Economist: Climate change, hunger, food scarcity demand ‘transformation’

By: - September 18, 2021 9:00 am

Agriculture is one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases. (Photo via Pixabay)

A challenging combination of food scarcity and climate change-related threats to agriculture are driving calls for a “transformation” in food systems, an economist told environmental journalists this week. 

Those issues are expected to be discussed by world leaders at a special United Nations food systems conference Sept. 23 in New York.

Channing Arndt, a development economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute, told those attending a Society of Environmental Journalists webinar that modern food systems are one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. They also are among the leading causes of species loss. 

And those challenges come at a time when climate change is adding to the stresses, especially in developing countries, Arndt said. 

Ag is ‘big source of greenhouse gases’

“Food sources are a big source of greenhouse gases,” Arndt said. Agriculture and forestry account for 20% of all emissions. That is pretty close to electricity generation as a whole,” he said.

At the same time, biologists alarmed about the loss of biodiversity across the globe know that farming contributes to the problem.

“Food systems are fingered as the largest driver of biodiversity loss in the world, around 60% or so,” Arndt said.

In addition, agriculture has attracted debate about workers’ livelihoods, Arndt said.

‘Meager’ livelihoods

“Food systems are still the world’s largest employer, if you will, with billions of people earning meager or fragile livelihoods in agriculture,” Arndt said. “And it’s a big contrast to developed countries, where agriculture is a relatively small employer, at least compared with what it was 100 years ago. Food systems remain a very important lever in raising the standard of living in developing countries.”

Pay aside, the combined production of agriculture globally has failed to provide any with adequate meals.

Arndt said 40% of the world’s population can’t afford a nutritionally adequate diet. “This is a big challenge,” he added.

Residents of developed countries eat too much meat, adding to greenhouse gas emissions, while those in developing countries don’t have enough protein in their diet, the economist noted.

By 2050, the globe will need 30% more food, even as climate change disrupts agricultural systems, Arndt said.

“It’s this confluence of big issues and the unsustainability of the factors that’s driving (the need) for this transformation,” he added.

Prime ministers to discuss food shortages

Martin Frick, deputy to the U.N. Secretary-General’s special envoy, said the summit will include prime ministers and other high-ranking officials invited to review food systems. 

“They will be describing their national pathways to build fair, more inclusive and more sustainable food systems pathways,” Frick said.

The global governmental representatives and others, including nongovernment organizations, will be discussing “what is needed to eradicate hunger, to bring nutritious food to all people, to build resilience, to build livelihoods.” Frick said. The summit also will include climate change discussions, he added.

The Society of Environmental Journalists is a nonpartisan professional organization based in Washington, D.C. 

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.