Farming News - Why agrifood systems must be at the core of climate action: a COP28 preview with FAO climate expert

Why agrifood systems must be at the core of climate action: a COP28 preview with FAO climate expert

As the world gears up for the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP28, in a year with soaring temperatures and progressive extreme weather events, attention is turning towards innovative solutions to address the climate crisis.

The scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said it earlier this year: the effective solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change lie in climate-resilient development and holistic measures— including in the food and agriculture sectors.

While agrifood systems contribute to about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, they also hold a huge potential for positive climate action. The key challenge is finding ways to feed a growing population while reducing the carbon footprint and environmental impact.

COP28 will serve as a nexus for leaders representing governments, businesses, NGOs, and civil society to forge tangible solutions collaboratively, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) will be at the forefront of this effort.

Ahead of the international gathering, we spoke to Kaveh Zahedi, Director of the FAO Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment (OCB), who outlined some of the most important messages that the Organization will be carrying out during this COP, the first one to have a day dedicated to food, agriculture and water.

Solutions for agrifood systems bring multiple benefits, including climate action

Amid growing climate impacts and slow progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable agrifood systems practices can help countries and communities to adapt, build resilience, and mitigate emissions, ensuring food security and nutrition— in a world where around 735 million people are going hungry— and while reversing environmental degradation and its impacts.

"We already have solutions to tackle climate change, and many of these solutions, whether it is agroforestry, restoration of soils, sustainable livestock, or fisheries management, have multiple benefits as they can also support the sustainable use of biodiversity, as well as help with food security—multiple benefits from the same solutions that only agriculture and food systems offer," explains Zahedi.

At COP, FAO will showcase some unique agrifood systems initiatives with examples of projects that are demonstrating change on the ground. "We want to do everything possible to get climate finance flowing towards these solutions," he adds.

Without a major increase in finance, reducing the vulnerability of people working in agriculture and food systems and reducing the emissions from the sector will simply not happen (16 billion tonnes of emissions were emitted in 2021 alone), Zahedi warns.

Agrifood systems and negotiations

FAO will also support countries that are working hard on these issues through official negotiations and the Sharm el-Sheikh joint work on the implementation of climate action on agriculture and food security.

"This joint work is very important because it brings the discussion on agriculture, on food systems, to some degree, into the heart of the negotiation process and it allows us to talk about the solutions that this sector offers for climate'', Zahedi explains.

At COP28 countries will negotiate a work plan for this Joint Work, including a coordination structure within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Negotiators will also explore opportunities for financing.

"We are also supporting the incoming COP28 presidency that has made food and agrifood systems a big part of this year's climate talks. There is a leader's declaration that they hope to present, and we will be supporting them on that. We will be there on the first day when the leaders will be discussing food and agriculture in the context of climate change, we will also be there on Food, Agriculture, and Water Day on 10 December, where we and many of our partners will be talking about the many solutions that agriculture and food systems offer for climate change".

While a non-negotiated expected outcome of COP28, the Emirates Declaration on Resilient Food Systems, Sustainable Agriculture, and Climate Action, provides welcome impetus for increasing investment in and scaling up agrifood system solutions to climate change that can build resilience and reduce emissions at the same time as addressing food security.

An analysis of Loss and Damage

Another critical discussion on the agenda this year has to do with the establishment of a Loss and Damage Fund agreed last year at COP27, a significant milestone after decades of appeals from developing nations. The fund's purpose is to offer financial aid to the countries most affected by climate change and that have contributed the least. At COP28, nations will discuss the details of how to get this initiative operational.

To highlight how agrifood systems are at the frontlines of loss at damage, FAO will be publishing the report Loss and Damage and Agrifood Systems − Taking Climate Action Forward during the first days of COP.

"We are going to go to COP already equipped with an analysis that shows what loss and damage means to agriculture, to food systems, to the communities that depend on them as a way of keeping up the momentum to building towards this fund that is being discussed and to redirecting investments to where they are really needed, to the most vulnerable, many of whom are within the communities working on food and agriculture," the expert says.

For him, the Loss and Damage fund is going to be vital for helping those communities overcome the challenges that are already impacting their lives and livelihoods.

"We cannot take our eyes off the ball of mitigation, emissions have to come down. At the same time, we have to deal with adaptation because the climate is changing. But there comes a stage where adaptation is no longer possible and that is where loss and damage comes in. This fund is going to be vital to help people, communities, especially farming and agricultural communities, that are at that last stage of this challenge of the climate impact," he explains, saying that seeing the fund up and running would be one of the "victories to celebrate" at the end of COP28.

Agrifood systems and the Global Stocktake

This year governments will also take a decision on the first global stocktake, a part of the Paris Agreement and a key means to assess the world's global response to the climate crisis and chart a better way forward.

UNFCCC recently released a Synthesis Report designed to help governments reach a decision on the global stocktake at COP28 which is Party-driven, and can be leveraged to accelerate ambition in their next round of climate action plans due in 2025.

"The stocktake in a way tells us what we already knew: that we are way off-track, that countries are not yet reaching their levels of ambition in terms of building resilience, in terms of adaptation to a changing climate, but also in terms of reduction of greenhouse gases and mitigation. So, we are off-course to achieve, in a way, the aspirations of the Paris Agreement", Zahedi explains.

However, he says, the global stocktake is also telling us about the importance of looking for system changes.

"Amongst these systems changes, the transformation of the agrifood systems is paramount. the stocktake is an opportunity to remind everybody that while all these solutions have been identified and to some degree tested, they and not being invested-in yet at the scale that matches their potential".

Exploring the solutions

It is possible to have better production, better nutrition, a better environment and support better lives, all at the same time, explains the expert.

"So, we are working on solutions that address the challenges of food security, climate change, and biodiversity loss at the same time".

For example, the sustainable management of land, agriculture and forestry can improve the capacity to produce food in a way that is not damaging to biodiversity while helping build resilience, increasing carbon storage and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Agroforestry has the potential to increase food security for over a billion people by increasing soil nitrogen available to crops, increasing soil carbon storage, halving soil erosion rates and boosting ecosystem services.

Meanwhile, improving management of cropland and grazing systems could mitigate multiple gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year and at the same time improve food security.

"About a third of agricultural land is currently degraded. You can imagine the potential of restoring this agricultural land in terms of food security, but also in terms of building resilience, adaptation, and, of course, mitigation of emissions," he adds.

Energy smart agriculture can also help reduce emissions from energy use in the agrifood sector, improve energy efficiency and sustainability in agriculture and capitalizing on opportunities for producing bioenergy from agricultural byproducts.

"These are only a few examples of solutions on offer, "Zahedi underscores.

How is FAO contributing to developing solutions

Guided by the climate change strategy that FAO member countries developed, every part of FAO has been scaling climate change support to countries across sectors.

For example, since 2006, FAO's partnership with the Global Environment Facility has supported over 130 countries to improve the sustainability of their agrifood production and deliver results for the environment. FAO-GEF investments over the past four years have placed 116 million hectares of land and seascape under improved management, mitigating 570 million tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – the equivalent of taking 128 million cars off the road. 

"These investments have helped improve the lives of 13 million people with greener jobs, healthier diets, and a greater capacity to be stewards of the environment," the expert explains.

Similarly, the strong FAO - Green Climate Fund partnership has unlocked $1.2 billion in climate action financing for projects in developing countries. The diverse and wide range of projects improve livelihoods and food security with climate-resilient crops, agroforestry, sustainable fisheries, and better land and water management. From restoring degraded ecosystems to reforesting huge swaths of forest, these FAO-led GCF projects are helping countries to turn mitigation and adaptation solutions into actions that benefit people and the planet.

FAO International Plant Treaty's Benefit-sharing Fund has to date benefited more than one million people. Through the projects, more than 200 Farmer Field Schools have been set up to provide interactive, bottom-up learning platforms to deploy, access and develop climate-resilient crops.

Meanwhile, the FAO SAGA project is helping turn plans and ambitions into local action. For example, in North-East Senegal, the project worked with producers to use traditional agroecology practices known as Gulle Kisnal to help conserve increasingly scarce water through a half-moon mini basin, reducing evaporation and run-off while maintaining yields.

"We are going to go to COP28 and have a pavilion with many of our partners— CGIAR, IFAD, Rockefeller Foundation— and together we are going to showcase many initiatives that are making a difference to people's lives in terms of using agrifood systems as an answer to the climate crisis. And I hope that will maintain the momentum", Zahedi highlights.

A look into the future

Kaveh Zahedi has spent his whole career in different leadership positions focused on environmental efforts, green technology and development. Asked if we should be hopeful, or hopeless for the future, given his experience, the FAO Climate, Biodiversity and Environment chief says that there are many positive things to outline.

"We now understand that the way that the climate is changing is undermining hard-won development gains. And I think that is an understanding that didn't exist a decade ago, and certainly didn't exist two decades ago. So, I see real progress in that sense".

He adds that he has also seen a lot of change in terms of integration agendas, with climate change now being at the heart of the conversations of nutrition and biodiversity, for example.

"We hope to actually come to COP with an even clearer understanding of the agrifood system solutions that can help take us towards the 1.5 degrees warming goal and to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 (Zero Hunger)".

However, he says, the one thing that makes him less hopeful, is that the financing and investments are still lacking, even when the potential of agrifood systems solutions is so big.

"A very small proportion of climate finance is going to agrifood system solutions. If you look globally at all climate finance, public, private, at the project level, it is around only four percent. If you take a narrower lens and look at climate-tagged development finance, it is less than 20% that is going to agrifood system solutions, and that percentage is falling. There is less and less investment in solutions that so clearly offer massive benefits in terms of climate change".