2021: this is the year to take action on food systems

1 June 2021

Deborah McSkimming 

In 2021, there are key events, where the leaders of many nations will meet to address climate change issues, and what actions are needed to reduce carbon emissions and limit global warming. Leaders of the G7 nations met in Cornwall, England in June; in October the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) will meet in Italy and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP15 will be held in China; and the year will culminate with the Climate Change COP26 in Glasgow in November and Nutrition for Growth (N4G) in Japan. These events and meetings will shape the way forward for the nations to adapt to meet, amongst other things, the challenges of climate change. Sustainable food production and proper nutrition are fundamental to meeting these objectives, and they fuel the ability for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Averting malnutrition will help achieve at least 12 of the 17 SDGs to foster a healthy, prosperous, and stable world in which no one is left behind. 

As the world battles the dual effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, it is more apparent than ever that availability of nutritious and safe food in urban centres is crucial to the stability and wellbeing of society. All aspects of food production, storage, distribution and consumption are affected by climate change and especially by the growing frequency and severity of extreme weather events. Food production is already dealing with unpredictable weather events such as bigger variations in rainfall, droughts and greater temperature changes, which makes life more unpredictable for farmers, and impacts agricultural output and quality. If global emissions don’t start to go down drastically, in line with the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting the rise in global average temperatures to 1.5 degrees, the instability of food production will increase and will give rise to more food insecurity. 

The main food staples in many cities are wheat, maize, rice and soy and their production is predicted to decline by 10% in the next 10 years. However, to meet the increased urban population food requirements agricultural production needs to increase by 50%. In addition, the production and delivery to markets of fresh fruit and vegetables, and dairy, which are important for a healthy diet, can be affected by climate change. Increases in temperature can compromise harvests and the ability to maintain healthy livestock. 

The production of food is not only at risk from climate change, but also a driver. Currently agricultural output accounts for 17% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but when bringing food to markets, distribution, food waste and intensive land use are added to the calculation, this rises to 26%. 

By 2050, it is estimated that 2.5 billion people, almost 68% of the world population will be urban residents, living in 1600 cities. Many of the people in urban areas on low incomes are malnourished. One in three people around the world struggle with at least one form of malnutrition—undernutrition, obesity, overweight, or micronutrient deficiencies—and globally more than 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, and more than 820 million – one out of every nine people – face chronic food deprivation. Malnutrition costs the global economy $3.5 trillion annually in lost productivity and health care costs—and most of these losses are preventable. To meet these needs there has to be a fundamental change in the way food systems are managed. 

But if this is the global situation, then what role do cities have? 

A sustainable nutritious food supply that is accessible and affordable for all people in urban areas, especially those on low incomes and using produce from local producers and short supply chains can help reduce the carbon footprint of the food supply and improve the nutrition of urban communities. 

Shutterstock/YuRi Photolife

Cities are key drivers and fundamental to the success of these objectives, they can transform food systems at all levels of entry points, even with limited resources. They can work to deliver healthier, more sustainable and more equitable food systems by reforming public policy and procurement, reducing waste, supporting local markets and empowering consumers to make informed choices. 

When nations meet at these pivotal events this year, they need to acknowledge the role and function of cities when addressing the effects and consequences of climate change. Cities can take the lead in delivering policies which deliver food security, including improving the availability of affordable nutritious and safe food for the people in urban areas on low incomes. Cities can also play a leading role in supporting food supply chains and enabling access to food markets in places of highest population density or transit of people.  

Food security and supply is a fundamental part of the climate change dialogue. The risk of pushing more urban populations into greater food insecurity is one that needs to be challenged as a matter of urgency. Food Action Cities inspires cities to create resilient food systems and affordable, desirable and nutritious and safe food for their citizens. City governments do this by creating the environment for good governance and policies, supporting actions to deliver improved food security through supply chains, giving access to markets for producers, and facilitating the exchange of information and good practice between cities.  

About the author

Deborah McSkimming has worked in sustainability and climate change for the last 20 years. She has held senior communications roles for The Prince of Wales’s Accounting for Sustainability Project (A4S), The Energy Transitions Commission, the Natural Capital Coalition (now the Capitals Coalition) and We Mean Business, a coalition driving policy ambition to halve emissions by 2030.