5 minute read 11 Nov 2022
Farmers working in a farm

Why food security must be a central consideration in climate action

By Stephen Prendiville

EY Ireland Head of Sustainability

Senior Infrastructure and Sustainability Leader dedicated to disruption, resilience and network system thinking for public and private sector clients alike.

Contributors
Miklos Veszpremi
5 minute read 11 Nov 2022
Related topics COP Sustainability

With millions experiencing food insecurity, a situation worsened by the war in Ukraine, innovative approaches are needed to tackle the dual crises of food security and climate change.

In brief
  • Extreme climate events, economic shocks supply chain issues were driving the global food crisis prior to war in Ukraine.
  • According to the Global Report on Food Crises 2022, levels of hunger in 2021 surpassed all previous records.
  • Meanwhile, 2.5 billion tonnes of food are wasted every year globally.
  • A solution is needed immediately. A big part of that solution is regenerative agriculture.

Extreme climate events, economic shocks (including COVID-19) and major supply chain issues are some of the primary forces that have been driving the global food crisis. This was before the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Now these drivers all coexist and reinforce one another, leading to the current crisis that has been intensifying for years and is expected to worsen further.

According to the Global Report on Food Crises 2022, levels of hunger in 2021 surpassed all previous records, with close to 193 million people acutely food insecure and in need of urgent assistance across 53 countries/territories. This represents an increase of nearly 40 million people compared to the previous high reached in 2020.

Today, war in one of the world’s “breadbasket” regions is seriously threatening global food security, plunging many vulnerable regions further into crisis. “Breadbaskets” describe areas which, because of the richness of the soil and/or suitable climate, produce large quantities of grain. Ukraine comprises one such breadbasket that has been severely disrupted.

The Ukraine war, while creating a direct supply issue from the region, that is driving up food prices, is also creating a secondary price pressure through the resulting energy crisis, which in turn is driving food prices even higher due to increased input costs. This secondary impact is likely to translate to a more prolonged food price crisis for long after the war situation has hopefully ended. Countries that are highly dependent on imports, particularly in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, need alternative food sources now to avert imminent famine – but affordability is also likely to be a critical challenge.

World Wildlife Fund and Tesco

2.5

billion tonnes of food are wasted every year globally.

Meanwhile, 2.5 billion tonnes of food are wasted every year globally, according to a study by the World Wildlife Fund and Tesco, equating to 40% of all food produced for human consumption. A separate report from the UN Environment Programme suggests that 8 – 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food that is not consumed. We are hopeful that this conundrum will be addressed during Agriculture and Adaption Day at COP27. 

Homing in on the connection between climate change and food security, we can see that environmental impacts pose a long-term threat. A 2°C temperature increase correlates to an expected 20% decline of water availability for irrigation and other uses. Let’s bear this in mind when our current trajectory suggests a 2.6°C increase by the end of this century. Every degree C of warming will lead to between 10% and 25% loss in global yields of rice, maize and wheat.

In the worst drought ever measured in Syria, attribution science shows that climate change made it 3x more likely. This caused widespread crop failure and water shortages, which in turn killed livestock, increased food prices, and led to widespread child sickness. 1.5 million rural residents were forced to the outskirts of Syria’s packed cities, which were already struggling with refugees from the Iraq war. This precipitated the Syrian war that displaced 5 million people and led to a refugee crisis all around Europe.

This is just one of countless examples that clearly demonstrate the existential necessity to tackle the food and climate crises concurrently.

Four main goals must be pursued towards food security – optimizing total agricultural production; increasing food supply (with the understanding that agricultural yields do not always equate to food); improving distribution and access to food; and increasing the resilience of the entire global food system.

Meanwhile, the global agri-food industry must seek to achieve further four key environmental goals: reducing agriculture and land use-related greenhouse gas emissions; reducing biodiversity loss (and, if possible, moving to biodiversity positive situations); phasing out unsustainable water withdrawals; and curtailing air and water pollution from agriculture.

These goals will require a rethink of the value chain of food. We must readjust as consumers to more seasonal food consumption. Diets need to rebalance in line with WHO recommendations. And we must invest heavily in technology and alternative approaches as a first port of call, rather than simply reducing output.

A solution is needed immediately. A big part of that solution is regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture is a methodology designed to reverse climate change using farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, rebuild organic matter in soil and restore soil biodiversity. This results in both carbon drawdown from the air and improvements in the water cycle. If regenerative agriculture were implemented on one quarter of the world’s farmlands, it would sequester 55 billion tonnes of CO2 in the next 30 years, halting climate change¹. Regenerative agriculture can have large, measurable, and immediate effects on soil, water, food security, and local economic empowerment. While doing that, it combats climate change using soils as carbon sinks. It has the added bonus of increasing global social and economic stability, social and ecosystem resilience, biodiversity improvement, and human health improvement.

But how does this address the current crisis in the context of Ukraine? The “breadbaskets” lost from Ukraine could be replaced by rapidly developing three strategically located alternatives using regenerative agriculture. These new breadbaskets would provide steady streams of wheat and pulses to their local economies and the global food system and promise short- and long-term solutions to the food crisis. Regenerative agriculture is not only better for people and planet, but also delivers higher and more resilient yields than conventional agriculture.

EY has conducted some feasibility studies on establishing an alternative breadbasket. Although full implementation is expected to take five years, by year two, the test fields were already yielding 2-3x as much as before while improving soil and water quality, creating tangible benefits to the local communities and environment. By improving access to education, health, inputs, and tools, it ensured the project’s success, acceptance, and additionality.

So far, the initiative has been met by an overwhelmingly positive response from food companies, institutional investors, governments, crop science companies and other key agrifood value chain stakeholders, all of whom have expressed interest in supporting it and participating in the significant market and impact opportunity it represents.

The climate and food crises are reversible. And we know what to do. Let’s get moving.

Summary

As we seek to halt climate change, we must not do so at the cost of global food security.

About this article

By Stephen Prendiville

EY Ireland Head of Sustainability

Senior Infrastructure and Sustainability Leader dedicated to disruption, resilience and network system thinking for public and private sector clients alike.

Contributors
Miklos Veszpremi
Related topics COP Sustainability