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30 September 2021 9:13

Cropped, 29 September 2021: Food Systems Summit concludes; Farmers on strike; Droughts and food prices

Multiple Authors

NatureCropped, 29 September 2021: Food Systems Summit concludes; Farmers on strike; Droughts and food prices

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped. 
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

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Last week’s UN Food Systems Summit saw around 150 countries make commitments to transforming their food systems. While organisers and some NGOs hailed the summit as starting a much-needed dialogue among heads of state on food systems, more than 500 civil society groups and NGOs boycotted the meeting over the influence of multinational corporations on the summit.

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Thousands of Indian farmers participated in a 10-hour nationwide strike, blocking road and rail traffic, to demand the repeal of three farm laws, passed a year ago, which they say threaten their livelihoods. Union ministers labelled the protests “anti-government” and “politically motivated”, while state governments and opposition parties offered support to the farmers.

Food prices around the world are soaring as a result of droughts impacting every inhabited continent. Several countries are experiencing their longest or most severe drought in centuries. UN agencies are seeking additional funding to provide humanitarian relief to countries experiencing heightened food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by conflict and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Key developments

Food systems summit concludes

WHAT: The UN Food Systems Summit, the culmination of more than 18 months’ planning and preparatory dialogues, convened virtually last week. More than 80 heads of state and governments spoke of the need to transform food systems worldwide, with around 150 countries making commitments to do so. Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A dives into the background of the summit, the commitments made and the global reaction. 

BOYCOTTS: However, it was boycotted by a host of civil society organisations, Indigenous groups and small-scale farmers protesting against the “corporate colonisation” of the summit, according to the Guardian. Critics said the solutions proposed at the meeting were “market-led, piecemeal, voluntary” and “will enable a handful of corporations and individuals to expand control over the global food system to the further detriment of the vast majority of people and the planet”.

HOW MUCH: The summit “garnered some big-ticket financial commitments”, the Associated Press (AP) reported, including a $922m commitment to nutrition and research over the next five years, announced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In his speech to the UN General Assembly the day prior, US president Joe Biden had announced a $10bn commitment to address food systems transformation and food security. AP explained that half of this commitment is to be spent abroad and half at home over the next five years.

CLIMATE: Much of the summit focused on nutrition and chronic hunger, to the chagrin of some environmental groups. The New Humanitarian reported that WWF International “urged countries to pay more attention to combating climate change and reversing declines in nature”, noting that food production is a major contributor to both climate change and biodiversity loss.

SCIENTIFIC ADVICE: The New Humanitarian also reported on the frustrations over the repeated calls for the formation of an “IPCC for Food”, mentioned during the summit by scientific group chair Joachim von Braun. It noted that such a group already exists, in the form of the UN High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE). Prof William Moseley, professor of geography at Macalester College in the US and a member of the HLPE, wrote in Al Jazeera that he “can think of no better example of participatory science at the international level today” than the HLPE and that this process has been “sidestepped” by the Food Systems Summit.

Farmers’ protests in India

WHAT: Thousands of farmers across India participated in a nationwide strike to protest against reforms to deregulate agriculture, which they say were passed without adequate consultation last year. Farmers held marches in major cities including Bangalore and staged peaceful road and rail blockages in many states – from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the country’s north-west to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the south – demanding the repeal of three laws that they say were “introduced to favour large private corporations”. Fifty trains were affected, reported PTI, but unions lifted blockades promptly at the end of the 10-hour strike and services resumed. 

STATE RESPONSE: Six state governments supported the nationwide strike. In the state of Punjab, newly sworn-in chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi and his cabinet passed a resolution on the day of the strike demanding the central government withdraw these laws. Families of farmers who had died in ongoing protests against the farm laws that began in November last year joined the strike, the Tribune reported. In July, the central government claimed it has no record of these deaths. India’s minister of state for external affairs V Muraleedharan called the protests in some states “politically motivated” and “anti-government” said a report by news wire ANI. His government contends that these laws will help farmers access new markets and get higher prices. Talks between farmer leaders and the central government are still at an impasse.

WHY: Protests against the laws have been ongoing for the past 10 months, with tens of thousands of farmers camping on the main highways outside the capital of New Delhi, enduring heat, cold waves and flash floods, reported NPR. Farmers fear that the laws that deregulate procurement of produce will leave them vulnerable to competition from big agribusiness interests, Reuters reported. Without a government-assured minimum price, they worry they could lose support for staples, such as rice and wheat. 

CLIMATE: India is currently in the grips of an ongoing agrarian crisis, made worse by the pandemic and climate change. Every day, on average 28 people who depend on farming in India die by suicide, according to statistics by India’s National Crime Records Bureau. Water tables are dropping, climate change has affected rainfall patterns. Protesting farmers have lost their crops to extreme weather events. Many campaigners and organisations who boycotted the UN Food Systems Summit cited the protests by India’s farmers as a response to the fallout of intensive agricultural farming practices and the privatisation of agriculture. An FAO report released at the summit found that India was one of three middle-income countries that penalises farmers to ensure low prices for poor consumers, Down to Earth reported.

Droughts and food prices

HUNGER: Qu Dongyu, director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), appealed to the G20 foreign ministers last week to address the “dramatic” risks of hunger and to livelihoods in Afghanistan. In addition to conflict, drought in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces has put 14 million people in a “food crisis”, the FAO reported. The FAO is seeking $36m to “speed up its support” to farmers in Afghanistan ahead of the winter wheat season. Separately, the World Food Programme announced it is “urgently seeking” $40.4m to address funding shortfalls and restore full rations to 440,000 refugees in Kenya.

DROUGHTS: The Washington Post reported that the worsening drought in South America is “slamming farmers” and “spiking prices” for commodities and utilities. An “agricultural emergency” has been declared in half of the 16 regions of Chile, which is currently in its 13th year of the most severe drought the country has seen in a millennium. On top of crop losses, low streamflow in rivers is causing transport costs – and times – to soar. The impact of the South American droughts may reach “billions of dollars”, the Post reported, but it added that the problem is more widespread: “Hot spots severe enough to cause widespread crop losses, water shortages and elevated fire risk are now present in every continent outside Antarctica.”

FOOD PRICES: In the Conversation, Dr Alistair Smith of the University of Warwick explained that “real prices” of food – prices that have been adjusted for inflation – are higher than in almost any year since the UN started keeping records in 1961. This, according to the FAO, is due in part both to increased demand for biodiesel and to “weather-stricken harvests”. Smith wrote: “Now would be a good time to imagine food supply in a world warmer by more than 2C…Without radical changes, climate breakdown will continue to reduce international access to imported food, well beyond any historical precedent.” Bloomberg also reported on the effects that the Brazilian drought has had on global food prices.

News and views

GENE-EDITING: The UK government plans to relax rules around gene-edited crops, BBC News reported. Gene-editing – a “simpler” approach than genetic modification – involves having genes “snipped out” to produce new plant varieties quickly, the article explained. As a result of Brexit, the UK no longer has to abide by strict EU rules that treat gene-edited crops the same as genetically-modified crops, which require extensive field trials, food safety tests and member states voting to approve a new variety. The outlet reported that new laws allowing scientists to carry out open-air trials of a gene-edited crop without a licence could be passed later this year, followed by laws to regulate gene-edited crops just like any other commercial variety. UK environment secretary George Eustice said that “he would be working closely with farming and environmental groups to help grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change”. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments could opt in or out of these changes. While some scientists welcomed the changes, campaigners said they signalled a “weakening of standards meant to protect human health and the environment”. An editorial in the Times welcomed the move at a time of “more frequent extreme weather events”.

MEAT INDUSTRY: A group of meat industry associations pressured the UN to “support increased meat consumption worldwide” ahead of the Food Systems Summit, Unearthed reported. Leaked documents laid out the fight between industry groups and the scientists in the “sustainable livestock” working group of the summit. Several of the industry groups pushed back against the need to reduce meat production and the idea that their “industry is not already sustainable”, while scientists argued that the paper produced by the industry groups stemmed from an “unscientific process”. Dr Martin Frick, deputy to the summit’s special envoy, told Unearthed that “there is no simple or binary answer” to the question of animal-based diets.

LIVESTOCK AND THE PLANET:  The livestock sector has “become the climate villain of agriculture”, yet not all livestock farming is bad for the climate, argued a new report by the PASTRES research programme and 13 collaborators. Researchers said that, more often than not, lifecycle assessments and default emission factors for livestock are “based on studies of intensive, contained, industrial systems” typical of Europe and North America. The report studied data from “extensive, pastoral settings” and showed that methane emissions “may be overestimate[d]”. The authors called for more studies in low- and middle-income countries and a bigger seat at the table for pastoralists in global debates on climate and food systems.

GERMAN EMISSIONS: The European Commission said there is a “lack of progress” by Germany in reducing agricultural emissions through the Common Agricultural Policy, Euractiv reported. The commission highlighted Germany’s grassland emissions – the highest of any country in the EU – and called for the country’s strategic plan to “promote less intensive grassland management” and to generally “promote emissions reductions…to a greater extent”. The strategic plan is due to be submitted by the end of the year. A separate EurActiv article laid out the criticisms that both farmers and environmental groups have made of Germany’s proposed eco-schemes, the monetary incentives for environmentally friendly practises.

CARBON CREDITS: Research by the Australia Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation found that one in five carbon credits under Australia’s main climate policy are “junk” cuts, the Guardian reported. These “avoided deforestation” projects, analysts say, do not count for real emissions abatements as the landowners were paid carbon credits not to clear areas that “were never going to be cleared”. Commenting on an “implausible” rate of land-clearing this would have entailed, Australia Institute’s climate and energy policy director Richie Merzan told the Guardian: “You would be hard-pressed to find enough bulldozers.” The report drew flak from the Clean Energy Regulator, which runs Australia’s $4.5bn emissions reductions fund, saying that it was “based on some highly questionable assumptions” and that farmers were not aware they were eligible for credits when they applied for land-clearing permits. It was also criticised by the Carbon Market Institute, an association of businesses that buy and sell credits, for undermining “credible nature-based climate solutions”.

BIODIVERSITY FUNDING: Last week, US billionaire Jeff Bezos pledged $1bn from his $10bn Earth Fund towards protecting biodiversity, particularly in the Pacific Ocean and the carbon-rich forests in the Andes and the Congo Basin. Walmart and Bloomberg foundations pitched in an additional $4bn, making it the largest ever private-sector commitment to biodiversity. The focus on protected areas, Vox reported, does not “do much to erode the root causes of biodiversity loss, which include the very culture of over-consumption…that has made Amazon Amazon”. Dr Pamela McElwee, a professor of human ecology at Rutgers University, told Vox “it might be easier for companies to say, ‘we’re going to conserve X hectares of land’ rather than try to fix a complex supply chain”.

Extra reading

New science

Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods
Nature Food

New research found that animal-based foods, including the feed required to sustain livestock, account for 57% of food-related emissions, while plant-based foods are responsible for only half that. Scientists used data on land-use change, farming practises, livestock emissions and emissions related to off-farm activities, such as fertiliser manufacturing, to estimate the emissions for 171 crops and 16 animal products around the world in the year 2010. They found that beef alone is responsible for one-quarter of food-based emissions; the highest-emitting plant crop, rice, accounts for about half that. Farmland practises and land-use change were found to be the biggest drivers of food-related emissions, responsible for 38% and 29%, respectively. 

Increasing forest fire emissions despite the decline in global burned area
Science Advances

Forest fires blazing across the world have a large impact on the global carbon cycle. In new research, scientists combined satellite observations of carbon monoxide (CO) emissions – an important fire tracer – with burned area and land cover data from the past two decades. The study suggested that while global burned areas have declined in this time, carbon emissions from fires globally “were not reduced proportionally”. Declining CO2 emissions in grasslands, such as the African savannas, were offset by large forest fire emissions, particularly boreal and Amazonian forests. The authors concluded that increasing forest fires are weakening the land carbon sink, despite the decline in burned area. 

Limited effects of tree planting on forest canopy cover and rural livelihoods in Northern India
Nature Sustainability

Decades of tree-planting programmes in rural India have had little impact on the proportion of forest canopy in these areas, a new study showed. Using a combination of on-the-ground measurements, household surveys and satellite imagery, researchers mapped more than 400 tree plantations that were planted between 1970 and 2017 and analysed the changes in forest cover since planting. Even for plantations that are decades old, they found that, on average, tree canopy cover has not changed; they also noted that the plantations supported fewer broadleaf species than natural forests do. The authors concluded: “This result suggests that large-scale tree planting may sometimes fail to achieve its climate mitigation and livelihood goals.”

In the diary

Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione and Aruna Chandrasekhar.

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