Can we end hunger without heating the planet?

A woman farmer winnows paddy rice, one of the country's main food crops, in Lalitpur, Nepal, 15 October 2020. (Keystone/Narendra Shrestha)

With food demand expected to double by 2050 and Covid-19 accelerating food crises all over, the world is facing a dilemma. How to feed everyone without ramping up global warming?

This week, Lesotho was added to the long lists of countries facing a food crisis, with almost a quarter of its population relying on food aid up until March, the FAO has warned. But as hunger and malnutrition continue to rise, so are global temperatures.

To stay on track with the Paris accord goal of keeping global warming below 2 C, food production, which accounts for one quarter of total carbon emissions, will have to cut these back significantly by 2050. But by that time, the world will have to feed 9.8bn people.

Addressing this topic at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture hosted this week by Germany, Martienn van Nieuwkoop, director of agriculture and food global practice for the World Bank, said that the global food system is facing “daunting challenges”. Production will need to be ramped up by 50 to 60 per cent by 2050, while at the same time reducing its carbon footprint by 75 per cent and avoiding more deforestation, he said.

Why this matters. Food insecurity, which has been on the rise for the past five years, is worsening as the pandemic drags on and devastates not only people’s health but also their livelihoods. Before Covid-19, 690 million people were going hungry, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In 2020, 130 million more were on the brink of chronic hunger due to the pandemic.

And this could be worsened by the climate emergency. A study released this week of 107,000 children under five years old in 19 countries found that rising temperatures are an equal or greater contributor to child malnutrition than other factors, including poverty and education. Experts have also argued that food insecurity can be linked to conflict and to population displacement.

The UN Food Systems Summit, which is a few months away, will see the launch of new commitments towards a more equitable and sustainable food system. Getting the necessary means for these transformations to take place will be an important part of the agenda, said van Nieuwkoop.

A world of plenty. To end hunger, increasing food production is not necessarily the only answer. In fact, as van Nieuwkoop pointed out during the event, the world is producing enough food to feed everyone. "We see rising food insecurity actually in a world of plenty," he said.

With one third of agricultural production going to waste, excess food production leaves a significant environmental footprint.

“If food loss and waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter globally, in terms of carbon emissions,” said Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, director and chair of the African Research Universities Alliance Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA-SFS), also a panellist at the event.

Big businesses play an important part in curbing food waste at the value chain level, she added, highlighting the 10x20x30 initiative launched by Champions 12.3 — a coalition of executives from governments, businesses, international organisations, research institutions, farmer groups, and civil society — aiming to slash global food waste by half in the next decade.

The initiative has rallied over 200 world food retailers, including Nestle, Pepsico, Mars and Unilever who have committed to working with their suppliers to achieve this goal.

While excess food production can be tackled to reduce its impact on climate change, there are other barriers to simply redirecting this surplus of food to those who most need it.

“The most important challenge for access is people not having enough income to buy the food they need. That has been the biggest crisis from Covid, people in cities losing their revenue,” Carin Smaller, director of agriculture and trade of the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD) and moderator at the event, told Geneva Solutions.

Investment is key. To address hunger while protecting the climate, it all boils down to one thing: financing. That’s is according to research by Ceres2030, a partnership between the IISD, the International Food Policy Research Institute and the University of Cornell.

Their report from October states that to eradicate hunger within ten years while limiting agricultural emissions in line with the Paris accord in low and middle income countries, roughly $330bn will be needed in additional funding from donor governments and receiving countries. The incomes of 545 million small-scale farmers would also double as a result, according to the findings.

For good results, investments should focus on certain key areas such as training for farmers, developing climate resilient crops and social protection measures, such as improving access to education. Smaller, one of the directors of Ceres2030, explained:

“What we found is that some of the biggest barriers were not the lack of knowledge, technology, or ideas, but all the things you need to support farmers to be able to adopt those ideas.”

More than half of the funds would need to go to sub-Saharan Africa. But most importantly, the findings show that it is doable, she said:

“We are in the era of stimulus packages and public spending that we have never ever seen before. The US, even under Trump, had raised $3 trillion in a public stimulus package to help the US economy and now we have Biden putting forward a new package for $1.9 trillion. Here [to end hunger], we're talking about $14bn extra a year. It's peanuts. it's a drop in the ocean.”

Despite this, with focus being on vaccine distribution and attending to the economic fallout, hunger and climate are far from being a priority, Smaller said, who warned she has yet to see an appetite for this kind of long term investment.

“The urgent need right now is social protection. We need cash transfers for poor people so they can pay for their health care, buy food, pay for their kids' education. At the same time, we can't neglect the longer term investments that are needed because if we lived in a world where there was no hunger, and farmers had a decent income, and that we weren't having all the negative effects on climate change, then we wouldn't have suffered as badly when the pandemic hit.”

But the world might soon get a reality check. She said: “In the next three to six months, we will see actual statistics being published, not only the projections, of how much hunger has increased in the world, and how many countries will end up falling into a situation of famine. And once that is the reality, then I think governments will react.”