• Apurba Mitra, Partner |
4 min read

Every year the venue of the Conference of Parties (COP) is thronged by a discernable sea of climate enthusiasts, consisting of optimists and pessimists, as well as realists. This year is no different, and I do believe that in assessing our present, and thinking through our future, each set of these perspectives offers a unique lens to decipher the intricate relationship between climate adversities and a host of other pressing challenges.

One such pressing challenge humanity faces today that is intricately interconnected with the climate crisis is global food insecurity. While the changing climate has a well-documented bearing on the productivity of agriculture and livestock food systems, the food system itself is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, with almost one third of the share in global GHG emissions.

But one doesn’t usually ponder over such correlations on the dinner table. Most often our food choices are driven by our palate and the calorie content; rarely do the vast majority of us ever consider greenhouse gas emissions as a metric when making that choice. If we did, we would probably find out that the difference in embodied emissions between meat and plant products is quite massive. For example, the production of a single serving (100 g) of beef generates emissions equivalent to driving a car for ~80 km! Plant based diets are typically 75% lower in GHG emissions in comparison.1 Now there’s some food for thought.

Now imagine a potluck party at the COP. The optimists would perhaps carry a salad of interesting ideas around lab grown food as a mainstream reality. The pessimists may cautiously argue about the inelasticity of dietary preferences with suggestions on prolonged fasting. The realists would probably be ‘flexitarian’ with their choice of food thereby acknowledging the urgency with a buffet of practical solutions. Now, let’s view this problem statement again:

from an optimist’s viewpoint

Let’s assume that we will be able to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as the Paris Agreement envisioned (which is what we need to do to avoid the worst impacts of climate change). The only way this can happen is if we are able to accelerate the deployment of low carbon solutions at an unprecedented pace across our economies, which includes embarking on the transformation of our food systems. Innovations across the agricultural commodity value chain focused on increasing productivity, enhancing resilience and reducing emissions will need to be ramped up. Artificial Intelligence (AI) could play a significant role in this transformation through applications such as crop yield prediction and forecast, drone based intelligent spraying, managing dose of fertilizer and irrigation, disease diagnosis in advance and other predictive insights.

from a pessimist’s perspective

Since the 1.5-degree Celsius constrained world appears far from reality given recent reports, let’s say what the emissions gap report has forecasted comes true i.e., we surpass 2 degrees Celsius or go well beyond that. If that is what the future looks like, a greater push on building resilience and preparing food systems to survive extreme climatic conditions would be critical. This may also warrant a radicle change in lifestyle aside from an effective policy push.

What would be a realist’s frame of reference?

A realist, while believing that solutions do exist, would acknowledge and reflect on practical challenges. For a country like India, dealing with the imperatives of poverty and hunger, as well as objective of improving the financial health of our farmers is bound to come first. With land as a finite resource, multiple competing priorities come into the picture- scaling agriculture to provide food for our growing population; providing land for large scale clean energy installations or generating biofuels for the future; reducing our dependence on imports for consumer goods beyond food; preserving our forests, and so on. With small average size of land holdings, customized solutions will need to be explored instead of direct learning from the west.

While economies across the world grapple with similar issues, prioritizing Climate finance towards building capacity and supporting agriculture driven economies is a much-required starting point to address both mitigation as well as resilience in food systems. Successful pilots and model farms with global support will lend more confidence to the government and the farming community. In this regard, while the food and climate nexus issue has been a neglected one in the past with limited number of countries having prioritized agriculture in their international climate commitments so far, the developments in the early days of COP28 are promising. Agriculture has come into the spotlight for the very first time with over 130 heads of countries having committed to transforming food systems with the Emirates declaration on ‘resilient food systems, sustainable agriculture and climate action’. Although this is just a starting point and there is much room for progress, the importance and urgency it accords to climate compatible food systems is promising.

And let’s not forget, while we speak of a few, there are many more elements at play here when it comes to exploring the Food-Climate-Water-Natural resources-Forest-Energy- Poverty-Economy- Health nexus. This is multi-dimensional mathematics which needs supercomputers to solve for when it comes to scenario building. And to be able to do that successfully, we need optimists, pessimists as well as realists to help us think through and prepare for the future.

The table is set at COP 28 for all such critical thinkers, Bon appetite!

[1]  https://www.co2everything.com/category/food

A version of this article was published on Dec 11, 2023  by Times of India Online.