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From farm to fork, UN plan targets fair cuts to food emissions

The first-ever UN roadmap for cutting climate-heating emissions from the world’s farming sector, unveiled at the COP28 UN climate summit this month, has stirred debate around how to share fairly the burden of shifting to greener ways.

Some agricultural experts are calling for fertilisers and other agro-chemicals – whose production relies heavily on fossil fuels – to be completely phased out, while others say poorer countries will continue to need them to improve low crop yields.

Food systems – including growing methods, inputs like fertilisers, storage, transportation and waste – account for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

The new plan, presented by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), targets an end to hunger and malnutrition without breaching the most ambitious Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

It proposes measures to boost farm productivity while emitting less methane, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in 10 domains – from using clean energy and restoring soil and pastures, to reducing chemical inputs, food loss and waste.

It also aims for a “just transition” in agriculture by making a distinction between the actions that rich and poor countries should take based on “improved efficiency” and “global rebalancing” of resources for farming and food supplies.

And it proposes that wealthy countries should cut their high consumption of animal-source foods to enable developing nations to increase theirs without damaging the climate and nature.

The roadmap is the first of a set the FAO will unveil at three annual climate summits, starting with this year’s global overview and detailing next how to make food systems work better for people and the planet at the regional and country levels.

Emile Frison, of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, welcomed the initial plan and “its emphasis on a just transition”. But, he added in a statement, it does not go far enough because it focuses only on incremental improvements to today’s “flawed” industrial food system.

“These efficiency-first proposals are unlikely to be enough to get us off the high pollution, high fossil fuel, high hunger track we’re on,” said the conservation and biodiversity expert.

Patty Fong, programme director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food – which unites almost 30 philanthropic foundations – said making food systems truly sustainable would require a commitment to phase out fossil fuels along the entire value chain, from farm to fork.

The roadmap, however, calls for less fertiliser use through greater efficiency rather than a wholesale shift towards sustainable farming practices like agro-ecology, she noted.

Others argued that chemical fertilisers remain essential for boosting food security in developing countries with low crop yields and a high proportion of smallholder farmers.

Aditi Mukherji, of the CGIAR global research partnership on food systems, said solutions should be context-specific – and sustainable intensification of agriculture is needed in poorer regions with low productivity.

“But certainly, this is not true of high-income countries,” she told Context.

In many low-income countries, higher agricultural efficiency and stronger climate resilience would result in lower emissions by minimising crop losses and post-harvest waste, she noted.

These debates are playing out on the ground in countries like India, where agriculture is the biggest employer, supporting the livelihoods of 250 million farmers and labourers.

Bhasker Tripathi, "From farm to fork, UN plan targets fair cuts to food emissions," Business recorder. 2023-12-23.
Keywords: Agricluture , Agricultural experts , World’s farming , Agriculture Organization , Global warming , Chemicals , Aditi Mukherji , India , United Nations , CGIAR , FAO , UN

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