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The global food crisis offers a chance to radically change food systems

by PLOS Climate Section Editor Ana Maria Loboguerrero

The cover of a recent edition of The Economist magazine depicts wheat ears blowing in the wind. On closer inspection, the florets are skulls. The grim message of ‘the coming food catastrophe’ is all too clear.

Food insecurity will affect up to 1.9 billion people around the world by November 2022, according to a new report by Eurasia Group and DevryBV Sustainable Strategies. A sharp uptick is this insecurity has been catalyzed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the report argues. Other flashpoints of political instability and acute humanitarian emergencies have smouldered in other regions of the world for years, long undermining food security in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

They join a growing list of crises that our global food systems have faced in recent years. Lockdowns and restrictions in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic saw global supply chains stretched and fractured in ways unseen for generations. Such restrictions remain and are even returning for many millions of people. The climate crisis meanwhile is a slow burning disaster that has now reached a tipping point. Agricultural productivity has been slashed by nearly a fifth in the last six decades thanks to changing climates. That’s the same as losing the entire food production of the world for seven years straight.

Governments, international political and financial institutions, impact investors and civil society leaders all fervently seek ways to relieve immediate suffering and find ways to invest in resilient sectors that can better weather the crises of years to come. The thread that connects the three threats is our global food system. Conflict is driven by food insecurity. Agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of climate change. Biodiversity loss from intensive farming and deforestation raise zoonotic risks. Poorly nutritious diets make us more vulnerable to disease.

If we want to overcome the triple crisis, transforming food systems must be our priority. While talk of ‘bouncing back’ seems fainter by the day, the more we make our food systems sustainable, inclusive, healthy, climate-resilient, and respectful of nature, the further we’ll get in making our communities more resilient in the face of future existential shocks. More than this, if we transform food systems to survive and thrive under a changing climate, we’ll also go a long way in mitigating the threat of conflict, pandemics, and other threats as yet unseen or unimagined.

If the crisis is systemic, then so must be our response.

Sustainable economic growth, social cohesion, food security, energy security, agricultural productivity, health, the environment, and our climate all face risks driven by complex, interconnected systems. Striving for better outcomes demands coordinated action by government, business, science, and civil society. The public sector can often set the agenda, but it’s the private sector that can innovate and scale. Change must happen both globally and locally. And in a fast-changing world, science and research must change the way it operates. Innovations shouldn’t sit in labs; they must be mobilized at pace to solve crises.

I’m proud to work with a fantastic team at Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa (AICCRA), a project funded by the World Bank to make climate information services and climate-smart agriculture more accessible to millions of smallholder farmers across Africa. Building on 50 years of innovation led by CGIAR—the world’s largest research partnership for food security—AICCRA hopes to broaden access to technology and advisory services linked to information about effective response measures. These services help African farmers better deal with climate change and take preventative action that supports their communities in safeguarding their own livelihoods and their environments. Such ambition could deliver a climate-smart African future driven by science and innovation in agriculture. It could also boost food security globally.

The CGIAR recently launched an ambitious research and innovation strategy to guide its work to 2030. It calls for a ‘radical realignment’ of food systems to be delivered through a ‘systems transformation’ approach. This systemic approach means reductions in hunger and malnutrition can be realised alongside improved gender equality and social inclusion, more job creation, better opportunities for youth, more climate solutions, better public health, and environments preserved and protected. Through initiatives, such as ClimBeR, CGIAR will move beyond just technology and “solutions.” We will explore ways to allow researchers and food system stakeholders to integrate three domains that are key to promote systems transformation: social equity, environmental quality and protection, and technical aspects.

We know how much this realignment costs—$1.3 trillion every year—and the steps we need to take to make it happen. At forthcoming global events—the UN’s Stockholm+50 conference and COP27 climate summit—we must advocate for this new ‘systems thinking’. Tangibly, this means backing the Breakthrough Agenda to make clean technologies and sustainable solutions the most affordable, accessible and attractive option in high-emitting sectors globally—including in agriculture—before 2030.

Ana Maria leads PLOS Climate’s Agriculture and Food Systems section, which welcomes submissions of research articles that tackle topics at the intersection of food production and security and climate change. Learn more about PLOS Climate by visiting the journal homepage.

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