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Emile Frison, Panel expert with IPES-Food

The following opinion by Emile Frison, panel expert with the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), and Sophia Murphy, executive director of IATP was originally published by Future World News on February 28. 

Food systems were finally at the centre of international climate negotiations at COP28 in Dubai last December – after years of being ignored. Declarations were signed. A flurry of voluntary initiatives and funding programmes were announced. And the FAO published the first outline of a ‘roadmap for achieving SDG2 (zero hunger by 2030) without breaching the 1.5C threshold’. 

A global plan that sets the direction of travel for food systems on hunger, climate, and biodiversity, with realistic waymarkers and options, is desperately needed. It has the potential to guide where scarce public resources should be invested, to steer governments and businesses, and hold them to account. Akin to the role played by the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero roadmap. The FAO plans to break down the global strategy into regional and national level recommendations in the next phase.

However, a reality check. We are very far from the FAO’s stated goals, and speeding in the wrong direction. Food security has been deteriorating since 2015. Meanwhile still today, no plan exists to tackle the third of global greenhouse gas emissions and 15% of fossil fuel use linked to global food chains. Without urgent action to transform the industrial food system, global climate and hunger goals cannot be met. Into this breach steps the FAO’s roadmap. 

The FAO is expected to publish its full modelling in the coming days. What was published so far is scant on detail – a website and a ‘summary’ report, with no indication of how the maths adds up. Here are five tests to tell whether the full roadmap modelling is a real plan to illuminate the way.

1. Deep and sustained emissions reductions

With food systems emitting 18 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent – more than the annual emissions of USA and China combined – do the FAO’s emissions reduction proposals add up? Does the plan include the removal of fossil fuel use in food systems and fertilisers? Does it reduce damaging industrial meat production? – studies show transitioning to sustainable, healthy diets and halving global industrial meat production could mitigate up to 8% of annual global emissions, while improving health. An approach that only focuses on increasing agricultural efficiency is unlikely to get industrial food systems off their high pollution, high fossil fuel track.

2. Zero hunger & equitable distribution of food 

Food insecurity has now taken hold at catastrophically high levels. In 2022, over 735 million people (9 percent of the world population) faced hunger, and more than 3 billion were unable to access an adequate diet. Much will have to drastically change if we are to meet the 2030 sustainable development goal to end hunger. It is unclear so far how the roadmap recommendations will realistically reach that number. Many of the suggested nutritional actions are inherently sensible – like improving dietary guidelines, food labelling, and school feeding programmes. But how does this subtract to zero on the FAO’s optimistic graph? How to improve access to healthy diversified diets for all? Increasing agricultural productivity is unlikely to be enough. The FAO plan must identify what steps are needed in order to ensure food will actually reach the people who need it, rather than those with the greatest purchasing power – including steps to rebuild food security in the countries currently experiencing an explosion of hunger. What mechanisms will redistribute food and resources to people most in need?

3. Space for biodiversity

The third global crisis intimately linked to our food chain, the catastrophic loss of biodiversity, has been quietly forgotten in the outline roadmap so far. 2022 saw a landmark global deal to protect nature, restore ecosystems and keep our planet liveable. It would be self-defeating to recommend actions that do not also protect biodiversity. How will the roadmap reinforce this historic deal, and address the role of industrial farming in driving biodiversity loss? The roadmap puts a big focus on raising ‘total factor productivity’ of farming in the global South – how will it ensure this means crop diversity and not ever-more intensive crop monocultures which drive destruction of agro-biodiversity and wild biodiversity? Fundamentally, the roadmap needs to quantify its impact on biodiversity: new modelling approaches can help (IDDRI just published an ‘agricultural boundaries for biodiversity’ model to effectively reconcile food production and biodiversity conservation). So far it is missing a clear signal to reorganise food systems around diversity, circularity and agroecology – which are key to reducing the reliance on chemical inputs and pesticides with their huge impacts on climate change and biodiversity.

4. Power in agricultural value chains

There are structural reasons why greenhouse gas emissions are persistently high, and food insecurity is overlooked in today’s food systems. To turn the dial, the next iteration of the roadmap will need to address the power dynamics of the BigAg corporations who are squeezing farmers out of a living and funnelling crops into livestock feed, biofuels and ultra-processed foods instead of feeding those in hunger. How will the roadmap address the corporate concentration, market power and price volatility that stand in the way of its goals?

5. Participation

So far, this roadmap has been drafted with little or no consultation with those most affected by its prescriptions – especially small-holder farmers, women, and Indigenous people. Does the pathway proposed offer opportunities for improved rural livelihoods for marginalised communities? How will participation be ensured in the next phase of elaborating national plans? Will the FAO consult with – and indeed commit to ongoing participation and evaluation of success – with people most affected? At heart, this will demonstrate whose interests are being served.

The FAO deserves praise for centreing the right to food and just transition in the debate on climate change and food systems. The next stages will need to go much further in proposing a real transformation of the status quo, by putting more emphasis on diversification, shorter supply chains and agroecology, and on tackling the massive power inequalities imposed by the handful of companies that define what we grow and eat.