is not too late to ensure a climate just world for all. The summit is a vital opportunity for decision-makers to demonstrate leadership and step up with ambitious commitments to transform food systems to serve people and the planet.
Originally published August 8, 2019 by The Hill.