CGIAR Initiative to Help Develop Low-Emission Food Systems, Key to Meeting Global Climate Targets

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The CGIAR Research Initiative on Low-Emission Food Systems, Mitigate+, will help low- and middle-income countries reduce food systems emissions without impeding progress toward development goals. With a food systems approach to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, this work could lead to a reduction in global emissions by 2 percent in 10 years.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Assessment reports[1] make for grim reading – and make the urgency for accelerated climate change mitigation clearer than ever. Increasingly, the global food system is in the spotlight: valued at US$12 trillion, it contributes 21–37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), around 70 percent of which comes from the Global South [2,3]. While the global food system provides critical food and nutritional security, livelihoods, and many socio-economic benefits, it also generates multiple externalities (negative side-effects).

In addition to generating GHGE, food systems are responsible for one-third of agricultural soil degradation, 20 percent of aquifer overexploitation, and 60 percent of biodiversity loss, as well as alarming rates of fish stock depletion[4]. Despite this unsustainably intensive use of resources, more than 800 million people globally are undernourished. These two global challenges must be addressed together: food systems transformation in tandem with low greenhouse gas emission development need to rank high on the world’s political agenda in order to meet global development goals.

Mitigate+ will help reduce global GHGE by 2 percent through targeted, research-based action in seven countries that are high GHGE producers. The work includes supporting national development and planning related to food systems, closing emission information gaps so countries can set and attain GHGE reduction targets, setting up “living labs” where local food system actors will engage in research and actions to ease the burden of food systems on the climate, and improving the institutional environment for scaling up mitigation actions and enabling low emission development. The Mitigate+ team will also be involved in global engagement and agenda-setting.

Helping the Paris Agreement reach its goals

Adopted at the UN climate meetings in 2015, the Paris Agreement’s[5] target of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels was a critical milestone to spur global collaboration – from governments and corporations to cooperatives and individuals – for systematic change. While the agreement urges high-income countries to take the lead in emission reduction, it also emphasizes the necessity of a global response to climate change for sustainable development and poverty eradication. This includes ensuring that low-emission development does not threaten food production and that financial flows are consistent with this goal and climate-resilient development. One traditional concern of low- and middle-income countries is that climate-friendly development could threaten food security, poverty eradication, and livelihood aspirations of their citizens. Recognizing these concerns, Mitigate+ aims to support partner nations achieve climate-friendly food system development and emissions reductions without unwanted trade-offs.

Accelerating mitigation in food systems

To date, mitigation efforts have failed to live up to the Paris Agreement. Within food systems, progress has been slow due to several key challenges:

  • Poor quantification: GHG emissions in national food systems, especially emissions from food loss and waste, are poorly quantified and understood. Weak linkages to nutrition, gender equity, and environmental targets make it difficult to set intervention priorities, track progress, and report impacts.
  • Lack of focus on domestic food systems: Policy and financial instruments to reduce GHGE from food systems and enhance carbon sinks (such as forests and soils) often focus on subsistence agriculture (e.g., REDD+) or globally traded agricultural commodities (e.g., zero-deforestation supply chains), and fail to tackle the domestic food systems which are primarily responsible for emissions in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Lack of incentives and misaligned policies: Private-sector action is stymied by misaligned incentives and a lack of regulatory frameworks for emission reductions. Transnational companies are only starting to green their supply chains and offset emissions in response to consumer pressure. Domestic policies often support the private sector’s pursuit of short-term profits in ways that externalize GHGE costs at the expense of long-term food system viability.
  • Difficulties in scaling good practices: Effective practices exist to reduce the GHGE intensity of all food system components and create or enhance greenhouse gas sinks in aquatic production systems, soils, and forests. However, scaling such practices has been challenging, as constraints faced by the different change actors are poorly understood and/or difficult to overcome.

A broader understanding of food system approaches by decision-makers is needed to stimulate both policy momentum and investment in solutions.

Building on two decades of CGIAR climate research, Mitigate+ addresses these challenges directly. In the seven countries where the Initiative operates[6], Mitigate+ focuses on reducing food systems emissions and the predicted consequences of climate change on future generations, sustainable development, and social equity – working to ensure that civil society, multilateral organizations, governments, private sector actors, and other stakeholders are equipped with the knowledge, information, and tools they need to make robust evidence-based decisions. By 2030, this work is expected to result in emission reductions of 1.1 gigatons per year – a 6.5 percent decrease in annual global food systems emissions. Eight million people are expected to benefit from mitigation and other actions over the Initiative’s ten-year lifespan, noting that these achievements will be made alongside progress toward other development goals. 

Ensuring stakeholders are at the wheel

To achieve these targets, Mitigate+ uses an innovative systems approach. In close collaboration with partners, CGIAR researchers will develop and deploy evidence and tools to understand and untangle the complexities of the political, economic, cultural, and biophysical components of the food system’s greenhouse gas problem.

To generate more impactful and demand-driven knowledge, the Initiative’s “place-based” participatory research will focus on working with stakeholders, including farmers and other actors of the local food systems, to collaboratively design, test, and deploy emission-reduction strategies. This approach is fundamentally different from top-down development models where “solutions” are designed and delivered without adequate participation from intended beneficiaries.

Ensuring low-emission development is high on the global agenda

CGIAR’s new research portfolio sets out a path to transform food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis. The work laid out in Mitigate+ underscores the significant contributions that low-emission development efforts in low- and middle-income countries can make toward achieving our global climate and development goals. By engaging and collaborating closely with national partners, Mitigate+ will spur informed decision-making for low-emission food systems development based on solid science, good governance, and principles of gender and social equity. Together, we will bring low-emission food system development into the mainstream.


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[2] Crippa, M., Solazzo, E., Guizzardi, D., Monforti-Ferrario, F., Tubiello, F.N., Leip, A., 2021. FS are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHGE. Nature Food 2, 198–209. doi:10.1038/s43016-021-00225-9

[3] Rosenzweig, C., Mbow, C., Barioni, L.G., Benton, T.G., Herrero, M., Krishnapillai, M., Liwenga, E.T., Pradhan, P., Rivera-Ferre, M.G., Sapkota, T., Tubiello, F.N., Xu, Y., Mencos Contreras, E., Portugal-Pereira, J., 2020. Climate change responses benefit from a global FS approach. Nature Food 1, 94–97. doi:10.1038/s43016-020-0031-z.

[4] Poore, J., Nemecek, T., 2018. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360, 987–992. doi:10.1126/science.aaq0216


[6] Mitigate+ has begun work in China, Colombia, Kenya, and Vietnam, with plans to expand to Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Peru.


Authored by Louis Verchot, Principal Scientist, Landscape Restoration, Multifunctional Landscapes, Alliance Bioversity-CIAT, lead of Mitigate+; and Wei Zhang, Senior Research Fellow, Environment and Production Technology Division (EPTD), IFPRI, co-lead of Mitigate+.

Header photo by P. Vishwanathan/CCAFS.

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