Climate and food: two crises that need to be solved together

by Francesco Rampa

The climate crisis, global food insecurity and unsustainable food systems are closely linked issues and must be solved together. The next Italian government must focus on this climate-food link in its foreign and development policy, because it will help determine the future not only of Italy but of the entire planet.

The relationship between climate and food is a two-way street: agriculture and the entire food supply chain are among the primary causes of climate change, which, in turn, severely affects food systems and constitutes one of the main factors in the increase in world hunger in recent years. About 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by food systems (the same amount as all cars, trucks, planes and ships combined). A particularly important role in this is played both by deforestation caused by the allocation of more land to agriculture, and by livestock farming that constitutes 14.5% of all emissions (with beef and lamb responsible for the largest climate footprint per gram of protein; plant-based foods instead tend to have the smallest impact).

We cannot reach the goals of the Paris Agreement without transforming our food systems. Greenhouse gas emissions from food systems are expected to increase by nearly 90% between 2010 and 2050 because of population growth and increased meat and dairy consumption. In turn, the climate crisis has a very negative impact on food production and access, and price volatility. It has caused a reduction in plant productivity and the number of harvests in various parts of the world, and increased the irregularity of weather conditions and the frequency of droughts and natural disasters.

Climate change will exacerbate geopolitical tensions

The poorest countries suffer the most because these effects are often more intense in tropical areas, and they have less capacity to adapt to climate change than rich countries. It is also the poorest people who are most affected, as their well-being very often depends on agriculture, fisheries and ecosystem services such as from forests. Not surprisingly, Africa is the continent most threatened by the consequences of the climate crisis.

What is happening in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine shows how the link between the climate crisis, food insecurity and poor sustainability of food systems is becoming a geopolitical question. Trends in fertiliser and food prices, as well as the number of hungry people, had already been on the rise for a number of years, mainly due to climate change and later the pandemic. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated these trends and is contributing to the high prices of fertiliser and primary commodities such as wheat, much of which comes from Russia and Ukraine. A spiral that is disturbingly affecting food supply chains and consumers, including in Europe and other rich countries.

What we are seeing now is a ‘militarisation’ of food. On the one hand, Europe is accusing Russia of using the Ukrainian grain blockade and rising prices as a geopolitical weapon; on the other hand, Russia is insinuating that European sanctions are the real cause of the emerging global food crisis.

It is becoming clear that climate change, the depletion of natural resources and the growing water crisis will exacerbate geopolitical tensions and international market instability. There will be increasing friction over who has access to water and productive lands, who controls food trade routes as well as consequences for the markets for seeds and fertilisers. This is why a strategic approach to the nexus of climate, food security and sustainable food systems must be central in policies on ecological transition, but also in foreign policy choices.

Towards a unified approach to climate and food diplomacy

This is especially true for Europe and Italy, because of its proximity to the continent that is most affected by both climate and food crises. Africa, however, is not only the continent with the least capacity for climate adaptation and the highest percentage of people suffering from hunger, it is also the continent home to 60% of the world’s land still available for agriculture.

Moreover, it is estimated that by 2050 Africa will be home to more than a quarter of the world’s population. This growth would make the continent an increasingly important market, but it would also have an effect on migration trends, if the hundreds of millions of young Africans reaching working age were to face adverse economic and environmental conditions.

The new Italian government will need to urgently address these difficult challenges created by the climate and food crises, but also look at the possible opportunities . We need strong and innovative policy choices to revitalise and decide on a unified approach to climate and food diplomacy.

A real improvement in terms of the climate and environmental sustainability of food systems will require big financial resources, both public and private. These investments should be used to strengthen mitigation actions in Europe and the adaptation of agricultural supply chains in the global South.

Solutions should include:
  • Strengthened development cooperation;
  • An exchange of scientific knowledge, best practices and technologies for diversified and resilient food systems;
  • Investment rules that are better suited to finance both Italian and African SMEs;
  • Trade rules that promote stronger food trade flows between African countries, disincentivise the export of cash crops such as cocoa and coffee to Europe, and decrease African dependence on food imports from other continents;
  • Coordinated, coherent and inclusive policies and diplomatic processes on climate and food systems.

This alone would increase African and global food security and the resilience of hundreds of millions of poor people and SMEs in the global South. In the longer term and beyond solidarity, it will be essential to mobilise proactively an appropriate level of resources. These will address the structural factors underlying these crises and strengthen the resilience of partner countries. It would also be an approach that, in the long run, will end up costing less than continuing to fund responses to crises that are becoming more frequent and more severe.

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