The future of sustainable food systems in a changing climate and the role of smallholder production – the post Bonn landscape

By Christopher Neglia

At Villa Drusiana, the residence of the Permanent Representative of Germany on Monday evening, a panel of eminent speakers was invited to share their views on the future of sustainable food systems, reflecting on the outcomes of COP23 in Bonn and how current actions and initiatives are configured to achieve Agenda 2030.

The event - which formed part of Germany’s ‘Climate and Food talks’ series - was hosted and moderated by Dr. Hinrich Thӧlken, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Rome-based Agencies. Thölken in his opening remarks illustrated the key role of agriculture for climate change mitigation and adaptation. 'Agriculture, forestry and land use accounts for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions, second only to the energy sector,' he said.

IFAD President Gilbert Houngbo offered an analysis of sustainable food production and climate change against a complex global governance backdrop. Even if Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are implemented in full, global average temperatures are likely to rise upwards of 3.2°C above pre-industrial levels. In addition, sea level rise is slated to exceed 2.3 meters if we fail to correct course. The implications of a changing climate for small-scale farmers, fishers and pastoralists are wide-ranging and complex.

All this underscores the urgency of action. ‘There are cost-efficient options. We need to do this without delay. Because climate resilience measures – such as planting trees – are not quick fixes. They often take years to become effective,’ Houngbo said. He stressed that mitigation and economic growth can go hand in hand.

Speaking on the NDCs, Halldór Thorgeirsson, Senior Director for Intergovernmental Affairs at the United Nations Framework Convention to Combat Climate Change (UNFCCC), said that the aggregated effects of the national climate plans could not be quantified ahead of time, because ambitions are expected to grow as investment plans are developed.

‘The majority of NDCs will be overperformers,’ Thorgeirsson said. This ambition mechanism will be instrumental in the drive to reach climate neutrality by 2050, as foreseen by the Paris Agreement. Reflecting on COP23, Thorgeirsson saw reason for prudent optimism as both cooperative action of non-party stakeholders as well as momentum inside the UNFCCC framework has been picking up speed.

Dr. Johannes Cullman, Director of the Climate and Water Department of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) described how hydrometeorological systems worldwide are responding to rising carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. To do this, he made the analogy of adding sugar to a cup of coffee. The more spoonful’s you add, the sweeter it becomes. In 2016, we had the steepest increase of sugar in our cup, he explained.

In a rather grim prognostication, Cullman reminded the audience that the last time there were similar carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, it was about three million years ago. At that time, sea levels were about 10-20 meters higher than they are today.

Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted the milestones achieved at the recent COP23 in Bonn, Germany; where for the first time, negotiators from the G77 and developed nations agreed to recognize actions in agriculture as contributing to climate adaptation and mitigation. This has effectively revitalized the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), which provides guidance to nations in support of implementing more effective interventions.

Olav Kjorven, Chief Strategy Officer of the EAT Foundation had a more pessimistic message.

‘We have no chance in hell of achieving the 2°C target unless we transform agriculture,’ he said. ‘Governments have exited [the agricultural sector]. They left it to the market. This has to stop. Governments need to reёnter and provide direction and guidance at the country and global level.’ He made a strong case for taking a fresh look at food systems to come up with models that are truly sustainable.

Dr. Stefan Schmitz, Deputy Director-General of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development described how governance in the agricultural sector can incentivise sustainable solutions. He advocated for more agricultural research, and broadening the focus to go beyond ‘farm-centric' programs and look across value chains, taking into account the entire rural economy.

Finally, Divine Ntiokam, President of the Climate Smart Agriculture Youth Network (CSAYN) commented on the need to speak in languages that young farmers understand. His group is engaged in translating the Sustainable Development Goals into more than 60 languages. CSAYN representatives in six African countries also sponsor tree-planting in schools, using it as an entry point to sensitize students on environmental management and promoting agriculture as a viable livelihood – one that requires intelligence, prudence and indeed, entrepreneurism.

Surveying the post-Bonn landscape, there are bright spots that were mentioned by some of the panelists on Monday night. Others cautioned that fragmentation of initiatives would hinder, rather than accelerate progress. But we have now certainly come to a critical phase in addressing climate change through global food systems. The response of our institutions will have a great influence on food production and sustainability in the next generation.