Climate change: is food part of the problem or part of the solution?

Can our agricultural and food systems meet the challenges of the fight against climate change? To learn more about the direction our production and consumption habits should follow, discover the point of view of Maria-Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General of FAO.


Transform our food systems to fight climate change

Climate change defines our time—the last five years have been the hottest on record, with significant rise in sea-levels and CO2 emissions. These data translate into global challenges for feeding a growing population and preserving our planet. While agriculture and food systems do contribute to climate change, they are also part of the long-term solution. Actions to make the agricultural sectors sustainable are among the most effective measures to adapt to, and mitigate, climate change1.

Simple solutions with great impact

First, adopting best practices in livestock feeding and manure management can reduce livestock emissions by 33%. Making better use of technologies like biogas generators and energy-saving devices, such as heat pumps and thermal isolation, can also be part of the transformation to sustainable agriculture.

Second, land restoration strategies, such as the rehabilitation of degraded lands, but also planting trees, bushes and mangroves, can rebuild carbon sinks. They can at the same time increase crop yields, and soil and water quality, while protecting biodiversity and preserving ecosystem services. Ultimately, soil organic carbon could raise food production by 17.6 megatonnes per year and help maintain productivity in drier conditions.

Third, agroecology and agroforestry approaches also enhance carbon sequestration through the simultaneous combination of crop rotation and permanent soil cover. FAO2 estimates that alternate wetting and drying of rice fields reduces methane emissions from paddies by 45%, while saving water and producing yields similar to those of fully flooded rice.

Innovation and nature-based solutions

Bark in Tunisia Giulio Napolitano FAO

The development of nature-based solutions3 can truly help address the planet’s water challenges and unearth sustainable alternatives to producing our food. We need to reaffirm the role of farmers: they are great stewards, able to combine their traditional knowledge with new skills and training. For example, in the Kagera River Basin4, land and freshwater resources are under threat: to sustainably manage land and water, farmers use high-yielding and drought-tolerant vegetables that require small quantities of space, have a short growth cycle and are easily marketable.

Another response to climate change lies in unlocking the potential of agricultural innovations, be it simple solutions or satellite-based technologies. These can increase agricultural productivity, efficiency and yields, while preserving natural resources and the environment. Efficient irrigation management, digital farming and smart energy programmes can reduce GHG emissions, contribute to preserving natural resources and attract vital private sector investment. Moreover, digital farming can help small holder farmers access markets, increase their incomes and improve their livelihoods.

A time for concrete changes

The capacity of the agricultural sector to respond to climate change has far-reaching impacts on the livelihoods of the majority of people in many developing and developed countries. More than 3 billion people, 80 percent of the poor, live in rural areas, with around 2.5 billion dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk and community foresters, whose work is inextricably linked to climate, require greater access to information, technologies, markets and credit for investment. This would help them adapt their production practices to the changing climate, build resilience and continue to contribute to national economic growth.

Farmers are on the frontline of this transition. But there is also an acute need for sustainable food systems and better consumption patterns to decrease the pressure exerted by the agricultural sector on environmental resources. This global trend must be supported by the multinational agri-food companies: it is crucial that they drive this shift by adopting a circular and sustainable approach to their production patterns.

The message FAO has been carrying from the UN Climate Action Summit to the COP25 is this: transforming food systems is a long-term process—but one that will ultimately be rewarding for the whole world. At this critical juncture on the path to sustainable development, FAO has continued to promote action across the agriculture sector, in developing and developed countries, to tackle climate change while advancing towards the goal of Zero Hunger.

1 The latest IPCC Special Report shows that Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) represent about 24% of total net Human Greenhouse Gas (GHG). At the same time, AFOLU hold great substantial mitigation potential.
2 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
3 Practices that can protect our natural resources while improving the state and quality of our ecosystems.
4 Located in East Africa, one of the most important areas in terms of agrobiodiversity and food production.

This article was published in the seventh issue of open_resource magazine: "Sustainable food, sustainable planet"