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Publication | 8 June 2021

Climate Change and Food Systems

Global Food and Nutrition Security

Climate change interacts with food systems and food security in several ways

Food availability

Considerable evidence has emerged indicating that climate change is already negatively affecting crop production in many areas across the world, especially in the tropics and sub-tropics. The impacts of climate change on food productions are projected to worsen after the 2050s, particularly under higher emission scenarios.

Food access

The impacts of climate change on agricultural production, supply chains and labor productivity in climate sensitive sectors will influence both food prices and incomes, strongly affecting people’s ability to purchase food.

Food stability

Climate change will increase the frequency of extreme water events. Resulting inter-annual variability in food production, destruction of transportation infrastructures, and higher food price volatility can ultimately lead to more volatile global and regional food trade, undermining people’s ability to access food in a stable way.

Food utilization and safety

Climate change is projected to adversely impact childhood undernutrition and stunting, with the largest risks in Africa and Asia. Higher concentrations of atmospheric CO2 reduces the quality of food and, subsequently, food utilization. Rising temperatures are improving the conditions for the spread of pathogens and mycotoxins, posing risks to human health and increasing food waste and loss.

Impacts of food systems on climate systems

GHG emissions from food systems are a major contributor to climate change. Food systems are responsible for about one quarter of global GHG emissions, and even one third if indirect effects on deforestation are included.

Solutions for climate change adaptation and mitigation in food systems

This policy brief highlights nine actions points for climate change adaptation and mitigation in the food systems. These actions are of two types.

Firstly, there are a wide range of both well-tested ready to go solutions for climate change adaptation and mitigation in the food systems. Many of them are being applied at local scales around the world, even if not at sufficient levels.

Amplify efforts for sustainable land management (SLM) (e.g. water-efficient irrigation methods, drought resistant crop cultivars, agroforestry and silvio-pasture systems, organic soil amendments, crop diversification, cover crops, intercropping, etc.). Enabling policy frameworks that include both incentives and disincentives are needed for promoting the adoption of SLM. Land tenure considerations are a major factor contributing to the adoption of SLM.

Promote open and equitable food trade. Adapting to changing climate will require a combination of enhanced regional and local food trade as well as international food trade that can act as safety nets in the context of climate crises. To this aim, reducing transaction costs of food trade and maintaining transparent, equitable and well-enforced international food trade governance can strengthen food systems resilience. Fiscal instruments (e.g. carbon taxes) need to be given high priority in order to reduce fossil fuel use in agriculture. Agricultural subsidies need to be adjusted to encourage the application of sustainable production approaches.

Include food systems in climate financing at scale. Investments into climate change mitigation in the food systems need to be commensurate with the share of GHG emissions coming from the food systems. For instance, estimates show that every dollar invested in land restoration yields from 3 to 6 dollars of return depending on the location across the world.

Strengthen social protection and empowering of the vulnerable. Impacts of climate change on food systems are not suffered equally by all social groups. Actions to address such inequity and differential impacts imply, on the one hand, strengthening social protection and, on the other hand, empowering marginalized social groups through collective action.

Encourage healthy and sustainable diets. Transitioning to more healthy and sustainable diets and minimizing food waste could reduce global mortality from 6% to 19% and food-related GHG emissions by 29‒70% by 2050. One critical problem is that currently, healthy diets are unaffordable to broad sections of societies, even in high-income countries. To encourage dietary transitions towards healthy and sustainable diets, a full range of policy instruments from hard to soft measures are needed (e.g. fiscal policy, subsidies).

Reduce GHG emissions from the food systems. Political and economic measures can achieve major reductions in GHG emissions from existing food systems by applying more broadly current best practices and without waiting for new technologies or behavior changes (e.g. increasing soil organic matter). Incentives for emission reductions should be given to agricultural producers by applying GHG emission taxes also in agriculture, or including agriculture in existing emission trading schemes.

Support urban and peri-urban agriculture. Promoting urban and peri-urban agriculture (PUA) can help increase the resilience of local and regional food systems, create jobs, and help reduce GHG emissions from food transportation. Around 1 billion urban inhabitants can be nourished by producing food in PUA. PUA has a great potential to reduce poverty, improve nutrition, and provides a series of ecosystem services such as reduced urban heat island effects, or fixation of atmospheric nitrogen and carbon.

The second type of actions focus on key promising solutions which can help us meet the longer-term challenges of climate change on the food systems.

Invest in research. Areas for investments include agroecological approaches to food production, breeding of drought-resistant crop cultivars and cultivars with improved nitrogen use, improved understanding of climate change impacts on both staple and non-staple foods, etc.

Support perennial crop development and cultivation. About 87% of the world’s harvested area is cultivated with annual crops, mainly grains (cereals, oilseeds, and pulses) that are resown every year/season88. A shift to perennial grain crops would drastically cut GHG emissions from agriculture, and even turn cropping into a carbon sink, while significantly reducing erosion and nutrient leakage. Development of new perennial grain crops through de novo domestication and wide hybridization have advanced tremendously in the last decade thanks to scientific and technological advancements such as genomic selection technology.