Reforming the world’s food systems will be a key step in limiting global temperature rises, the UN said on Sunday, as it set out the first instalment of a roadmap for food and farming towards staying within 1.5C.
Food production is highly vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis, with research suggesting that as much as a third of global food could be at risk from global heating.
Agriculture and livestock farming are also major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing roughly a 10th of global carbon output directly, and more than double that if the conversion of natural habitat to farming is included.
Until now, however, the UN has held back from setting out in detail how the world can both meet the nutritional needs of a growing population, which is forecast to reach 10 billion by 2050, and reduce global greenhouse gases to net zero by the same date, which is required to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
Maximo Torero, chief economist for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told the Guardian: “We need to act to reduce hunger, and to stay within 1.5C. This is about rebalancing global food systems.”
For instance, he said, in some parts of the world there is over-consumption of protein, but in other regions people do not get enough protein. Some regions could benefit from using less chemical fertiliser, but other areas were not using enough. In some regions, livestock rearing should be intensified, but in others the focus should be on restoring degraded pasture land.
The roadmap will be laid out over the next two to three years, starting with a document published at Cop28 in Dubai that contains 20 key targets to be met between 2025 and 2050, but little detail on how they can be met. More detail on how the aspirations can be achieved will be set out in future instalments at the next two Cop summits.
The targets include: reducing methane emissions from livestock by 25% by 2030; ensuring all the world’s fisheries are sustainably managed by 2030; safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030; halving food waste by 2030; eliminating the use of traditional biomass for cooking by 2030.
Torero said the plan would not include calls for a meat tax, which some experts have called for, but would examine measures to tax sugar, salt and super-processed foods, and better food labelling.
More climate finance should be devoted to agriculture, he added, which accounts for only about 4% of climate finance today. He also called for much more efficient use of agricultural land and resources than is achieved today.
Emile Frison, an expert at IPES-Food (the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems), said: “The FAO should be applauded for this first step in laying out a plan to eliminate extreme hunger and the third of greenhouse gases that come from food systems, and particularly for its emphasis on a just transition – it is not easy.”
But he said the plan did not go far enough. “This current draft puts a huge emphasis on incremental changes to the current industrial food system. But this is a flawed system that is wrecking nature, polluting the environment, and starving millions of people,” he said. “These efficiency-first proposals are unlikely to be enough to get us off the high pollution, high fossil fuel, high hunger track we are on.”
He called for more radical proposals in the coming instalments. “The next rounds of this process will need to go much further in proposing a real transformation of the status quo, by putting much more emphasis on diversification, shorter supply chains and agroecology, and on tackling the massive power inequalities imposed by a handful of companies that define what we grow and eat,” said Frison.
Ruth Davis, fellow at the European Climate Foundation, and senior associate at Oxford’s Smith School, said: “The world desperately needs a roadmap which points us to a fairer, more resilient and sustainable future for food systems. The FAO has made a useful start but it doesn’t take us all the way to the destination we need.”
She called for a much stronger focus on nature, which she said would be crucial to ensuring food security. “Goals and targets for protecting and restoring nature, agreed by 188 governments last year in a historic global deal [to protect 30% of the planet for nature by 2030] must guide the next iteration of the FAO roadmap, or we all risk being on the road to nowhere.”
Claire McConnell, of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said the FAO must also be more inclusive. “Looking to future iterations of the roadmap, broader engagement with stakeholders – in particular smallholder farmers, women and Indigenous peoples – will be key to both capturing the invaluable knowledge these communities hold and for ensuring acceptance, uptake and implementation of the roadmap,” she said.