The new IPCC report shows us that now, more than ever, we need food systems that are fit for the future

By Professor Pete Smith, Professor of Soils and Global Change, University of Aberdeen

We are nowhere near to achieving the Paris Agreement targets to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C, according to this week’s new IPCC report. Unless the world reduces emissions at a rapid rate, we’ll likely shoot past our remaining carbon budget to stay within 1.5C in the next ten years or so. 

This isn’t surprising for those of us who work in the world of climate science, but there’s something about seeing the increasingly urgent news headlines – each piece supplemented with new images of people suffering from floods, droughts and wildfires – that drives the message home. As the cost of living increases and the Russia-Ukraine war drives global food prices skyward, we have an opportunity to reform our food systems to make them both affordable and sustainable. Governments must ensure that food systems are fit for the future – by reducing emissions as much as possible, by creating carbon sinks, and by being resilient to climate impacts and other shocks.

Wildfires, floods, droughts and diseases are becoming more common and more severe – causing crop failures, economic shocks and loss of livelihoods. Without urgent action to make agriculture more resilient to climate impacts, AFRICAP findings show that sub-Saharan food systems could fail, pushing rural communities to the brink. In the most extreme climate impacts scenario, Zambia could see its crop yields fall by over 20% by 2050 – against a backdrop of an almost three-fold population increase – and demand for water irrigation in South Africa could rise by 84%. 

Even a small increase in average temperatures could trigger severe food system shocks. Without urgent action to make food production more resilient to climate change, Malawi’s maize yields could fall by one fifth by 2050. Likewise, Tanzania’s nutrition security could worsen, resulting in potential declines in labour productivity, an increased reliance on food aid, and a disproportionate burden on women and girls.

Emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land use (e.g farming, deforestation) account for around one-third of global carbon emissions. The IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land showed that the most effective way of cutting emissions from land is by reducing deforestation and forest degradation, followed by changing agricultural practices and demand-side measures like changing the way we eat and reducing food waste. 

The truth is that we have the solutions. AFRICAP shows what planning for a sustainable food system of the future could look like. We collaborated with more than 200 experts over four years to work with governments, civil society and the private sector in Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia to build an evidence base for making sub-Saharan agriculture more productive, sustainable and resilient to the impacts of climate change. The researchers developed the integrated Future Estimator for Emissions and Diets (iFEED), a first of its kind tool that shows how climate change and government policy will affect crop yields, land and water use, and how nutritious diets will be. 

Our summary report shows that by aligning national policies on technology, agriculture, infrastructure and food security, Malawi could increase overall crop production by more than 700% and livestock production by over 150%. With the right mix of policy and innovation, Tanzania could increase crop production 17 fold (1676%) –  and double livestock production; and by better connecting local and global trade markets, Zambia could increase overall crop production by over 500% and double livestock production. In South Africa, strong land and tenure reforms would see arable areas reduce in size but crop varieties improve.

Some solutions are effective for both climate change mitigation and adaptation. Increasing soil carbon stocks through increased productivity and improved management not only locks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere thereby mitigating climate change, it also improves resilience to climate change impacts by improving water holding capacity and soil fertility. In partnership with the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), the AFRICAP team compared the effects of conventional and regenerative management practices on key soil health parameters in 20 farms in Northern Malawi. The results show that reduced soil disturbance; maintenance of permanent soil cover with crops or mulch from crop residues; and increased crop diversity through rotations and intercropping have increased soil carbon stocks and improved soil moisture retention – contributing to both mitigation and climate resilience. 

We know what needs to be done, what options are open to us and how long we have left. We now need to turn this knowledge into practical action.