Preventing the food crisis from becoming the failure of nature
Joao Campari

Editor's note: Decision Makers is a global platform for influential leaders to share their insights on events shaping today's world. Joao Campari is a global food practice leader at WWF International. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

It is now well known that global food systems are facing a crisis as a result of the war in Ukraine. Supplies of cereals and oilseed are being dramatically limited, whitefish supply could be similarly impacted and food prices, along with fertilizer and fuel prices, are soaring. All of this impacts the amount of food available now and for at least another year. This tragedy comes on top of an existing crisis – the pandemic which has already rocked food systems, disrupting supply chains and driving food prices to record highs. According to the UN World Food Program, there are as many as 276 million acutely food insecure people in the world; 141 million more than before the pandemic. Without urgent action, climate change and nature loss will add to this bleak picture, by seriously endangering food production and rapidly escalating hunger.

While world leaders craft short-term responses to this tragic moment, it is imperative they also assess trade-offs and take long-sighted actions. Critically they must navigate the consequences of war without taking actions that hinder our ability to limit climate change and reverse nature loss. Only by aligning short-term responses with long-term solutions can we prevent today's food crisis from becoming the failure of nature, climate and, ultimately, of food systems themselves.

Absorbing short-term stresses

Ukraine, a country which has been helping to nourish 400 million people around the world, is now increasingly reliant on food aid. The war is impacting people all over the world, particularly the most vulnerable who are already most affected by higher food prices and limited supplies. Leaders are well justified in securing food supplies for the citizens they serve, but turning inward, halting exports or trying to develop self-sufficiency in food production is not the way to go. This could weaken the global food system as a whole and lead to a cascade of other undesirable impacts, on nature, climate and livelihoods.

While local production for local consumption can be fundamental to community resilience and crisis mitigation, especially for those who live in fragile contexts, the livelihoods of huge populations could be severely affected if the world's major importing countries seek self sufficiency or limit their trade. Only 11–28 percent of the global population can fulfill their demand for specific crops within a 100km radius. Hundreds of millions depend economically on exporting produce to countries in the Global North.

Turning inward could also have drastic impacts on nature and climate. Many countries import large amounts of food and have no room for sustainably increasing production. In general, short-term increases in food supply rely on intensifying production by increasing chemical inputs that pollute and degrade ecosystems, or converting nature to expand farmland. This will only add pressures to a planet that is already operating beyond its regenerative capacity. If climate change and nature loss are not halted, fertile land and healthy waters, growing cycles, yields and nutrient density of crops are all projected to decrease. Short-term actions to improve food security may lead to important trade-offs that must be carefully assessed so as to harm neither people nor planet it in the long run.

Dolphin restaurant has been transformed into a refuge center where you can have lunch for free, in Uzhhorod, Transcarpathia, Ukraine, March 25 2022. /VCG

Dolphin restaurant has been transformed into a refuge center where you can have lunch for free, in Uzhhorod, Transcarpathia, Ukraine, March 25 2022. /VCG

In the short-term, leaders must work together and do all they can to keep supply chains open and countries should refrain from adopting export bans. It is also necessary to increase supply without encroaching on nature, to help meet immediate needs. An estimated 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 16 million tonnes of maize are currently stuck in Ukraine and Russia – 23 and 43 percent of their expected exports in 2021/22.  Yet every year, there are 1.2 billion tonnes of food that don't make it off farms across the world, including 196 million tonnes of cereals and pulses. Even if it is not possible to immediately redirect all this food into supply chains, aggressively tackling post-harvest losses can help alleviate current stresses on food supply.

Building long-term resilience and sustainability

There are many ways in which supply chains can be improved to enhance resilience in the face of future shocks, precluding the argument that environmental legislation must be relaxed in the name of increasing food production. By using data systems and logistics, supply chains can become more agile and help match supply with demand and absorb short-term shocks. They would be supported by policies that address equity and access issues, making healthy food affordable for all, and remove wasteful practices, including rejecting imports of imperfect but edible produce.

It is essential to invest in long-term behaviors like adopting nature-positive food production practices, including agro-ecological and regenerative practices that improve soil and ecosystems health, to reduce impacts and build resilience. We can also ease pressures on nature by diversifying crop production and food supplies and sources, rehabilitating degraded farmland and over-exploited waters, reducing food loss and waste, and shifting to healthier and more sustainable diets that include a larger proportion of plant-based foods.

We are at a tipping point for the future of our planet. Already, planetary boundaries on climate change, biosphere integrity, land-use change and biogeochemical cycles have been crossed. The last 12 months have seen major climate-driven disruptions in key food production areas in U.S., Canada, Australia and some nations in Latin America, and increasingly unbearable pressure in vulnerable regions such as the Horn of Africa. Unfortunately, we must expect further disruptions to food systems from pandemics or conflict, which may even stem from the need to control resources and achieve domestic food and water security. But reducing pressures of food systems on nature will lead to healthier ecosystems that will, in turn, decrease the chances of zoonotic diseases passing from animals to humans and sparking pandemics, and reduce the likelihood of countries fighting over limited healthy land and water.

Building sustainable food systems is core to a healthy, peaceful and climate-resilient future. The war in Ukraine demands our immediate attention but, as with any crisis where food is involved, it requires a long-term strategy together with a short-term solution. Focusing only on the here and now could aggravate the fragility of the overall food system in the medium and long-term. Our food systems have had to contend with two unfathomable crises in the past two years alone. Our response must focus on the next two decades as much as today, and stay true to our shared imperatives of reversing nature loss and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, while providing everyone with enough healthy and nutritious food.

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