Food security — the reliable access to safe, affordable, and nutritious food — is inextricably linked to a predictable climate and healthy ecosystems. Climate change and associated severe weather, droughts, fires, pests, and diseases are already threatening the production of food around the world. Unless we act decisively, these problems will worsen, the poorest and most vulnerable will suffer disproportionately, and instability will increase. Ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021, we look at a few solutions for creating more climate-resilient food systems and a healthier planet.

Glaring new evidence of climate change’s impact on humanity’s ability to produce plentiful and nutritious food has emerged on multiple continents this summer. Swarms of locusts — provoked by unusually heavy rains — are destroying crops across large swaths of East Africa and Southwest Asia, disrupting food supplies. As flooding strains Chinese agriculture, the government is pursuing food security by clamping down on food waste. Heat and blazing fires across the Western U.S. are threatening crops and livestock, and a derecho storm devastated millions of acres of corn and soybean production in the Midwest. Blistering heat and severe drought across France have wreaked havoc on agricultural production and prompted farmers to call on the government for help.

A tractor plows a field.

Climate change is the common thread, either triggering or worsening these horrifying conditions and leading to devastating impacts on food availability, livelihoods, and human health. As the world experiences increasingly severe climate impacts on agricultural production, many of our food systems are being pushed to the breaking point. In short, climate change is putting food production at risk.

Yield growth for wheat, maize, and other crops has been declining in many countries due to extreme heat, severe weather, and droughts. By some estimates, in the absence of effective adaptation, global yields could decline by up to 30 percent by 2050. Countries that are already grappling with conflict, pollution, deforestation, and other challenges are likely to suffer the brunt of these impacts. The 2 billion people already without access to sufficient food, including smallholder farmers and other people living in poverty, will be hit hardest.

Already, despite decades of global commitment, hunger and food insecurity persist at staggering rates. According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, nearly 750 million people experienced severe food insecurity in 2019 and the number of undernourished or food-insecure people is rising, with climate shocks a major contributor. Unless urgent action is taken, climate change will increase food prices, decrease food availability, and exacerbate instability and conflict because of competition over water and fertile land.

Women work in a field.

Climate solutions from sustainable agriculture

In addition to being affected by the impacts of climate change, agriculture is a major contributor — and a potential solution — to climate change. In a recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the production, distribution, and consumption of food. When it comes to producing food, the majority of agricultural emissions are related to raising livestock, followed by rice cultivation and the production of synthetic fertilizers. Moreover, as forests and grasslands are converted for agriculture, the world is losing vitally important ecosystems that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

A cow standing near a fence.

To avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, we must radically transform our agricultural systems. The good news is that a number of sustainable practices offer significant climate mitigation opportunities, some of which will also help farmers build resilience against future environmental and economic shocks:

  •  Reducing food loss and waste, which account for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, is low-hanging fruit to reduce heat-trapping emissions. Adopting more sustainable diets, in particular shifting away from meat consumption, while difficult for social and cultural reasons, could lead to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector.
  • Agroforestry (incorporating the cultivation and conservation of trees in croplands or pastures) can cut emissions by creating additional “carbon sinks” on farms. Widely practiced across Central and Latin America since pre-Columbian times, this practice also protects farms from soil erosion and provides habitat to a diversity of species.
  • Better soil management on farms, including such practices as reduced tillage, can keep carbon in the soil while increasing productivity. Higher per hectare yields could, in turn, help ease the pressure for more deforestation, thereby avoiding emissions — not to mention biodiversity and ecosystem loss — from land use change. Sustainable farming practices that maintain soil health can also increase farmers’ incomes, providing an important buffer against climate shocks for rural populations.
  • Degraded and abandoned farmlands present climate opportunities as well. Restoring degraded farmlands not only reduces emissions, but also can decrease the risk of soil erosion and landslides and restore the availability of clean water and other critical ecosystem services.

Working to achieve improved soil fertility and higher productivity while lessening greenhouse gas emissions could significantly reduce agriculture’s contribution to climate change while helping achieve more sustainable and resilient communities.

A young man carries supplies from a UN helicopter.

Heeding the UN Secretary-General’s call for food systems transformation

To inspire renewed global commitment to resilient and sustainable food systems, Secretary-General António Guterres announced last year that he will convene a high-level Food Systems Summit in 2021. The summit will focus on the role of food systems in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the emission reduction targets of the Paris Agreement by convening governments, civil society, and the private sector to generate innovative ideas, build new partnerships, and deliver ambitious cross-sectoral actions to transform food systems.

Agnes Kalibata, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Food Systems Summit, who is responsible for organizing the summit, is using the upcoming event and the concept that “food is more than what we eat” to spur a new global conversation about our food — where it comes from, what it does to us and the world that surrounds us, and how we can improve the ways we make and consume it. The point is that agriculture and food issues, which are principally covered in Sustainable Development Goal 2, are inextricably linked to all the other SDGs. Which is to say that progress on sustainable food systems can benefit multiple aspects of human well-being and environmental health. But effectively building more resilient and sustainable food systems will require a holistic approach, one that addresses the multidimensional objectives of sustainable development, including education, health, and gender equity.

COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis have shined a spotlight on the fragility — and interconnectedness — of global food systems. As we emerge from the pandemic, we must work together to ensure that achieving climate resilience in the agriculture sector is at the heart of the international community’s efforts to “recover better.” Let’s use the Food Systems Summit and the months leading up to it as an opportunity to rethink our food systems and put the world on a more sustainable, equitable, and prosperous path.

This blog was co-authored by Ryan Hobert, Christine Negra, and Evelin Toth.