There has been a cascade of reports telling us that climate action is not scaling up quickly enough. At the same time, there has been a series of reports documenting high and rising levels of malnutrition, exacerbated by the global food price crisis. For example, a recent Lancet Global Health article suggests that deficiencies in vitamins and minerals — micronutrient malnutrition — affects nearly half the world’s population. Climate change is the single biggest risk to the planet’s health. Malnutrition is the single biggest proximate risk to human health.
Climate and food synergies
This alignment of trends is no coincidence. Climate and nutrition issues are not ships that pass each other in the night. Climate change affects nutrition by making it harder to plant, grow, harvest, store, transport and sell food. It also depresses nutrient density in cereals, fruits and vegetables by up to 30%, diluting the nutrient benefit of consuming them. This particularly affects the monotonous diets of already vulnerable mothers, impacting their own health and the health, nutrition, and the development of their children.
On the positive side, actions to improve nutrition status can have large impacts on climate change via lowering emissions by both reducing animal source food consumption for those consuming more than national food-based dietary guidelines, and improving the consumption of foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts and lower-emission animal source foods. Where the climate ship goes, nutrition follows and vice versa.
A rich set of actions to slow and reverse these interacting negative climate and nutrition trends is to be found within food systems. The choices that governments, businesses and citizens make about food — the what, where, who and how to grow it, process, move, eat, and prepare it — have profound effects on climate and nutrition.
The missing link
But we are missing the opportunities to align and synergise actions across the two domains.
For example, where are the efforts to decouple emissions from animal source food supply so that nutritionally vulnerable groups can increase their consumption of them while limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees centigrade?
Where are the efforts to scale the supply and demand for staple foods that are richer in micronutrients to combat the depression in nutrient density due to high CO2 levels?
Why are efforts to reduce food loss making so little impact when success would not only reduce food loss, but also nutrient loss and needless GHG emissions?
Where are the serious efforts to diversify the food grown away from the big three staples towards neglected and underutilised crops that step lightly on the environment but are affordable and packed with vitamins and minerals?
Where are the pioneers to join New York City in purchasing food for their city programmes based on the true value of food, accounting for the negative and positive health and environment outcomes that are not reflected in market prices?
And ultimately, what do we need to do bring the two nutrition and climate worlds, communities and goals together so they can do more than either could do on their own?
First, we need mindset shifts. Nutrition and climate cannot be pursued separately in a way that is blissfully ignorant of the other. There is no bliss to be found that way, only pain. They cannot even be pursued separately in a “do no harm to the other goal” way. We do not have time for stasis. No. They have to embrace “working with each other to advance both goals faster”.
Second, we must overcome institutionalised division in governments, the UN and many organisations. We have spent our careers trying to get agriculture, health and environment communities to work together. It is not easy. Path dependency is a powerful thing and changing it requires leadership, a shared language, humility, a sense of openness, learning and evidence of benefit of doing so. Responsible decision-makers have a duty to look at all possible partners to advance their goals more rapidly.
Third, if mindsets and silos can be overcome, are there win-win actions that can be pursued by these climate-nutrition warriors? Definitively yes: there are many examples and here are just a few:
- public procurement for schools and safety net programmes guided by true value of food based on both nutrition and climate
- the repurposing of agricultural subsidies towards foods that are good for both the livelihoods of a few and the health and environment of all
- agricultural R&D that is geared towards productivity measured in quantity and profit, and towards nutrition and climate resilience which may be equally commercially viable
- consumer labelling that combines climate and nutrition effects of food chosen in retail outlets
Can we make the necessary changes?
The possibilities are endless. What gives us hope that things will change?
First, youth voices are becoming increasingly heard in the climate and nutrition spaces. They have fresher perspectives that are less bound by the 20th century silos that many of the authors’ generation have internalised and increasingly cease to question.
Second, the food systems framing promoted by the UN Food Systems Summit of 2021 has brought together organisations, communities, evidence and data from across the nutrition and climate space: the national food system pathways are a prime example, containing many goals across silos.
Third, a slew of foundations are adopting approaches that are not defined by a narrow set of outcomes: Bezos Earth Fund, MasterCard, Ikea and Rockefeller are examples that come to mind. They can de-risk further public sector investment.
Fourth, private sector investors are becoming more interested in building health and nutrition into ESG standards to guide their funds to companies that are good on sustainability AND on nutrition.
Can COP27 mark the change?
COP 27 in Egypt can play a pivotal role in supercharging this “beginning of the beginning” for climate and nutrition. At the COP, the Initiative for Climate and Nutrition (I-CAN) will be launched by the Government of Egypt with support from the UN and civil society organisations like GAIN.
I-CAN focuses on creating an ecosystem that supports the integration of climate and nutrition in implementation using a range of methods, including by:
- building nutrition into NDCs and climate into National Nutrition plans
- building capacity and knowledge transfer, for example including more nutrition data in IPCCs and more climate data in efforts such as the Food Systems Dashboard and Food System Countdown Initiative
- encouraging more relevant policies, such as inviting more countries to including climate considerations in their dietary guidelines
- shifting investment emphasis, for example to increase the percentage of Green Climate Fund investments that have nutrition goals
I-CAN can be the beginning of the beginning. The task for future COPs — and all the work between them — is to build on this foundation and turn climate and nutrition from ships that pass in the night to a flotilla of thousands of actors and actions that lead to rapid improvements in the health of people and planet. And we have to start now.
This article is also published by The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.