166 Opportunities to Transform Food Systems and Safeguard Nutrition
Food systems contribute a third of all global greenhouse gas emissions, representing an opportunity to achieve significant emissions reductions with targeted interventions. Simultaneously, there is a need to strengthen food systems against the disruptions of climate change, which are worsening malnutrition and food insecurity at a time when rates are already unacceptably high. Severe weather exacerbated by climate change has caused sudden losses of food access and production that increased malnutrition disproportionately for indigenous peoples, small-scale food producers and low-income households — particularly young children, pregnant women and elderly people. Recent projections indicate that a 2°C increase in average temperatures may result in a 7.4 percentage point increase in stunting in West Africa, reversing hard-earned progress against malnutrition.
Despite these realities, food systems and nutrition remain underrepresented in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — the plans required of each country signing the Paris Agreement detailing their efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Currently 166 NDC plans have been submitted by all parties that signed the Paris Agreement. These serve as 166 opportunities to map out concrete steps to transform food systems and safeguard nutrition from the disruptions of climate change.
Food systems have gained greater recognition as NDCs have been revised and updated, as required every five years starting in 2020. More than 90 percent of updated NDCs as of September 2022 now include at least one measure related to food systems — an improvement over 79 percent of previous NDCs. However, the majority of these food system measures pertain only to agricultural production and do not address aspects of food processing, storage or transportation that take place after harvest. Only 19 updated NDCs mention food loss or waste, 16 mention food safety or food-borne diseases, and 5 mention diets. Furthermore, while most NDCs address agriculture, they do not necessarily address nutrition, which goes beyond having enough food to having enough of the diverse kinds of foods that support human health. These gaps highlight a significant missed opportunity to leverage NDCs as a tool to simultaneously mitigate the contributions of food systems to the climate crisis, and defend against climate threats to nutrition.
The portfolio of activities in the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative provides ways to strengthen food systems to withstand climate shocks and protect diets, and also to ensure that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions do not negatively impact nutrition. These types of interventions that can be integrated into NDCs include — but are not limited to — the following:
- Reducing food loss and waste along the full journey of food from the farmer’s field to the dinner plate. Globally, 30 to 40 percent of food produced is either lost or wasted, an inefficiency that contributes approximately 8 to 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Although both loss and waste occur globally, food waste at the retail and consumer level is common in industrialized countries, whereas developing countries predominantly grapple with post-harvest losses before food reaches retailers and consumers. Some early analyses indicate that reducing post-harvest losses of highly perishable nutrient-dense foods can improve the availability and affordability of these foods. Feed the Future activities targeting food loss and waste include a partnership between the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss with the Ghanaian company Sesi Technologies to manufacture and sell GrainMate, a low-cost moisture meter that can prevent grain losses due to fungal growth and aflatoxin contamination.
- Ensuring that efforts to strengthen agricultural systems go beyond staple crops to production of nutrient-dense foods. Agricultural insurance programs, fertilizer subsidies and water governance systems can all strengthen the resilience of food production systems against climate change. However, designing these interventions with an exclusive focus on the needs of staple crop producers may leave the production of nutrient-dense foods at risk. An example of expanding beyond staples includes Senegal’s 50-percent subsidy on climate index insurance — implemented with support from Feed the Future Senegal’s Naatal Mbay activity — that provides coverage for protein-rich groundnuts in addition to several staples, to protect farmers from risks associated with drought or variable precipitation.
- Preserving nutrient content when developing new seed varieties for higher yields and improved tolerance of droughts and other impacts of climate change. Increased atmospheric carbon is reducing the nutrient content of staple crops. Projections estimate that 150 million additional people will be at risk for inadequate protein intake and 138 million at risk of zinc deficiency by 2050 due to decreased nutrient content of staple crops alone. Care must be taken to ensure that seed development processes are not accelerating this problem by neglecting to monitor for altered nutrient content in new seed varieties. Even better is going further by leveraging the full arsenal of biofortification* and biotechnology tools to develop more nutrient-rich varieties of current crops. USAID has supported research and development through One CGIAR to successfully develop and scale biofortified vitamin A maize, high-iron beans, and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Climate change presents an unprecedented threat to nutrition and food security globally, and food systems in their current state are a major driver of the crisis. However, for the countries that have signed the Paris Agreement, NDCs present 166 opportunities to develop concrete steps, such as the preceding examples, towards transforming food systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also safeguarding nutrition, food security and economic growth. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, the international community cannot afford to let these opportunities go ignored.
* Biofortification is the conventional breeding of crops to develop varieties with higher nutrient content.