At this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), taking place November 6-18 in Egypt, transforming food systems will be at the heart of its agenda for the first time and advocates will elevate agriculture as a solution to the climate crisis during discussions on how to mobilize bold and collective action to sustainably feed the world. This can have far-reaching impacts around the world and benefit Americans here at home with more resilient food supply chains and stable commodity prices.
The number of people affected by moderate or severe food insecurity has increased by nearly 7 percent since 2014, yet multinational conferences like COP27 are just beginning to highlight the role that food system resilience plays in decreasing emissions and increasing agricultural productivity. This year will dedicate a day of programming to “Adaptation and Agriculture” and will focus on the progress the agricultural community has made in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as food systems account for one-third of global GHG levels.
In the near term, farmers and policymakers must balance the need for food products to continue flowing in the face of supply chain disruptions, including the war in Ukraine, while also rethinking farming in a more sustainable way. This will promote a healthier world by improving management of water and land resources and will strengthen local economic growth by increasing agricultural productivity, which, since 1961, is 21 percent lower than it could have been without climate change. In the face of acute climate shocks that increase incidence of pests and diseases, flood or dry-up arable farmland, and destroy infrastructure, transformational changes in how farming is done is critical to ensure market stability and decreased food inflation.
With last year’s conference focusing heavily on clean energy and climate financing, its outputs related to food systems were slim. However, extreme heat around the world coupled with the war in Ukraine have repositioned sustainable agriculture as a critical and necessary component of climate action.
Linking Climate Change and Nutrition
Though agriculture has a prominent role during this year’s conference, some advocates worry the intersection of nutrition and climate may be less prioritized. More extreme weather and prolonged drought undermine food systems that families rely on to nourish their children and drive up costs of staple commodities like maize, sorghum, and wheat. In just the last year, global wheat prices have increased 24 percent in the face of worsening climate change and other global crises. With fixed incomes, families around the world shift from purchasing more nutritious food at a higher cost to using the same amount of money to purchase less food at a lower nutritional value. This results in children – most notably those in the six-to-23-month period – not eating a sufficiently nutrient-dense diet. In low- and middle-income countries, only 19 percent of children in this critical age group are receiving a minimum acceptable diet – an indicator for evaluating child feeding practices based on dietary diversity and meal frequency.
Within the climate-food security nexus, there is an important trade off that must be managed. Programs as well as policies aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of food systems must not be implemented at the expense of nutritious food access and availability. As such, a greater focus on the role nutrition plays in strengthening climate action is long overdue. The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s (USGLC) community of private sector, non-profit, and public sector partners is leading globally to confront the climate-nutrition-food security nexus head on in the lead-up to COP27.
Shawn Baker, Chief Nutritionist at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), put it succinctly: “There is no climate justice without nutrition justice… and I do think it’s really critical that the impacts of the climate crisis on nutrition be front and center of climate change discussions.”
Eric Reading, Chief Climate Officer at Abt Associates, notes: “In terms of climate change impact, agriculture is the most sensitive area to climate change. Whether you’re talking about drought or you’re talking about extreme weather or floods, the leading indicators of the impacts of climate change are in the food systems.”
Managing the tradeoff between long-term food systems transformation and short-term humanitarian food needs is difficult, however. In Sri Lanka, the government’s 2021 agriculture policy mandating a sudden shift to 100 percent organic fertilizer reduced rice production by 50 percent and devastated the nation’s tea crop. The government was forced to import nearly $500 million worth of rice as domestic prices surged, and drained foreign currency reserves have led to economic catastrophe and acute food shortages.
Nutrition and climate are on track to collide with another important component of food systems at COP27: food waste. When food is wasted, the water and energy that went into its growth, harvest, and transportation is also wasted, as well as the nutrients that the produce would have supplied. Today, if food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world behind the United States and China, due to the fact that one-third of all food produced in the world is wasted.
As Reading put it, “There’s a third area as well, that I think is really important and is getting a lot of attention as we go into this COP, and that is the relationship between food waste and climate change… rotting food, wherever it ends up, ends up releasing a lot of methane, and about a third of global warming to date is the result of methane. It has an 80 times greater effect [on global warming] than carbon.”
Reducing food waste not only reduces emissions, but it can also transform access to food by flooding the markets with nutrient-dense produce that would have otherwise been lost. In 2020, more than 3 billion people could not access a healthy diet due to cost. Today, a perfect storm of ongoing COVID-19, conflict, rising prices, and climate shocks is exacerbating this number, and children are bearing the worst impacts of this crisis. 8 million children across 15 crisis-hit countries are at risk of death due to the most severe form of malnutrition. USGLC’s members are working to change that and to address the need for short-term food security and nutrition interventions.
What Are USGLC’s Members Doing?
Madeline Dickson, Senior Partnerships and Campaigns Officer at the Eleanor Crook Foundation (ECF), which is dedicated exclusively to the fight against global child malnutrition, discussed her organization’s efforts to strengthen nutrition outcomes in the face of climate change. She shared that ECF funds “implementing NGOs to advance health systems strengthening and ensure we get ready-to-use-therapeutic food (RUTF) to malnourished children who need it as quickly as possible proactively, rather than reactively.” Long-term food and health system transformations are critical to ensure climate crises do not become humanitarian crises. Safety nets must be strengthened for the treatment and prevention of climate-related malnutrition. In the meantime, children are suffering right now. For less than $1 per day, RUTFs can bring a severely malnourished child back to health in just a few weeks and address acute humanitarian needs.
However, Dickson signaled that because “drought could still be a major issue” next year and may continue to threaten food access and cause spikes in malnutrition, it is critical that investments and interventions that address the nutrition-climate nexus are sustainable.
In the United States, 75 percent of land used to grow winter wheat is experiencing drought and the growing season of winter wheat globally was six days shorter in 2020 than the previous four decades. This contributes to poor nutrition by reducing agricultural yields and dietary diversity. However, drought not only affects food access, but also America’s economic growth. Reports suggests that the supply chain impacts from the Mississippi River’s historically low water levels may cost the U.S. economy $20 billion due to increased transportation costs, shipping delays, and lost jobs.
At COP27, another USGLC member, Land O’Lakes Venture37, will participate in the AIM for Climate Innovation Sprint and will take part in a panel discussion on mobilizing Egyptian agribusiness investment in climate smart agriculture with Egypt’s Horticultural Export Improvement Association (HEIA). Both Venture37 and HEIA are well-positioned to discuss how to transform Egypt’s food systems and increase food production in alignment with the country’s vision for the Sustainable Agricultural Development Strategy (SADS) 2030.
What to Expect Out of COP27
Looking forward, COP27 offers an opportunity for the United States and its international partners to show how seriously they are taking the effects of climate change on low- and middle-income countries. “This is a critical COP,” Baker said, “because the African Union has really seen this COP in Egypt as Africa’s COP. And so I think it is a big opportunity to position the issues of nutrition and food security in the very center of climate change discussions.” Further, next month’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. is another important opportunity for the Administration to engage leaders across the African continent on responding to the climate crisis and promoting food security.
While major policy agreements are to be determined, the conference presents important opportunities to address the intersection of climate and food systems. For Reading, even though the “dynamics of the food market right now, because of the war in Ukraine, are outside of international bargaining,” he is confident that “there’s going to be a fair amount of attention on food and agriculture… and probably waste,” as well as an agricultural pathway announced for the Global Methane Pledge.
For Dickson, “It’s definitely a step in the right direction, that [food security and nutrition] is making its way into the negotiations more than it ever has had… I think a win could certainly include that climate action includes consideration of delivering malnutrition treatment and ensuring access to nutritious diets and nutritious value chains.”
John Ellenberger, Executive Director of Land O’Lakes Venture37 and Senior Vice President at Land O’Lakes Inc., notes, “By focusing on sustainable food systems, the discussions at COP27 will provide much needed dialogue and coordination of efforts, which could lead to new partnerships and innovations in making this foundational approach more resilient.”
Whether or not a major food and climate agreement is announced, the fact that Egypt and the nearly 200 countries at COP27 are talking about the water-food-energy-climate nexus is promising for the transformational change needed to strengthen food system resilience, improve nutrition outcomes, and reduce food waste in the face of worsening climate change.