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The UN secretary-general António Guterres has released a policy brief called, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition,” in which he discusses the need to safeguard everyone’s access to food and sufficient nutrition, calling our current food systems ‘broken’. He also urges the world to reshape its current food systems to be more resilient and sustainable to combat the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the climate crisis. 

The brief calls on governments to prioritise actions that will protect people during and beyond the pandemic. Guterres points out that millions were already struggling with hunger and malnutrition before the pandemic; 144 million children around the world under the age of five are stunted mainly due to malnutrition, which is likely to get worse as the world deals with the pandemic. While there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone, more than 820 million people still do not get enough to eat, numbers which will likely increase, he adds. 

He says, “Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food security emergency that could have long term impacts on hundreds of millions of adults and children.”

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Even in countries with an abundance of food, COVID-19 risks disrupting food supply chains. He says, “Our food systems are failing, and the COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse.”

Earlier in June, the UN predicted that at least 49 million people may fall into extreme poverty due to the pandemic, expanding the number of those that are food or nutrition insecure. For every percentage point drop in global GDP, an additional 700 000 children will experience stunted growth. The World Bank predicts that the global economy will shrink by 5.2% in 2020.

The policy brief makes three recommendations, including governments directing resources to areas most at risk of food insecurity, putting social protection systems in place to ensure that children, breastfeeding and pregnant women and other vulnerable groups have access to nutritious food and finally, investing in more sustainable and efficient food systems. 

Essential Food Services

Countries should designate food and nutrition as essential, while also implementing protections for those who work in the sector to ensure that food systems can continue to function. 

He adds that relief packages should also benefit the most vulnerable members of society, including small-scale farmers and rural businesses. 

Guterres says, “It means preserving critical humanitarian food, livelihood and nutrition assistance to vulnerable groups and positioning food in food-crisis countries to reinforce and scale up social protection systems.”

Reshaping Food Systems

The outbreak of the pandemic came at a time when food security and food systems were already under pressure, with factors such as conflict, natural disasters, the climate crisis and plagues of pests undermining food security. In parts of Africa and Asia, people are facing what the brief calls a ‘triple menace’, as heavy rain hinders efforts to control the swarms of locusts in the time of the pandemic. 

Guterres urges countries to build food systems which address the needs of both producers and workers, and to eradicate hunger by ensuring more equitable access to nutritious food. 

The pandemic underscores the need to transform the world’s food systems. After all, these systems contribute a significant portion to global greenhouse gas emissions- up to a third– and substantial biodiversity loss. Further, livestock contributes 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, of which 44% is methane. Our food systems contribute to, among other things, the mass extinction of species, ecocide, soil loss, land degradation, water and air pollution and the spread of zoonotic diseases (as seen with COVID-19).

Humanity must rethink the way we produce, process, market and consume our food and dispose of waste to create more inclusive, sustainable and resilient food systems post COVID-19. 

To create food systems that are efficient, sustainable and resilient, careful management of land, soil and water is needed; the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) claims that when forest land is converted to crops, soil carbon decreases by 42%, while conversion of pastures leads to a 59% reduction. Post-harvest food loss must be tackled through low-cost handling and storage technologies as well as packaging.

As for resilience to the climate crisis, this can be achieved through water and energy-saving irrigation, conservation agriculture, as well as controlled environment farming, livestock grazing management, energy-efficient cold storage, biogas production and renewable energy. 

Plant-based protein could be a powerful means to solve a global food crisis. A new UBS report states that sweeping technological innovations are transforming the global food industry by changing the way the world produces food. 

The United Nations estimates that the world’s farmers will have to produce at least 50% more food by 2050 as global population is expected to rise to almost 10 billion. Climate change and water scarcity are already having major impacts on global food production, while the world would face substantial declines in agricultural output by 2030 due to extreme weather conditions and water scarcity. 

Plant-based protein and lab-grown meat could be the answers to an impending food crisis and the climate crisis, according to research from Swiss investment bank UBS. 

A report by UBS titled Food Revolution states that the market for plant-based protein is expected to surge to $85bn over the next decade as people seek out alternative options that are more environment-friendly. With the technological revolution in agriculture, the segment will expand at a compound annual growth rate of 28% by 2030, from around $4.6bn last year. 

“Mock meat was an almost comical fad 20 years ago,” Wayne Gordon, a senior Asia-Pacific strategist at UBS Global Wealth Management, says in the 67-page report. “It’s no laughing matter today, given the industry’s meteoric rise in recent years.” 

Plant-based Protein and Climate Change

Unlike past trends, it is people who are driving the call for change and not corporations and governments. UBS predicts the developments in lab-grown meat would be accelerating over the next five years because of the growing calls to produce sustainable foods that have a lesser impact on water resources and climate. Global food production currently accounts for 40% of land use, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 70% of freshwater consumption. Citing a study from Environmental Science and Technology, the report says that lab-grown meat could cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 78–96% while using 99% less land. 

“The ability to create food that replicates meat, fish, eggs and dairy products — with a lower carbon footprint and without the need to slaughter animals — is likely to become a commercially viable option in the next decade,” the report notes. “While science can’t yet create the texture of a fine steak, processed meat such as burgers, chicken nuggets, and meatballs are getting good reviews and are expected to be available on supermarket shelves within five years.” 

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Vertical farming is one of the solutions that could reduce boost yields and improve crop resilience.

Technological innovations such as gene-editing and 3D food printing could make food much healthier and more sustainable. “We first need to bust the lingering myth that technology is the enemy of natural, abundant, nutritional and affordable food,” the report says. “After all, technology is the only way to secure the nutrition needed without destroying the planet. The good news is that we are on the cusp of a global food revolution. Transformational change, in our view, is about to occur across every aspect of how the sector works and what it produces.”

Other technological solutions

The report also lists a number of other solutions that would mitigate climate crisis and solve the food crisis: 

Satellite-enabled systems

Precision farming technologies, including the use of data from high-resolution satellite images, meteorological records, and soil nutrient sensors, can help farmers both to reduce costs and enhance production yields. 

Smart farming

Vertical farming and algae aquaculture could reduce resource use, boost yields, and improve crop resilience. 

Supply chain innovation

Blockchain, food delivery apps, Internet of Things (IoT), and bioplastics could reduce food waste, improve provenance, limit fraud risks, and increase traceability. 

Water-saving technology

Digital and analytics technologies, like smart sensors in crop fields and satellite images to glean information about soil conditions, could enable producers to understand their water availability and utilise it with precision, hence reducing water waste. 

Big data and connectivity

Connected devices like IoT and sensors make it possible to gather vast amounts of data, such as humidity, local rainfall rates, and temperature variations, which can be used to optimise many processes.

A new UN report has warned that climate change could trigger a global food crisis. The report outlines possible solutions including sustainable land management and increasing food productivity.

How will climate change affect food production?

The United Nations climate report warns that the world might face a food crisis due to climate change and overexploitation of land and water resources. A steady increase in global temperatures will make things worse, as floods, drought, storms, and other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt the global food supply. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, prepared by more than 100 experts from 52 countries and released in Geneva last week, reveals that humans affect more than 70% of ice-free land and a quarter is already degraded. Rapid agricultural expansion has led to destruction of forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other ecosystems. Soil erosion from agricultural fields is 10 to 100 times higher than the soil formation rate. Such rapid land degradation has created spinoff effects.

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“When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon,” says the report. “This exacerbates climate change, while climate change in turn exacerbates land degradation.”

The report also reveals that an estimated 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions that significantly warm the planet are caused by agriculture, cattle rearing, and deforestation. 

A warming atmosphere intensifies the world’s droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and other weather patterns, and it is further speeding up the rate of soil loss, land degradation, and desertification. “Since the pre-industrial period, the land surface air temperature has risen nearly twice as much as the global average temperature,” the report says “climate change, including increases in frequency and intensity of extremes, has adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems as well as contributed to desertification and land degradation in many regions.”

Possible solutions 

Warning that the window to address threats of climate change, food security, and land degradation is closing rapidly, the report offers a variety of solutions to address the challenges. 

Tactics like improving food productivity and increasing the carbon content of soil can simultaneously mitigate climate change, help regions adapt to warming, stop desertification, reverse land degradation, and enhance food security.

“The options with medium to large benefits for all challenges are increased food productivity, improved cropland management, improved grazing land management, improved livestock management, agroforestry, improved forest management, increased soil organic carbon content, fire management, and reduced post-harvest losses,” the report says.

Enhancing food productivity means using less land for agriculture, which could help preserve forest land retaining a natural carbon intake system. Those forests move moisture through the biome and help regulate temperature, reducing the impacts of warming. Trees in the preserved forest anchor the soil, slowing erosion and preventing desertification. That stabilising effect in turn helps reduce volatility in crop yields, enhancing food security.

Sustainable land management is an effective solution. “Land management can prevent and reduce land degradation, maintain land productivity, and sometimes reverse the adverse impacts of climate change on land degradation. It can also contribute to mitigation and adaptation,” says the report. “Reducing and reversing land degradation, at scales from individual farms to entire watersheds, can provide cost-effective, immediate, and long-term benefits to communities and support several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with co-benefits for adaptation and mitigation.” 

Reducing food waste is another important solution. The report estimates that over 30% of food is lost or wasted, which has environmental costs as food waste accounts for upward of 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If the world were to drastically limit food waste, farmers would need less land, less fuel, less water, and less fertiliser, all of which would translate to a smaller environmental footprint. “Technical options such as improved harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure, transport, packaging, retail, and education can reduce food loss and waste across the supply chain,” the report states. “By 2050, reduced food loss and waste can free millions of square kilometers of land.”

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