Five ways science can lead a just transition in agri-food systems

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All of us involved in agri-food systems are grappling with a difficult task: to ramp up global food supplies while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It is no secret that last year was the hottest on record, with temperatures exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius over a 12-month period for the first time. We are precariously close to breaching temperature levels outlined in the Paris Agreement.

While our food systems are responsible for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, there is no way to build a more resilient world if it gets hotter. At the same time, tackling emissions cannot come at the cost of increased global hunger.

Science is a critical component to tackling this conundrum, but social measures and funding also have to be in place to achieve the joint goal of ramping up food supplies to tackle global hunger without also ramping up emissions. Here are five ways this goal can be achieved.

  1. Funding for more food; less emissions 

Resilience to climate change and emission reduction go hand in hand: we cannot become resilient without reducing emissions. Decades of science have already resulted in reduced emissions in agriculture, from improved management to reduced forest clearance for farms and pasture – a major source of greenhouse gas emissions – to conserving important forests.

Artificial Intelligence and digital tools are now being deployed to speed up breeding and fast-track new crops that can beat heat and resist drought. But genetic gain and new crops are only one piece of the puzzle in tackling climate change.

While technologies do exist to lower emission, they often have a yield penalty. Farmers may be reluctant to adopt these if their production and incomes are negatively affected. Funding innovations to reduce yield penalties and emissions together must be increased.

Within this context, food systems transformation receives very little funding, with a global funding gap of $350 billion annually. At COP28, CGIAR launched its investment case, seeking $4 billion in funding, and so far having received $890 million in pledges. Some penalties may be inevitable – making the role of social safety nets even more critical.

  1. Support for social safety nets

Farmers are among the most exposed to climate risks and direct losses in food and income. Research has already pointed out that climate change will make manual outdoor work by farm laborers more dangerous in many regions due to heat exposure.

Even if we deploy all the best technology and policies at our disposal, access to nutritious, affordable food for all will take time. As we transition to more sustainable food production, we have a responsibility to invest in social protection to support the most vulnerable.

When farmers shift to low-emission technologies or natural farming, it is critical that they receive support for any losses they may incur. For example, in South Asia’s predominantly cereal-based farming systems threatened by unsustainable groundwater withdrawal, combining social protection programs such as poverty-targeted cash transfers can support pregnant women; or provide emergency cash support for refugees and returning migrants to diversify from rice to vegetables.

  1. Scalable solutions that are integrated and local

Science must support what countries are already doing to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and meet the demand to match national targets. Building more resilient agri-food systems requires that solutions to complex challenges are integrated at a regional and national level, supporting existing commitments.

Through CGIAR, scientists are already working in collaboration with partners across the global south to find solutions to specific challenges. But better integration at national and local levels is key to meet specific food system challenges and address long-term change in food systems.

  1. Reducing environmental trade-offs 

Historically, CGIAR has focused its science on boosting food productivity. Now, researchers are also working on innovations which equally protect the environment and soils, reducing emission in agriculture and cutting food waste.

For example, in East Africa, the CGIAR is supporting farmers in Zimbabwe facing higher temperatures and drought to grow drought tolerant, orange maize. The maize has high nutritional value and also the seeds are better adapted to heat stress.

  1. Reduced consumption 

We cannot fix sustainable production challenges without fixing over-consumption. But not everyone needs to take the same actions.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, meat consumption in sub-Saharan Africa will be 12.9 kilograms per person by 2028. By comparison, meat consumption in the United States is expected to rise above 100 kilograms per person – the highest in the world.

Reducing meat consumption in the USA will be important to reduce over-consumption of resources; while making livestock production in sub-Saharan Africa more efficient will support sustainable goals.

All of us are in the same storm when it comes to the climate crisis. But some of us are in a luxury cruise ship, and others are in dinghies. In the global south, farmers are confined to the equivalent of flimsy boats floating in the storm.

While ramping up food supplies may fall to farmers, reducing emissions is the responsibility of all of us, requiring increased investment from the global north through Loss and Damage funds and campaigns that raise awareness of food waste and overconsumption in general.

Authors: Dr. Aditi Mukherji is a Director, Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Impact Action Platform of the CGIAR, specializing in adaptation in agri-food systems, groundwater governance, energy-irrigation nexus, and community management of water resources. Aditi is also a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Dr. Maya Rajasekharan is a Senior Director for Integrated Systems and Scaling at CGIAR and Managing Director of the Africa Region for the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. Maya coordinates the work of CGIAR Regional Integrated Initiatives, setting overall vision and strategy, and engagement with stakeholders.

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