As countries emerge from the worst ravages of Covid-19, governments face crucial decisions on balancing the health of citizens with the re-opening of economies. A particular challenge is finding the best combination of short term measures to get people back to work and policies to address the longer term challenges of climate change and delivering more equitable health systems.
At global level, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement, negotiated in 2015, represented a Grand Bargain aimed at meeting mankind’s two major longer term challenges: how to feed a world population of some 10 billion by 2050 while moderating the rate of increase in global warming so that life on the planet can continue.
Building on the two agreements, interconnected policies on food, health and climate must develop synergies. Food systems should actively encourage nutritious and healthy food and tackle the rapidly increasing overweight and obesity crisis. To meet climate targets, the agri-food sector should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase its carbon sequestration through changes in land use and renewable energy generation, and promote diversification and biodiversity. Climate policy must sustain food security through limiting the number of severe weather events leading to droughts and flooding.
The world since 2015
But in the years since 2015, most countries have not delivered on their SDG and Paris commitments while the challenges have grown and become more complex.
Malnutrition in all its forms, ranging from undernutrition to overweight and obesity, has increased. A combination of conflict and climate change has pushed the number of chronically hungry people to 821 million (about 9 per cent of world population). Overweight and obesity has grown rapidly, in almost all countries, to reach over 2 billion people.
It is ironic to take the United States, one of the world’s richest countries, as an example of the malnutrition problem. While coronavirus has claimed the lives of over 90,000 people there, with many more losses to come, poor diet causes more than half a million deaths annually. The prevalence of obesity in the US adult population is over 40 per cent and total healthcare expenditures, dominated by diet-related chronic health conditions, cost 18 per cent of gross domestic product
The years 2015-19 have been the warmest on record. To achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the increase in global warming to less than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, more ambitious targets need to be set and delivered.
Momentum for policy change
Momentum for more decisive and urgent ambition in food, health and climate policies has been building at European and international level.
In December 2019, the EU Commission proposed the European Green Deal aiming to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. On 20 May 2020, the Commission published proposals for two core pillars of the Green Deal: a Biodiversity Strategy to bring nature back into our lives and a Farm to Fork for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system. These proposals will be debated and decided on during the second half of the year. The next iteration of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform in 2021/22 will propose that 40 per cent of the CAP budget be spent on climate actions.
At international level, two major conferences are planned for 2021: a Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo will seek to agree commitments to achieve the global targets of ending malnutrition in all its forms and a Food Systems Summit in New York will aim to accelerate progress towards achieving the SDGs by 2030.
Impact of Covid-19
The impact of Covid-19 greatly magnifies these major food, health and climate challenges in the short and longer term.
The hunger problem will soon get worse. The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that, in addition to the existing 821 million chronically hungry, the Covid pandemic may push an additional 265 million people into acute food insecurity. Economic lockdown, with the loss of formal and informal employment, has increased poverty and hunger. Africa seems to have escaped the worst impact of Covid-19 thus far, but should it take hold there, the consequences could be very grave in the many countries with practically non-existent public health systems. And all of this when the aid budgets of traditional donor countries are under serious pressure as a result of their own pandemic induced economic problems.
Covid’s longer term impact will involve a reassessment of political priorities and policies. More investment is necessary in planning and contingency arrangements for systemic risks, of which the coronavirus pandemic is just one. Many countries recognise the need to invest more in public services and health systems, and to properly value the people working within them. We will see a greater emphasis on food and nutrition security, at local, national and regional level. More attention will be focused on local production, shorter supply chains and the circular economy. The issues of sustainability and resilience in our food systems and the wider economy will become more important.
The pandemic may have a singular benefit relating to the climate change challenge. The scale of the economic disruption caused by Covid has shown that society can change in ways that could not have been imagined or considered politically possible before this. If Covid is to be overcome in a durable way, a vaccine is likely to be key and international cooperation will be necessary to develop one. The need for international cooperation, joined up and urgent actions involving governments and citizens, and lifestyle changes are lessons from the current crisis applicable to the long term and profound challenge posed by climate change.
Implications for Ireland
The incoming Irish government and the wider political system will have to decide on where the food/health/ climate policy agenda fits within a national recovery programme and what is the balance between short and longer term investment in each of these areas.
The Irish agri-food sector will have a critical role in our economic recovery, as it did in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Planning for the future of the agri-food sector up to 2030 started last January. The Agri-Food Strategy Committee, consisting of some 30 stakeholders from across the sector had expected to produce a draft report by mid-year. That work was paused as part of the lockdown but is due to re-start in June, alongside a Strategic Environmental Assessment to estimate the environmental consequences of the Committee’s recommendations. Both draft reports will be the subject of a public consultation before their finalisation and publication.
When the 2030 Committee re-starts its work, a first task will be to assess what are consequences of the pandemic for the agri-food sector, in terms of consumer and societal expectations, the need to demonstrate the sustainability of Irish products, and export markets. Brexit was largely banished from public consciousness during the first half of 2020, but the possibility of a hard Brexit, with potentially serious consequences for the agri-food sector including the Irish fisheries industry, now appears real.
The 2030 Committee will be conscious of the wider European and international dimension of its work. Ireland will be required to contribute to major debates and decisions, such as the European Green Deal and the Food Systems Summit, over the next couple of years. The combination of any agreement that emerges from the current government formation talks allied to the outcome of the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy process should provide a solid basis for a creative Irish contribution to such decisions. Ireland played an international leadership role in finalising the SDGs and Paris Climate Agreement. It can again influence European and international policy on issues central to the welfare of mankind and the future of the planet.
Tom Arnold chairs the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy Committee. An earlier version of this blog is part of the Royal Irish Academy’s Climate Change and Environmental Science Committees current opinion series (www.ria.ie).
Tom Arnold is chair of the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy Committee. He is also the former CEO of Concern Worldwide and former Chair of Ireland's Constitutional Convention.