Published on Agriculture & Food

What feeds us, doesn’t have to harm us

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Farmer in rice field Farmer in rice field. Photo: Maximilian Wegele

Many of us are aware of what’s on our plates, and how it affects the climate. 

Consider this: bringing food to the table generates almost a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture is the number one source of methane, biodiversity loss, and freshwater consumption. If it was a country, food waste would be the third largest emitter after the United States and China. 

It’s a recipe for disaster as every month breaks temperature records. 

But there’s nothing inevitable about this. Producing food could store more gigatons of emissions in forests and soil than it produces. A more balanced system could help end hunger in a world of 10 billion people. And importantly, it could support millions of people along the food supply chain: farming and herding, working in processing and transport, or installing renewable energy equipment.

The solutions are affordable and readily available, but they need more attention from us. For example, rice paddies that are only occasionally flooded can produce far less methane. Mixing trees and croplands can lead to healthier soils and more diverse and nutritious harvests while at the same time pulling carbon dioxide from the air. 

It’s a pity that these solutions are both game-changing and chronically underfunded. Food systems continue to receive a tiny slice of the $260 billion needed every year to cut agrifood emissions in half by 2030 and get the sector on track to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.  

That investment could produce more than four trillion dollars in benefits: increasing crop yields for farmers, boosting consumers’ health and incomes, conserving forests and protecting people from climate disasters. In addition, much of the money that’s needed is already there. It just happens to be invested in agricultural subsidies, many of them wasteful and harmful for the environment.  

Now that the numbers check out, what are the next steps? Our new Recipe for a Livable Planet designed to feed the world without breaching the earth’s boundaries, offers a clear path forward.

In this new, comprehensive approach, every country can find quick and affordable ways to cut emissions. For example, readily available solutions in high-income countries range from pricing meat and dairy to reflect their true cost to people and the planet, to switching to renewable energy in fertilizers and food processing, and reducing emissions from waste. 

Middle-income countries, where livestock and deforestation make up the lion’s share of emissions, could reduce a third of all agrifood emissions by slowing deforestation and using croplands and pastures more efficiently. 

To finance all of this, governments can put into place new measures and incentives, and mobilize concessional finance to reduce investment risks and encourage private companies and investors to engage and innovate. Carbon credits and emissions trading could also be a new source of income, particularly for low-income countries that invest in protecting their forests and embark on lower-emission paths from the outset.

Let’s be clear: this transition will only succeed if it works for people. The agrifood system generates 1.2 billion jobs, representing more than a third of the global workforce, and generating an outsized share of rural incomes and national economies. In addition, the transition to a net zero food system can promote health and nutrition and advance food security, especially for countries that suffer the most from climate change. 

The agrifood system is a huge, untapped source of low-cost climate change action. Nations are currently updating their plans to meet the world’s goal of keeping global average temperatures from rising above 1.5 centigrade from pre-industrial levels. 

There has therefore never been a better time for decision-makers to make their food systems a priority to help meet that goal. 

William R. Sutton

Global Lead for Climate Smart Agriculture and Lead Agricultural Economist, The World Bank

Alexander Lotsch

Senior Climate Finance Specialist

Ashesh Prasann

Senior Agriculture Economist

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