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Food systems can lead the way to net zero, if we act now

Food systems can lead the way to net zero, if we act now

By Kate Whiting.

The food and agriculture sector can lead the world on the path to net-zero, despite facing uncertainty, but it must be on the agenda at COP27 – and we have to act now.

This was the overwhelming consensus of an expert panel for the opening plenary of the World Economic Forum’s ‘Bold Actions for Food’ event.

Food systems account for up to one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and are failing 768 million people living in hunger.

In the face of global shocks from the war in Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather events, it has become more urgent than ever to transition food systems to a net-zero, nature-positive infrastructure that feeds everyone.

The panellists were: Hanneke Faber, President, Foods and Refreshment Division, Unilever; Sam Kass, Partner, Acre Venture Partners; Jürgen Vögele, Vice President for Sustainable Development, World Bank; Rodrigo Santos, Member of the Board of Management and Head of the Crop Science Division, Bayer.

Qu Dongyu, Director-General, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Hon. Tom J. Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture of the United States, gave remarks and the session was moderated by Bronwyn Nielsen, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, The Nielsen Network.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the session.

Ukraine invasion is exacerbating the food crisis

We’ve faced two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and have stepped up on the climate agenda strongly, but now we’re facing a war with “massive implications” for migration, economic fall-out and for the food security of hundreds of millions of people, said Vögele.

“Prices are shooting up… And more than ever it shows how exposed our food systems are global. Russia and Ukraine account for almost 30% of international sales of wheat.”

Russia is the largest exporter of wheat, and because of poor harvest and supply chain issues, global stocks are already low, he added. It also impacts edible oils: 50% of sunflower oil is exported by Ukraine.

Wheat prices have increased by 53% over the last couple of months and it’s impacting Egypt and Indonesia most as the biggest importers of wheat from Russia, along with other African countries: “There will be massive disruptions.”

The effects on the global food supply will be long lasting and how serious this will become will depend on what kind of policies countries put in place in the next few weeks, he said.

What we cannot have is a repeat of 2008 restrictions on exports, distorting the markets, that eventually led to the Arab Spring, said Vögele.

“This is one of the most urgent and immediate things that everyone needs to have a conversation around because we are already seeing countries do the things that are detrimental to lowering prices and helping those affected.”

The food system is ‘decades behind’ energy sector

We need to address the long-term problems as well as focus on the immediate ones, Vögele said.

Climate is a pressing problem, and the food system is decades behind in its decarbonization efforts compared to the energy sector, he said. We’re not spending the resources to break down the components. The technologies are out there, but we need to utilize them.

Santos said there are three things the food and agriculture sector needs to accelerate the shift to net zero: “We need to welcome and nurture innovation and science, collaborate with other sectors and act now.

“I was talking with a farmer yesterday and my question was, can we provide healthy and safe food while sequestering carbon? He said, ‘Yes, but we need collaboration between private, public and civil sector’…

“We need to include farmers in the equation, they’re part of the solution, we need to bring them to the table… It’s complex, you’re dealing with small farmers and helping them to transform the system is crucial.”

We need to act now

“The time to admire the problem is over, we need to act,” said Faber.

She outlined five actions Unilever is prioritizing in 2022 with partners:

1. Zero hunger – providing humanitarian aid and keeping the free flow of goods around the world.

2. Regenerative agriculture to get to net-zero, with Knorr launching eight new large projects this year.

3. Plant-based food, which involves encouraging the consumer to change their diet to eat less meat.

4. Food waste reduction, which also involves the consumer. The world wastes a third of all the food it produces. “We’re using way too much land and producing greenhouse gases to produce all that food we don’t end up using.”

5. Health – making products healthier.

The consumer’s role is vital

“It’s going to take all parts of the equation to move this system, we’re out of time,” said Kass.

“We’re entering an age of volatility that’s the norm, so of course, you have to bring in the consumer, the food companies can’t do it in isolation. We have to take a holistic approach.”

Every food company has to be transparent in the accounting of their carbon footprint and start to reduce their emissions, so consumers can choose who they support, he said.

Scope 3 emissions account for 80-90% of emissions, so those must be included in reporting too, Kass added, admitting there are “still problems around measurement”.

“There’s lots of work to be done”, but we have an opportunity to pay farmers to do the right thing through subsidies and incentivizing brands to sequester carbon, he said.

“I hope that in the crisis now we don’t take our eyes off this, because we can’t afford to.”

Putting food systems on the COP27 agenda

Looking ahead to the UN Climate Change Conference COP27 in November, all panellists agreed food has to be on the agenda.

Government agricultural subsidies can support farmers to “do food production the right way”, said Vögele, but currently little is targeted to the outcomes we need, he said.

Shifting and scaling up subsidies should be discussed at COP27 because “it’s a huge amount of public money that’s not only wasted, it’s actually detrimental… You can produce the same amount of rice and cut emissions in half.”

The food system doesn’t have a “North star” yet to guide it on the path to net-zero.

“Energy people understand, they see a smokestack and know they need to change it, it’s clear it needs to go away – but with agriculture, people don’t see and feel what’s wrong.”

Subsidies and technologies are crucial

“There’s still a bunch of stuff we need to invent, so we need to invest in innovation for a purpose,” he added.

Kass said: “We have to flip this thing on its head, get much more aggressive in asserting our role in this… We can lead the way in solving the problem in the short and middle term and after that, we need more innovation to take this over the line.”

‘We need to work together’

In his remarks, Qu Dongyu agreed that we need to do more to enable innovation and policy with the purpose of reaching net zero.

“We have to learn from energy transformation. Food is more complicated because we’re working with different animals and plants and in different environments.

“We have to be more clear to politicians to get a stronger commitment, scientists have designed a pragmatic approach to address these issues.

“We should support the UN secretary-general to end the war and restore peace. Without ceasefire or peace, how can we move on to the food production and supply from that region? We need to work together.”

In closing, Vilsack said: “Future COP meetings have got to focus on food and agriculture to help us get our arms around the climate challenge we face.”

He outlined the US’ billion-dollar Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities opportunity for pilot projects that create market opportunities for commodities produced using climate-smart practices.

Its aim is to get the consumer engaged through knowing if products were produced through climate-smart and regenerative practices, develop and use measurement tools to track carbon reduction and sequestration and establish a standard to market ‘climate-smart’ commodities.

“We have to commit to local and low-cost food systems to reduce the mileage food travels from farm to fork… we want to create more competition and invest in more robust, resilient systems, this involves providing resources and technical assistance, and developing food hubs for smaller operations to market more effectively…

“There’s an awful lot going on in this space, there’s a tipping point we’re reaching in terms of the need for agriculture to be a leader in this space.” – World Economic Forum.


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