Voices need to be heard across the entire value chain to transform the food system

Claire Benson, founder and director at SDG Changemakers explains why transforming our food system needs more collaboration and careful consideration of those involved

For the first time in the history of climate talks, a presidency has dedicated an entire day to “Adaptation and Agriculture”. And it is more important now than ever. We are facing a global food crisis, where extreme weather is damaging crops, and food inflation is rocketing.

In response, during the themed day, the Food and Agriculture for Sustainable Transformation (FAST) was launched. It aims to boost climate finance for agri-food systems that need to adapt to climate change, suggesting concrete deliverables focusing on three pillars: access to finance, knowledge and capacity, as well as policy support and dialogues.

Alongside financing, knowledge, and a more holistic approach to applying policy levers will be crucial to its success. Nations participating will be encouraged to assess the role of food systems in current policymaking and to improve advocacy and outreach to ensure that policies facilitate a better understanding of countries’ priorities, challenges, and support needs.

Understanding is the operative word here. Policymakers and practitioners are faced with an overwhelming amount of information and knowing which is relevant is challenging. Flow of information is crucial. The proposed digital knowledge-sharing platform will make it easier to understand how to make an impact.

It quickly becomes apparent how each pillar feeds into the other to enable a thorough overhaul. However, countries and organisations are still being invited to register their interest – it will not work if is not a collaborative effort. Essentially, we are yet to see, ironically, the overarching theme for COP27, implementation. But, it is a good step forward, and at the end of the day, it is working to achieve what we need: agriculture at the heart of efforts to tackle climate change.

Money cannot be thrown at the problem. While food systems account for a third of emissions, only three per cent of climate finance has gone into them. Funding is necessary to help rural populations build resilience and adapt to a changing climate. However, money cannot be thrown at the problem. How it is spent is a crucial part of the puzzle. Although well-intentioned, farm subsidies sometimes work against their core objective: boosting farm incomes and crop yields. For example, they can inadvertently drive people to clear forests to produce commodities, causing severe tree cover loss.

Deforestation and land degradation reduce soil productivity in forests and farms, significantly impacting rural communities. Additionally, this has a significant economic impact. In other words, subsidies play a significant role in deciding what and how food is produced, yet according to UN research, at least 90 per cent of the $540bn in global food subsidies have been deemed harmful to the planet.

Innovation is just as important. To balance the agricultural sector’s negative impacts on the environment and communities without impacting the food our world needs, the whole food system must be transformed. And innovation plays a huge role in that.

This was the narrative on Saturday at COP27 as well. Green fertiliser and carbon mapping and markets were among the innovations discussed at the Food Systems Pavilion. Vertical farming, addressing food waste and alternative food solutions, such as lab-grown meat, also featured heavily. However, if meaningful progress is to be made, these solutions will need to scale up and quickly. In likely an acknowledgement of this, a US-UAE-led initiative, AIM for Climate, was also announced. Pledging $8 billion for research into climate-compatible farming.

However, more still needs to be done. Initiatives like AIM for Climate might present as progress, but their preference for little tweaks rather than systematic reform indicates they could easily fall into the ‘greenwashing’ bracket. Furthermore, countries have yet to agree on how to organise the negotiations or the steps to be taken afterwards to integrate agriculture into the UN climate agreement.

Moreover, the discussions have largely shut out small-scale farmers from major decisions. To create a sustainable food system, voices need to be heard across the entire value chain. Supporting farmers’ adaptation to climate change and scaling sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices should be a priority during – and after COP27. This will involve addressing many interlinked issues across the food system, such as infrastructure and the value chain, food waste, and increasing meat consumption.

It is not a problem we can afford to ignore. To adapt to climate change, reduce emissions, and implement nature-friendly practices, farmers need more resources syphoned into sustainable initiatives. It is essential, however, that these initiatives take the time to determine what farmers need and how technological innovation and policy reform can be better targeted to them. This will ensure that their communities are not harmed in the process.

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