Worsening climate change adds pressure to food production, and agriculture is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. G20 leaders have an opportunity at this November’s Bali summit to address the long-term challenges of revamping the global food system into a more sustainable, resilient and equitable one.
Global food security is rising high up the G20 agenda. The urgency and complexity of the problems are immense. When G20 leaders meet at the Bali Summit this November, they should be mindful of three major challenges of jointly securing food supplies and mitigating climate change, and consider three potential areas of agreement.
First, climate change increasingly exasperates global food systems, and vice versa. The just-released Southeast Asia Climate Outlook 2022, based on a regionwide survey, finds that people — especially rural residents — are anxious about the impact of extreme weather events on their food supply chains. Worsening climate change adds pressure to food production, which already needs to increase (calorie-wise) by 70 per cent by 2050 due to population growth and dietary change. Globally, increased temperature and rainfall affect the output of major crops by as much as 25 per cent.
Agriculture is not just the sector most vulnerable to climate change, it is also a major cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The world’s food systems contribute around 25-30 per cent of global GHG emissions, from land use to post-retail activities or by-products, such as cooking and waste. Indeed, GHG emissions of the agriculture sector are equivalent to that of all electricity generation globally.
Second, even if we produce enough food like we do today, climate change is making inequality in the global food supply more skewed. Since 2014, hunger has been on the rise in pockets of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, after a long-term decline. In 2019, among people who are acutely food insecure due to extreme weather, close to three-quarters were displaced. Moreover, according to the UN’s humanitarian office, people in low-income countries are at least four times more likely to be displaced because of acute food insecurity caused by extreme weather, compared to people living in high-income countries.
Third, climate change, which adversely affects small-scale farmers’ productivity and income, impedes progress towards poverty reduction and better jobs. Productivity improvement boosts farmers’ income, allowing them to afford better education for their children which equips them for higher-paying, off-farm, modern jobs in the urban areas. Such gains can also, in a virtuous cycle, help to further augment farm productivity, for example, by using better technologies that generate more output with the same amount of labour and land.
The transformation from on-farm work to off-farm or urban jobs driven by agricultural productivity increments “has been the only sustainable pathway out of poverty,” argues Peter Timmer, an authority on agricultural development, food security, and the world rice economy at Harvard University. However, climate change poses a threat to rural small-scale producers’ productivity and income that, in turn, could trap poor farmers in a vicious cycle and leave countries mired in poverty.
A global food reserve, reinforced by transparent sharing of credible data, could decisively change the perception and expectation of global food availability, and avert panic behaviour that leads to hoarding and stockpiling.
Various concrete agreements can be taken by the G20 leaders this year to address the long-term challenges of revamping the global food system into a more sustainable and resilient one. Three should be brought to the table.
First and foremost, the food security and climate change agenda should be integrated under one framework linked to the energy transition agenda. Indonesia’s G20 Presidency puts energy transition as one of its three priorities. The food security agenda could be linked to the climate change agenda as well as the G20 energy transition agenda, considering how food production is very energy intensive. The manufacturing of fertilizers consumes natural gas and electricity; non-renewable energy used in this sector is contributing to climate change. Hence, without energy transition we will continue to produce food unsustainably, which in turn compromises future food production. Policies and funding to address energy transition, climate change, and global food security must be synergistic.
Second, G20 leaders should consider addressing the increasingly unequal distribution of food by establishing global food reserves and a global food treaty. Establishing a global food reserve can restore confidence in the currently lopsided international food system and precarious international food trade. Today, close to three-quarters of the world’s food stocks are in five countries/region — the United States, the European Union, India, China, and Brazil — all of whom are G20 members. Akin to the ASEAN+3 Emergency Rice Reserve that can be tapped in case of emergency, these five countries could agree to release some of their stocks to relieve global supply when food prices rise perilously high.
A global food reserve, reinforced by transparent sharing of credible data, could decisively change the perception and expectation of global food availability, and avert panic behaviour that leads to hoarding and stockpiling. The present tribulations underscore the necessity of the Agriculture Market Information System (AMIS), which the G20 set up under the 2011 Presidency to enhance food market transparency and food security responses. The G20 leaders could now go further by forging an international food treaty that obliges surplus countries to assist others during times of shortage.
Third, G20 leaders should commit to global collaborations to accelerate investment in green technologies and R&D for sustainable and higher yield agriculture. One example of recent novel innovations is Agrivoltaics which concurrently resolves food-energy-water issues in drylands by reducing plant drought stress and increasing food production while also lessening solar photovoltaic panel heat stress. Because seeds are as important to food as chips are to computers, developing climate-resilient seed varieties will be key to addressing the gap between potential and actual yield. Moreover, a fourth agricultural revolution — producing higher crop yields without the use of fertilisers or insecticides — is needed to cut GHG emissions, according to Nobel Laureate Steven Chu. In the financial sector, the G20 leaders could task relevant working groups to explore a new climate financing framework to enable smallholder farmers to participate, individually or through farmers’ cooperatives, in climate financing and the carbon market.
The Bali summit provides an opportunity to address two pressing issues of our times. Let us hope the G20 rises to the occasion.
Maria Monica Wihardja is an Economist and Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme and the Regional Economic Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
Aninda Dewayanti is a Research Officer in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.