With no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, one unintended consequence has been the threat to world food security.
Russia and Ukraine are a global breadbasket, supplying much of the grain for Middle Eastern and North African countries. Egypt, which is said to be the world's largest wheat importer, sourced as much as 80% of its wheat from the countries last year. Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme says half of its grain used to feed the needy comes from Ukraine.
Food insecurity and dependency on imports is symbolic of unsustainable food systems that also fuel global heating, according to a new report by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food (GAFF). Released this week, the study shows that food systems account for around one-third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions yet are absent from most national climate targets — or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
The report highlights how food systems based on a carbon-intensive monoculture agriculture contribute to climate change on multiple levels, from deforestation and biodiversity loss to imported food miles. They are neither resilient to climate extremes — nor wars.
"Food systems have become locally and globally prone to crises," said Haseeb Bakhtary, senior consultant at Berlin-based climate think tank, Climate Focus, and a lead author of the report.
The solution, he said, is a localized, regenerative food system that is climate resilient and highly productive, reducing dependency on imports. Likewise, reducing food wastage and promoting healthy, low-carbon diets are also key, according to the report.
A shift to what Bakhtary calls "more nature-positive, agro-ecological food systems" could contribute over 20% of the emission cuts required to meet 2050 net zero targets globally.
To this end, the GAFF study shows how 14 countries can incorporate food system transformation into revised NDC climate ambitions to be submitted at COP27 in Egypt in November.
Here are four countries where this transformation is already underway.
Climate-driven cyclones and tidal flooding routinely devastate Bangladeshi floodplains that support vital rice and fish farming systems — recent floods have even forced the world's third-largest rice producer to raise imports of the staple.
But improved floodplain management is helping one of the world's lowest-lying countries to both adapt to climate change and secure a dual rice-fish production system that traditionally feeds a fast-growing population where one in 10 people experience food insecurity.
Rice-fish farming utilizes the seasonal cycles of the floodplain to support rice growing during the dry season, and the raising of nutritious fish for local consumption during the near five-month monsoon.
A community-based sustainable rice-fish production system is now being implemented in Bangladesh by WorldFish, an international nonprofit focused on food security. Artificial fertilizers that degrade soil and productivity are reduced by using fish droppings as a natural fertilizer. Meanwhile, water is retained in the floodplain to prevent decomposition of organic matter that releases GHGs such as methane and carbon dioxide.
The shoring up of organic soil matter and moisture also improves the diversity of native fish species — aided by enclosure fences with holes that allow small indigenous fish to move freely throughout the floodplain. This will improve both nutrition, and reduce reliance of imported, high-emission foods.
With Egypt's land mass comprised nearly wholly (96%) of desert, the nation suffers from an inherent scarcity of arable land and fresh water, a situation exacerbated by climate-induced extreme heat. In addition, the country predicts 12 to 15% of its most arable land will also be impacted by sea level rise and saltwater intrusion.
An ongoing reliance on imported food, and especially grain, might only then be countered with measures to green the desert. According to the GAFF report, the SEKEM sustainable development initiative operating in the Egyptian desert since the 1970s is transforming arid desert landscapes through climate-positive and climate-resilient farming.
It employs tree planting, renewable energy — SEKEM claims that its farms will run on 100% renewable energy by 2022 — and improves soil fertility by planting legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil so as not to rely on pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Composting and companion planting are also part of an organic farming regime that aims to support food self-sufficiency at a time when the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization expects the productivity of Egyptian wheat and maize crops to fall by 15% and 19% respectively by 2050.
Continuing SEKEM's "envisioning of a new paradigm" for food production is the Wahat Greening the Desert pilot project, which is working to transform over 10 square kilometers (4 square miles) of Egyptian desert into fertile farmland.
The West African country is one of the few nations to center agro-ecology and sustainable food production in its climate targets, or NDCs, as over 40% of national emissions come from agriculture. From measures to restore degraded soils, a major source of carbon emissions, to ecosystem renewal and more efficient food supply chains, Senegal's food sector emission cuts not only help meet climate targets but address a food system that, in Haseeb Bakhtary's words, is "fragile and vulnerable to climate impacts."
Located in the Western Sahel, which is heating up at 1.5 times the rate of the global average, Senegal is also highly vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition. In 2020, 17% of the population were regarded as "acutely food insecure" and 7.5% were undernourished.
Though Senegal has been a net exporter of fish in recent years, it imports about 70% of its staple foods, including rice, wheat, corn, onions, palm oil, sugar and potatoes. This makes households vulnerable to fluctuations in global markets, says the report.
It further notes that Senegal's NDC is also trying to address this dependency by promoting healthy diets based on sustainable, locally grown food.
4. United States
The US suffers less from food insecurity than wastage, with 30-50% of all food considered surplus — meaning that it is mostly thrown away.
If US food waste and loss were reduced by half by 2030, emission reductions would be equivalent to taking 16 million passenger cars off the road annually, Bakhtary said.
US food waste adds to the heavy climate impacts of the food production sector — agriculture is responsible for almost 10% of GHG emissions in a country that is the world's biggest historic GHG emitter.
Mitigation measures will also need to be aimed at dominant monoculture farms that have low biodiversity and rely on artificial fertilizer and pesticides; while a shift to healthy vegetarian diets could reduce food system emissions by 32%, according to the GAFF report.
A critical effort to address food loss and wastage is already under way. ReFED is a national nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste across US food systems, in part by reshaping consumer behavior, optimizing harvests and enhancing food product distribution. ReFED believes food waste is a systemic problem that demands a systemwide response across the entire food value chain.
Edited by: Tamsin Walker