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How food systems fit into climate solutions

Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in the United Arab Emirates this month, Woods scholars discuss how to build sustainable food systems in the face of a warming world.

A rice farmer harvests fish in Bangladesh. Image credit: WorldFish

Severe droughts in the Western United States, floods like recent ones in Libya, warming seas, and excessive rainfall driven by climate change are escalating threats to food security and food production in many parts of the world. Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in the United Arab Emirates this month, priorities for climate action take center stage. Below, economist Ariel Ortiz-Bobea and interdisciplinary scientist Michelle Tigchelaar discuss how to build sustainable food systems and what’s at stake for food in a warming world.

Ortiz-Bobea is an applied economist and visiting scholar at the Stanford Center on Food Security and the Environment with interests in agricultural, resource, and development economics. Tigchelaar is a research scientist at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions whose work focuses on how climate change impacts aquatic food systems.

Why is COP28 this month a big moment for food? What are your hopes for the gathering?

Tigchelaar: Food, historically overlooked in climate negotiations, accounts for nearly a third of global emissions and is significantly impacted by climate change. The United Arab Emirates' Presidency of COP28 this year aims to build momentum around food in climate solutions. I hope that fisheries and aquaculture are meaningfully included in food commitments and solutions at COP28 because, like food, oceans have often been left out. I also hope that equity is at the forefront of food system climate action. While we can do without fossil fuels, we cannot do without food, so it’s essential that climate solutions don't limit access to nutritious food for those who need it, and that the burden for change doesn't unduly fall on low-income countries.

Ortiz-Bobea: The challenge is that often commitments aren't legally binding, so execution and implementation are crucial. We need to find ways to change behavior that transcend politics. That's where well-designed funding models come in and learning from different country approaches. With proper information, incentives, and resources, farmers make informed decisions. Ultimately, transparency in how funds are used is essential for building trust and garnering support for climate initiatives.

Which climate impacts on food systems and water do you consider most pressing? How might these affect future food systems?

Tigchelaar: Rising water temperatures and changing ocean currents are transforming marine ecosystems and shifting global fish stocks, which poses a unique threat to our reliance on fish as a food source. Adapting to these changes will be challenging, potentially straining national and international fisheries governance. Additionally, while climate scientists have been focusing on long-term changes, record-breaking temperatures this year highlight that climate impacts are here now and they can arrive in the form of extreme events. Extreme events like heat waves, storms, and flooding will have shock-type effects on infrastructure and small-scale actors in food supply chains.

Ortiz-Bobea: It's troubling to see that the areas most affected by climate change – in warmer regions – have seen stagnant productivity for decades. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, people are no more productive today than their parents were. There's also a stark disparity in research and development efforts. Developed regions have robust systems for generating new agricultural technologies, while many others lack this infrastructure, hindering innovation and growth.

Are there aspects of food systems not getting the attention they deserve in the face of climate impacts like droughts and warming waters? 

Ortiz-Bobea: We need a system that incentivizes agricultural innovation. In the long-term, farmers will continue making choices about technologies like new varieties, seeds, or machinery. Developing these technologies is a gradual process, often taking decades. We need an incentive framework to encourage investment in technologies that may not yield immediate profits but offer climate-resilient options for farmers. It's key to strike a balance between public and private sectors and leverage market forces for positive impact.

Tigchelaar: The health and well-being of workers in fishing, farming, food processing, and packaging are frequently overlooked. This work is often underpaid and can be quite dangerous. On land, rising heat extremes and declining air quality will increase the risk of heat-related illness and respiratory disease. At sea, shifting fish stocks and more intense storms can have fishers working longer and more dangerously. A just transition for food systems will have to contend with how to promote decent work in a changing climate.

Are there examples of successful and sustainable integrations of terrestrial and aquatic food systems? What can we learn from them?

Tigchelaar: We often think of farming and fishing as separate, but in fact many connections exist between terrestrial and aquatic food systems. They are very explicitly linked in systems like aquaponics, which uses fish waste to fertilize plants. Some regions practice simultaneous rice and fish farming, which can be highly resource efficient and resilient. These integrated systems require fewer inputs, as fish provide nutrients for rice. They also yield a greater diversity of nutrients on the same amount of land, benefiting communities relying on these systems for food.

What needs to happen to foster climate-resilient food systems that support nutrition, livelihoods, equity, and sustainable water resources?

Ortiz-Bobea: In environmental economics, we tend to look for single solutions to single problems for efficiency. However, we’ve yet to fully acknowledge that a farmer is more than just a food, fiber, or fuel producer. To address challenges like water pollution, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity, we must recognize and incentivize these as valuable services. This is where governments have a big role to play, as the provision of these services is valuable for society but may not be profitable to farmers. Implementing policies that reward these services encourages farmers to take on diverse roles.

Tigchelaar: Many recommendations from the Blue Food Assessment apply across food systems. They include integrating silos between government departments overseeing climate, water, food, health, and fisheries, to ensure all decisions align with the same goals. In addition, it is key to end harmful practices that take us in the wrong direction, like fossil fuel subsidies. Food system diversity needs to be fostered and exploited as it promotes nutrition resilience. Finally, prioritizing capacity-building for small-scale actors and centering justice in policies and practice supports those responsible for the production, processing, and distribution of the majority of food for human consumption.

Ortiz-Bobea is also an associate professor at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. Tigchelaar is also a member of the Blue Food Assessment, a joint initiative of the Center for Ocean Solutions, the Center on Food Security and the Environment, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and EAT.

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