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The coalitions seeking to transform food systems and boost climate resilience

From agroecology to soil health, can these targeted campaigns build on the UN’s first food systems summit?

(Kylee Pedersen/TNH)

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Earlier this month, world leaders met in Glasgow to hammer out a strategy to stave off the catastrophic impacts of climate change. But one crucial topic was glaring in its absence – food systems. Not only do they account for a third of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, but they are also highly vulnerable to the vagaries of weather. 

Many of the issues touched upon – and pledges made – during the two-week COP26 meeting relate to food systems: from the need for sustainable agriculture and reducing methane emissions (32 percent of which come from livestock), to protecting forests and nature. Farming is a primary driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss.   

In a sense, the COP26 pledges were a continuation of the promises made by heads of states on 23-24 September during the UN’s first-ever Food Systems Summit – that they will make food systems fairer, greener, and healthier, and rein in rising global hunger levels that have left nearly one in 10 people struggling to feed themselves.

The New York-hosted summit may have been marred by public boycotts and disagreements, but during 18 months of lead-up consultations – and since the gathering – at least 30 coalitions have been launched that are attempting to turn its promises into action.

These coalitions are looking to tackle a complex and broad set of issues: from long-running conflicts and competition over natural resources such as land and water, to policies that favour productivity at the expense of health or the environment, to the lack of long-term support for small-scale farmers already struggling due to droughts and floods.

They aim to support country plans to transform the way people and businesses produce, transport, process, consume, and discard food. Meeting these objectives, they say, will also help reduce the hefty contribution that existing food systems are making to climate change.

Here’s a look at seven coalitions with big ambitions:

Transformation through Agroecology

In a nutshell, agroecology applies ecological principles to agriculture by shunning synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and by placing greater weight on social values and local knowledge.

This group – co-led by veteran researchers and a farmers’ association, and supported by nations such as Senegal, France, and Switzerland – plans to push for a more widespread adoption of agroecology globally.

Proponents, including the Slow Food movement and farmers’ organisations, say it has the potential to address both hunger and inequality while at the same time increasing the resilience of farmers in a changing climate.

Even critics of the Food Systems Summit see this coalition as one of the event’s few successes, particularly because industrialised nations such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, and the United States have resisted efforts to promote agroecology at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – a specialised UN agency that provides policy and technical advice to member countries in agriculture, livestock, fisheries, forestry, and nutrition. 

Kip Tom, a former US ambassador to the UN food and agriculture agencies in Rome, went so far as to call agroecology “an explicit rejection of the very idea of progress – extolling ‘peasant’ farming and promoting ‘the right to subsistence’ agriculture”– in a 2020 speech.

Perhaps it is to counter such views that the coalition identified one of its key objectives as strengthening research and development programmes to support a shift to agroecology. 

According to 49-year-old Ferdinand Wafula, who teaches smallholder farmers in Kenya about best agroecological practices, groups like this help ensure that political leaders hear the voices and interests of ordinary citizens, not just from businesses and the private sector.

“[The coalition] is a positive thing because it will provide civil society an avenue for engagement with governments,” Wafula told The New Humanitarian, adding that it will also help them adapt to climate extremes.

Coalition of Action 4 Soil Health

Little-known fact: soil stores more carbon than the planet’s atmosphere and vegetation combined, and it is a critical component of food systems.

And, more importantly, it could finally be getting its due, as soil-friendly farming techniques and innovations to improve soil health are becoming more popular and widespread. 

Accumulating carbon in soils has been touted as a major climate change mitigation and adaptation strategy.  

About time too, because scientists have been warning for years that the world’s soils are in trouble, with the highly fertile top layer eroding at alarming rates due to natural causes as well as human activities: intensive farming, deforestation, and urban sprawl. An area of soil the size of a soccer pitch is eroded every five seconds and a third of the Earth’s surface is already degraded, according to the FAO.

This coalition aims to improve soil health globally by addressing barriers such as unsupportive policies, lack of investment or economic incentives, and a lack of awareness and technical know-how among farmers. 

It has set four ambitious goals to achieve by 2030: improved soil health in 50 percent of all agricultural land, 100 million farmers implementing good practices, $100 million in finance and investment, and sequestering five times as much carbon in the soil annually.

Resizing the livestock industry

The debate over livestock, in particular cows, has been heating up because of their outsized contribution to greenhouse gas emissions – 14.5 percent of all emissions.

Ruminants such as cattle, buffalo, sheep, and goats produce nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide (CO2). However, the most emitted gas is methane, which has a shorter life span than CO2 but more than 80 times the warming power over a 20-year period, according to The Global Carbon Project.

This coalition has four focus areas, the first and most important of which – as the name implies – focuses on reducing meat and dairy consumption, which would go some way towards reducing emissions from food systems.  

The other focus areas include shifting to green agricultural practices, supporting a just transition, and adopting good standards of animal welfare.

While the coalition has not yet identified strategic partners, it is expecting support from a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including from the EU, whose Farm to Fork Strategy seeks to have at least 25 percent of the bloc’s agricultural land under organic farming by 2030. 

The True Value of Food Initiative

Some argue that current food systems don’t take into account the environmental and health costs associated with unsustainable foods.

For example, by cutting down trees and expanding agricultural land to grow crops for livestock feeding, you are also contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, and increased mortality and morbidity.

These costs amount to $19.8 trillion a year, but they aren’t reflected in the prices and profits of unhealthy foods, according to a recent paper published by the scientific group of the UN Food Systems Summit.

This coalition aims to address this issue by developing “a new economic basis for decision-making that accounts for the true value of food”.

A key aspect is True Cost Accounting (TCA), which assesses the true costs and benefits of different food production systems by calculating not only direct costs such as raw ingredients and labour but also the impacts on society and the environment.

Backing comes from a diverse group of individuals, including people from Cornell University, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), the Global Alliance for the Future of Food (GAFF), Rabobank, Rockefeller Foundation, and UN personnel.

Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems

Launched at the summit by Myrna Cunningham, president of the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC), this coalition has two overarching goals. One is to “respect, recognise, protect, and strengthen” Indigenous food systems around the world: ensuring access to seeds, and protecting them from intensive agriculture. The second goal focuses on the dissemination of traditional knowledge and good environmental practices. The coalition also aims to push for more scientific and empirical research on Indigenous food systems.

Experts say Indigenous systems are often sustainable and resilient but are at high risk of disappearing due to climate change, migration, and unhealthy imported foods that are causing health issues among communities and killing off traditional food production methods.

While a $1.7 billion funding pledge announced at COP26 aims to help Indigenous peoples and local communities preserve forests, Indigenous groups are also seeking to protect their food systems, given how agricultural expansion is a main cause of deforestation. 

Cunningham said Indigenous communities from seven continents – in addition to several national governments – have expressed interest or support for the coalition.

Fighting Food Crises along the Humanitarian, Development and Peace Nexus

Aid agencies and researchers have identified conflict as a key driver of rising hunger and malnutrition.

The Global Report on Food Crises estimated 113 million people across 53 countries and territories were in urgent need of food, nutrition, and livelihood support in 2018. As of 10 September 2021, this figure had jumped to 161 million people in just 42 countries and territories for which the report had up-to-date data.

Eight of the 10 worst food crises are in countries that are hosting refugees and asylum seekers fleeing conflict, according to the coalition. Climate-induced droughts, floods, and storm surges could worsen their plight. 

Numerous past attempts to change this have failed, but it’s hoped that this coalition will be different. Its broad-based leadership, which includes representatives of the affected countries (the g7+ Secretariat, an intergovernmental grouping of 20 conflict-affected states), means there could be a higher degree of ownership and inclusion on decision-making.

The FAO and the World Food Programme are unsurprising co-leaders of this coalition, but in a nod to the nexus – which looks to combine thinking around humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding – they are joined by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Regional groups like West Africa’s G5 Sahel and the Horn of Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development are members, as are donors and aid agencies such as the World Bank, the EU, and Concern Worldwide.

The Global Network against Food Crises – an existing alliance of humanitarian and development actors founded by the EU, the FAO, and WFP – will establish a small secretariat to support the coalition’s work.

The Coalition to Repurpose Public Support to Food and Agriculture

Every year, governments spend hundreds of billions of dollars on farming subsidies, most of which goes to measures that are harmful for the environment and human health, according to a recent report by three UN agencies. Such support has “incentivised the development of high-emission farming systems”, researchers said.

Currently, $470 billion of the almost $540 billion used to support agricultural producers annually involves policies that are inefficient, distort food prices, and are often inequitable, putting big agri-business ahead of smallholder farmers, the authors said.

This coalition aims to support countries in repurposing these subsidies towards improving food and nutritional security, strengthening soil and water quality, increasing biodiversity, building resilience, and mitigating climate change.

Strategic partners include countries such as Japan, the United States, and Switzerland, as well as the World Farmers’ Organisation, the UN Foundation, the Just Rural Transition, the World Bank, and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Edited by Jessica Alexander.

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