Nurturing Resilience: A Food Systems approach to mitigating Climate Change

As we confront the pressing challenges of climate change, the pivotal role of food systems comes to the forefront, contributing to a substantial 34% of total greenhouse gas emissions—second only to the energy sector (IFPRI, 2022). The abstract concept of climate change has transcended meteorological discussions to directly impact agriculture and food systems profoundly. These systems, both as major contributors to climate change and as entities severely affected by its consequences, find themselves at the nexus of a critical dilemma. Rising temperatures, shifts in precipitation patterns, and an increase in extreme weather events are already exerting detrimental effects, diminishing agricultural yields, compromising the nutritional value of foods, inflating food prices, and disrupting global food supply chains. Alarming statistics reveal a staggering surge in acute food insecurity, soaring from 135 million to 345 million people across 82 countries between 2019 and 2022. Projections further forewarn of a potential decline of 41%-52% in wheat yield and 32%-40% in rice yield, attributed to a temperature increase ranging from 2.5 to 4.9 degrees Celsius.

The climatic effect on food systems disproportionately affects vulnerable populations who often find themselves on the frontline of climate change impacts, facing failed crops and reduced agricultural productivity. The resultant price hikes in food commodities make nutritious foods increasingly unattainable for these already marginalized communities thus further increasing inequities. The situation underscores the imperative of integrating nutritional considerations into the broader strategy of climate resilience to foster a more sustainable and equitable future.

By 2050, climate change is expected to put millions at risk of hunger and malnutrition.1 Conversations around mitigating climate change would be incomplete without transformations in agriculture and food systems. The intricate link between climate, food systems, and nutrition has emerged as a critical focal point calling for intentional integrated action. The focus on food security and nutrition in the discourse on climate change was first highlighted at CoP 27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, where, under Egypt's Presidency, the Initiative for Climate and Nutrition (I-CAN) was launched. I-CAN, a global flagship program with key partnerships among WHO, FAO, UN-Nutrition secretariat, GAIN, and SUN, aims to highlight the intricate relationship between nutrition and climate change. Its objectives include recommending opportunities and pathways to strengthen the integration of these elements to achieve both climate and nutrition goals.

Where do we start?

With clear evidence for integrating climate and nutrition with a focus on food systems, where does the world currently stand? The new baseline report by I-CAN analyzed the current status of integration, whose results indicate a weak integration, that we are missing a significant opportunity in climate action by not including nutrition. For instance, 60% of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reduce emissions do not have plans for nutritious foods and only 17% of the national procurement policies of the world explicitly consider climate. The I-CAN baseline report provides a starting point and offers opportunities to break silos and work towards achieving mutual goals, showcase the human cost of climate, and the urgency to address nutrition from a climate lens. 

Translating vision to action for countries

Following CoP 27, CoP 28 in the UAE witnessed a pivotal moment with the Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, signed by 159 countries emphasizing the crucial role of placing food systems and agriculture at the forefront of climate ambitions, recognizing their significance in addressing climate challenges and promoting sustainability. The declaration focuses on reducing emissions in global food systems and aims to accelerate action on transforming agriculture and food systems. The signatories represent 68% of the world’s farmers, 75% of the global population, 77% of global food production, 81% of the world’s arable land, 83% of global emissions from the food system, and 83% of the world’s agricultural GDP. This is a promising next step to tangible action, commitments, and investments.

For an agrarian economy like India, the challenges are particularly pronounced due to the country's large population and diverse ecological landscapes. India's diverse agro-climatic conditions and dependence on agriculture for livelihoods make it uniquely susceptible to the impacts of climate change. This susceptibility is compounded by high rates of malnutrition, particularly among women and children. India features among the top 10 emitters of GHGs. India’s agrifood system cumulatively is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is also important to view emissions relative to its population (i.e., per capita emissions) for countries such as India with a significantly high population to ensure equitable perspectives of reporting. 

Developed economies have been able to reduce per capita emissions over the last few decades owing to technological solutions in resource utilization efficiency. On the other hand, there is a marginally increasing trend in per capita emissions in India, which needs attention and concerted action. But India would not be starting from scratch, there is a strong recognition to improve the country’s emissions through alternative sources of fuel, climate sensitive agricultural policies and practices, as we pivot from food security to nutrition security. For instance, India’s approach to sustainable agriculture, to adopt innovative climate-smart agricultural strategies focuses on promoting traditional nutrient rich crops such as millets, improving soil health, and seed quality, efficient use of resources (such as water), and reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture. Such practices not only bolster the resilience of food systems against climate change but also enhance the nutritional quality of the produce. However, there is much that can also be done to prevent emissions and nutrient loss caused in the supply chain.

Programs and policies in climate, agriculture, and nutrition can no longer afford to remain in silos and must talk to one another to witness amplified and overlapping gains. In essence, the journey towards resilience is a collective one that demands concerted efforts and collaboration from all stakeholders. There is a pressing need to be more intentional and innovative in the efforts towards integrating climate and nutrition and to identify measurable and pragmatic metrics around the climate-agri-nutrition nexus to quantify gains. Integrating climate and nutrition considerations into food systems is not just an environmental imperative but a pathway to a more sustainable, equitable, and resilient future for all.