Future of Food

A seat at the table/
The road to Net Zero for agrifood

Erik Miller


At a glance

Women return from the fields with sacks of pulses in Bancharampur, Cumilla (Bangladesh), where a plurality of people earn their living from agriculture.


If it is to succeed, the UN says, climate finance must be mobilized and measures such as rethinking the consumption of animal-based products, curbing fertilizer use and capturing carbon in soils be implemented without delay.
It’s time to dig in.

The results are in: the world cannot tackle climate change without transitioning agrifood to net zero. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports provide overwhelming evidence that shows the pivotal role food systems must play in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

To keep global warming below 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement, agrifood has to go green - and quickly. Not only does food production worsen climate change by contributing greatly to GHG emissions but climate change is making our food systems highly unstable and increasingly unsustainable. Research suggests as much as one-third of global food could be at risk if the planet keeps heating up.

And the vicious cycle continues taking into account that communities most vulnerable to climate shocks are both dependent on agrifood systems for their livelihood and vital proponents in maintaining those very systems. Something has to give. And at this year’s Conference of the Parties (COP28), it did.



Agrifood finally has a seat at the climate table

Efforts to fight climate change have long been criticized for overlooking agrifood concerns, which have historically been marginalized at the UN’s climate summits, prompting many environmental leaders to call for a clearer strategy to reduce the climate impact of the world’s food systems.

COP28 was the first to recognize the importance of including agrifood in climate change mitigation, featuring an entire day dedicated to Food, Water and Agriculture in the program. The commitment to agrifood was underlined by the signing of the Emirates Declaration on December 3, 2023 by 130 nations, a broad commitment to incorporate agriculture into the National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) that are the cornerstone of the Paris Climate Agreement.

This set the scene for December 10, the Food, Agriculture and Water Day at COP28, when the FAO released the first step of its master plan. Entitled ‘Achieving SDG2 without Breaching the 1.5C threshold: A Global Roadmap’, the report identifies 10 priority areas – such as livestock, soil and water, crops, diets and fisheries – on which to focus to achieve ‘Zero Hunger’, the second of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without driving the planet past the 1.5°C limit for global warming set by the Paris Agreement.

The full extent of the road map will emerge over the next few years, with further details on how the targets can be met between 2025 and 2050 laid out in future installments at the next two COP summits.

Crucially, the plan uses the ‘just transition’ concept, which focuses on increasing efficiencies and tackling inequalities within and across nations.

"This is about rebalancing global food systems" The road map proposes a broad approach to achieving a more climate-friendly agrifood sector that involves a reduction in meat consumption among richer nations, as well as the adoption of policies to reduce food waste, promote regenerative and precision agriculture, and lower fertilizer usage with targets including a reduction in methane emissions from livestock by 25% and halving food waste by 2030.

Crucially, the plan uses the ‘just transition’ concept, which focuses on increasing efficiencies and tackling inequalities within and across nations. In an interview, FAO’s chief economist, Maximo Torero, said: “We need to produce more but with fewer resources [...] to see how we can rebalance the way we consume around the world.” This means, for example, some richer nations should reduce their consumption of animal protein while in less-developed nations it should be increased to meet nutrition targets.

Likewise, some regions will benefit from using less chemical fertilizer while usage may need to increase in others. FAO Director-General Dr Qu Dongyu indicated that much of what is needed to make agrifood systems more resilient and adaptable to climate shocks already exists. The biggest obstacle, he underlined, is lack of funding.

Currently, only 4.3% of global climate finance flows to food systems, a figure that’s been decreasing, according to an FAO report released in conjunction with the road map. “We need enabling policies to close the investment gap to ensure that climate finance is increased and reaches those who need it most, especially smallholder farmers.” said Qu in a UN statement.

Taking the pulse

What role could pulses play in the climate-friendly agrifood systems outlined by FAO? Potentially, a very significant one. The road map encourages farmers to minimize the use of chemical fertilizers and find new practices to scale production, a task that nitrogen-fixing crops such as pulses are inherently capable of supporting. Not only would this lower emissions but it would also improve soil health, foster biodiversity and reduce the pollution of waterways.

In the context of new approaches to livestock, pulses can provide more water-efficient feed that helps lower the carbon footprint of animals as well as constituting an important source of protein for those regions that should shift away from animal protein towards plant protein.

On the nutrition side, the road map coincides with new research published in Nutrients showing how a diet rich in pulses “significantly improves the nutritional profile of the American diet”, adding to the “extensive established body of evidence that showcases the multiple benefits of including pulses as part of a healthy diet.” Combating global hunger and malnutrition? Check. Lowering emissions? For pulses, it’s checkmate.

The first step on a long road

A global reassessment of the environmental impact of agriculture has been a long time coming, and agrifood systems are looking at a long and challenging road towards a greener future. But the potential outcomes far outweigh the effort.

The FAO estimates that achieving the targets set in the road map would mean 150 million fewer people facing hunger in 2025 compared to 2020, the eradication of chronic hunger by 2030 and carbon neutral agrifood systems as early as 2035. Is this the beginning of a new era in agrifood?

Jeremy Coller, chair and founder of FAIRR, the investment group that called for the creation of the road map in an open letter to FAO, said in an interview that COP28 represents “the turning point for a seismic shift in agrifood policy and investment in the decade ahead.” With a road map in place and two more coming in 2024 and 2025, the course is set for food and agriculture’s green transition. Keeping the momentum going as the COP comes to a close is vital as, without significant investment to fuel it, the ambitious plan won’t get very far.

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