Food systems must be a top concern at the UN Climate Summit

November 16, 2021
Photo credit COP26.

By Todd Post

In the October edition of Institute Insights, I wrote about the UN Food System Summit, held September 23 in New York. This month I want to turn my attention to the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26), which began October 31 in Glasgow, Scotland, and runs through November 12.

The meetings serve as two interlocking moments of truth for political leaders, interlocking because there is no way to separate the global food system from climate change. The food system is a main source of the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change, while climate change pushes families into hunger and, if not checked, will ultimately prevent the world from reaching the Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger and malnutrition.

Leaders around the world must pay attention to these moments of truth. This is critical, because there is very little time to avert levels of global warming that will create irreversible impacts more catastrophic than any yet seen. Aggressive action must include transformational changes to food systems.

Recent climate science indicates that global warming must be limited to a total increase of no more than 1.5 degrees C. (2.7 degrees F.) above the preindustrial level. A larger increase will produce intolerable impacts. Yet on the current trajectory, the planet’s temperature will rise by 2 degrees C. by 2043 and 3 degrees before the end of the century. The planet has already warmed by 1.19 degrees from the pre-industrial level. This frightening reality is why governments must lead the way to far more aggressive, concerted efforts to bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero as soon as possible.

According to the World Food Program, an increase of 2 degrees C. (3.6 degrees F.) in Earth’s average temperature over pre-industrial levels will push 189 million more people into hunger.

I found the rhetoric of the leaders at the Food Systems Summit encouraging. It’s far too early to call the summit a triumph—we need to see how committed leaders are to delivering on the pledges they made.

At the time of writing, COP26 is in progress, so I don’t know its outcome. Achieving Bread for the World’s mission of ending hunger and malnutrition will require every country to commit to, and follow through on, mitigating its emissions significantly enough for the world to meet the goal of limiting temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C. It will also require wealthy countries to provide financial and technical assistance to the lower-income countries suffering the worst impacts of climate change.

Greenhouse gas emissions from food systems are rising, not falling. These emissions will continue to rise until there are effective solutions to global overconsumption of animal-source foods. The leading cause of climate change from food systems is raising livestock, primarily cattle. One of the most dangerous greenhouse gases, with planetary warming effects up to 80 times that of carbon dioxide, is methane. The digestive systems of cattle produce methane. The more cattle being raised for beef and dairy, the more methane emissions.

The quantity of meat produced globally has more than quadrupled since 1960, and demand is expected to continue rising as more people are able to afford meat. Children suffering from malnutrition can benefit greatly from animal-source foods such as meat, dairy, and eggs. Calling on families in low- and lower-middle-income countries not to consume these foods when they can afford them is not only hypocritical and hopeless, but it could also perpetuate malnutrition—the exact opposite of our anti-hunger mission. It is overconsumption in high-income and rapidly growing middle-income countries that must be addressed.

In theory, it is much simpler to reduce emissions of methane and other greenhouses gases in the food system than in most other sectors. The energy sector, for example, will need technologies that can be produced affordably on an enormous scale. They will then need to either be quickly incorporated into the systems we have now or to replace them.

Meat produced in labs has fans among science fiction viewers and readers, but experts are not convinced it will ever be able to achieve the scale needed to meet demand. The simple solution is for people to moderate the amount of meat they consume. But simple is never easy if success depends on people changing their habits, whether we’re talking about individuals, households, neighborhoods, cities, or the entire country.

Just before COP 26 began, the Biden administration joined with the European Union to initiate a Global Methane Pledge: to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. By mid-October, 24 countries had signed the pledge, including nearly half of the world’s top 20 methane producers. To achieve the goal of a 30 percent reduction in the United States, the administration announced that it would impose new requirements on the oil and gas industries. But the administration would only promote voluntary targets in the agricultural sector, although it contributes at least as much to methane emissions as oil and gas producers.

The U.S. government deserves credit for launching the Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate) earlier this year. So far, at least 30 countries have said they support the initiative. Presumably, some of the innovations for the climate would focus on methane. One potential area of exploration is in improving animal feed to reduce emissions. There is already some evidence that adding seaweed to the feed—just enough to comprise 1 percent of the diet—could help lower emissions. It remains to be seen whether this could be scaled up significantly enough to meet the methane emissions goal while also responding to consumer demand for beef.

“AIM for Climate,” as USDA describes it, “will focus on three main investment channels: scientific breakthroughs via basic agricultural research; public and private applied innovation and research for development; and the development and deployment of practical, actionable research and information.”

There is a lot to be said for research and development, usually known as R&D. Investments in agricultural research yield high returns, yet there has been far too little investment in the recent past. This makes AIM for Climate a welcome development. The challenge, once again, is time. Historically, agricultural R&D has been slow to deliver its returns on investment. This piece and many others make absolutely clear that there is very little time left.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World.

It’s far too early to call the summit a triumph—we need to see how committed leaders are to delivering on the pledges they made.

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