A broken agrifood system

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Agrifood encompasses the entire food supply chain, from agriculture production to food consumption. Every human is a stakeholder in the agrifood system and supply chain, as they are all elements of the natural environment.

Problems in the global food system are among the largest drivers of poverty, political and social instability, and environmental deterioration. Agriculture is something of an oxymoron, in that it is both a victim of climate change, and a key contributor to factors which result in climate change. As such, the delay of government action to curb the impact of inadequate and harmful agricultural practice, should be regarded a social and environmental injustices.

Agrifood system reform is urgently needed to ensure food security can be achieved for both the current and future global population, expected to reach 10bn by 2050. However, all possible solutions should account for the potential social, environmental and economic impacts, to avoid repeating the setbacks of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which ultimately encouraged the widespread uptake of environmentally detrimental nitrogen fertilisers.

Substantial investment, time and willpower, as well as and cooperation of governments, policymakers, international organisations and the scientific community will all be needed to achieve such a monumental transition. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of the Parties convenes representatives from these sectors from almost every country on a yearly basis, making it an apt platform upon which to discuss the reform of the agrifood system. Every year the conference’s salience increases as the effects of climate change worsen. The 27th session will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2022, and agrifood will almost certainly be at the centre of discussions.

The Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture

The Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA) was adopted at COP23 in 2017, providing an inaugural road map to address issues related to agriculture in a holistic manner, through a series of international workshops.

Considering the outcomes of these workshops at COP26 in 2021, governments considered that soil and management practices and optimal use of nutrients, as well as improved livestock management, lie at the core of climate resilient and sustainable food production systems. Governments also agreed that work needed to continue on KJWA, with the intention to make further decisions on this area at COP27. While these are important elements that need to be addressed, they should not be isolated as key solutions. A system-wide approach should be the priority at COP27.

Agrifood reform

With a food system which has been globalised, national policy reforms need to co-exist with an internationally recognised standard for agricultural practices, production, transportation, and sale of foodstuffs. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 2 and 15 – Zero Hunger and Life on Land – can act as foundations for such a standard, however it must be solidified and become the norm. This should be complemented by initiatives and policies to influence consumer behaviour towards mindful consumption and waste patterns.

Greater adoption of renewable energy across the supply chain is one such method to address climate change, sustainable agriculture and the creation of jobs. However, this should not be regarded as a panacea to reducing agriculture-related emissions. Every stage and element of the agrifood system is required to change to create synergies leading to a more sustainable, efficient, resilient and equitable food system.

Moreover, COP27 not only needs to look at how to reform the current agrifood system with respect to the supply chain, but it should also discuss extending the system to post-sale and consumption, with the aim of minimising food waste and closing the loop.

Agritech and digital farming will also play pivotal roles in reforming the agrifood system. Gene editing providing opportunities to improve crop yield and quality without the necessity of chemical fertilisers, although it does remain susceptible to public backlash and strict regulation. Bayer is at the forefront of crop science using digital technologies to drive efficiencies on the farm. However, such technology needs to be implemented across the agrifood system in order to reap the rewards, and this will require a helping hand from governments and policymakers.

Not only is mitigating the harms caused by the current agrifood system important, but recognising and making use of the fact that agriculture and natural environments acts as carbon sinks will be paramount to creating a sustainable food system. As with all novel innovations, expanding biological sequestration will rely on good policies, public-private partnerships and innovative financing opportunities which equip local organisations with the tools to efficiently implement science-based solutions.

Securing agrifood on the COP27 agenda

With the agrifood system being the backbone of global society, any threat to its stability is an issue which must not be ignored or placed on the backbench. Piecemeal and incremental changes will not be sufficient to reform the system in a suitable timeframe. Emphasising agrifood’s place on the COP27 agenda is crucial for coalescing government action, to produce a global food system that is secure and sustainable and protects natural ecosystems.