The latest IPCC report marks a step change in recognising links between food and the climate crisis. Food systems, which are mentioned 350 times in the report, are already creaking under the pressure of multiple climate shocks, changing weather patterns, ecosystem collapse and degradation of land, soils and waterways.
This is now fact, not a warning. The recently published analysis of IPCC Working Group 2 states that even in best-case warming scenarios, food insecurity is set to rise further. The damage we are wreaking on the planet will leave even more people chronically hungry. Meanwhile, the ambition of ensuring everyone in the world can access a healthy, nourishing diet becomes ever more remote. Today, three billion cannot afford a healthy diet.
This breakdown in our food systems continues to affect the most vulnerable most acutely, with people living in conflict areas, those suffering extreme poverty, and marginalised groups bearing the greatest burden. Meanwhile, rising food prices and supply shortages (exacerbated by climate change, conflict and economic disruption) are limiting access and affordability of nutritious foods, even in wealthy nations and among relatively privileged populations.
Already, more than 700 million people go hungry while billions live with the consequences of preventable micronutrient deficiencies, which weaken immune systems and cause preventable diseases. We cannot afford any further challenges and constraints on food systems already not fit-for-purpose. But that is exactly what we can expect, according to the IPCC reports.
As the IPCC scientists emphasise: “Climate change will increasingly put pressure on food production and access, especially in vulnerable regions, undermining food security and nutrition. At 2C or higher food security risks due to climate change will be more severe, leading to malnutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies.”
The picture the IPCC paints includes farmlands no longer be suitable to produce nutritious foods, heat and drought putting crops at risk of catastrophic failure, and harsh conditions making agricultural work impossible.
These hazards will not occur in isolation. Instead, they will happen concurrently, compounding the risk to food security and nutrition, driving conflict, displacement, biodiversity loss, and other stresses. As food availability decreases and prices increase, incomes will be placed under ever greater strain. Access to nutritious diets will be more constrained than ever. Severe stunting, wasting, absolute hunger, micronutrient deficiencies and NCDs will rise rapidly.
One cruel irony is that the food system – a primary victim of climate change – is also one of its main causes.
Associated GHG emissions, pollution, use of land and water, and damage to natural ecosystems are only exacerbating the crisis. Current production practices and consumption habits are running out of road. The last IPCC report clearly detailed the impacts of food production on the environment. We cannot achieve a 1.5° future, the goals of the Paris Agreement, or the SDGs, if we fail to improve in this area, yet food languishes at the bottom of many climate agendas.
There is, however, still hope. The new IPCC report catalogues extensive solutions which would help not only to adapt to the new threats we face, but also to mitigate the environmental damage caused by food systems – while also reaping benefits for human health, jobs and livelihoods.
It highlights the role of changes in production practices, with a particular focus on agroecological approaches, including agroforestry. It rightly prioritises the reduction of food loss and waste, which would tackle environmental challenges (such as the wasted natural resources and the methane emissions associated with rotting food) while concurrently increasing the supply of nutritious foods. Land management, changes in consumption patterns, and the adoption of new crop varieties will be key.
The science is clear. The time for action was yesterday. Our food systems continue to take us down a grim path. But there is still a chance to shape a better future; one where our food systems are climate positive, our natural ecosystems are restored, and our supply of nutritious foods is secured today and for generations to come. Those in agriculture and food most affected by climate change – farmers, entrepreneurs in food value chains, and consumers – have a big stake in helping making change happen. Attitudes and awareness are changing.
Now is the moment for policymakers, businesses and consumers to give food systems the attention that they deserve. The priorities are clear. Funding, resources, support and enabling policies must be urgently established to shift production practices, adapt diets, and strengthen the resilience of food supply chains. The picture of the future painted by the IPCC reports is unconscionable. We must create our own.