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Eating better – for us and the planet

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Industrialized farming has been a reliable way to produce lots of food, at a relatively low cost. But it’s not the bargain it was once believed to be. Unsustainable agriculture can pollute water, air and soil; is a source of greenhouse gas; and destroys wildlife – an environmental cost equivalent to about US$3 trillion every year. The use of chemicals and antimicrobials can have adverse health effects and lead to resistant infections. And to top it all off, our production and consumption habits have been linked to the emergence of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19.

To mark World Food Day on 16 October, we take a closer look at sustainable agriculture – how it can help reduce our environmental footprint, improve our health and even create jobs.

What exactly is sustainable agriculture?

It is farming that meets the needs of existing and future generations, while also ensuring profitability, environmental health and social and economic equity. It favours techniques that emulate nature–to preserve soil fertility, prevent water pollution and protect biodiversity. It is also a way to support the achievement of global objectives, like the Sustainable Development Goals and Zero Hunger.

Does sustainable agriculture really make a difference to the environment?

Yes. It uses up to 56 per cent less energy per unit of crops produced, creates 64 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per hectare and supports greater levels of biodiversity than conventional farming.

Why does sustainably produced food seem more expensive?

It may be more costly because it is more labour-intensive. It is often certified in a way that requires it to be separated from conventional foods during processing and transport. The costs associated with marketing and distribution of relatively small volumes of product are often comparatively high. And, sometimes, the supply of certain sustainably produced foods is limited.

Why are some foods so much more affordable–even when they require processing and packaging?

The heavy use of chemicals, medicines and genetic modification allows some foods to be produced cheaply and in reliably high volumes, so the retail price tag may be lower. But this is deceiving because it does not reflect the costs of environmental damage or the price of healthcare that is required to treat diet-related diseases. Ultra-processed foods are often high in energy and low in nutrients and may contribute to the development of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some forms of cancer. This is particularly concerning amid the COVID-19 pandemic; the disease is especially risky for those with pre-existing health problems.

Do we all have to be vegan?

No. But most of us should eat less animal protein. Livestock production is a major cause of climate change and in most parts of the world, people already consume more animal-sourced food than is healthy. But even small dietary shifts can have a positive impact. The average person consumes 100 grams of meat daily.  Reducing that by 10 grams could improve human health while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Is sustainable agriculture possible in developing countries?

Yes. Because sustainably produced food is typically more labour-intensive than conventionally made food, it has the potential to create 30 per cent more jobs. And because it can command higher prices, it can also generate more money for farmers.

Is it possible to make sustainably produced food that is affordable for everyone?

Yes. As demand for certain foods increases, the costs associated with production, processing, distribution and marketing will drop, which should make them less expensive for consumers.  Policymakers can also play a role, facilitating market access and leveling the financial and regulatory playing field.

If it is so important, why hasn’t sustainable farming been adopted as a global standard?

There is a lack of understanding of the way that agriculture, the environment and human health intersect. Policymakers do not typically consider nature as a form of capital, so legislation is not designed to prevent pollution and other kinds of environmental degradation. And consumers may not realize how their dietary choices affect the environment or even their own health. In the absence of either legal obligations or consumer demand, there is little incentive for producers to change their approach.

What are some ways to consume food more sustainably?

Diversify your diet and cook more meals at home. Eat more plant-based foods; enjoy pulses, peas, beans and chickpeas as sources of protein. Eat local, seasonal foods. Purchase sustainably produced foods and learn more about farming practices and labeling. Avoid excessive packaging, which is likely to end up as landfill. Don’t waste food: eliminating food waste could reduce global carbon emissions by 8-10 per cent. Cultivate your own garden, even if it is a small one in your kitchen. Support organizations, policies and projects that promote sustainable food systems. And discuss the importance of healthy and sustainable foods with producers, vendors, policymakers, friends and family.

UN Environment

Environment

Lao PDR Signs Agreement to Protect Forests and Reduce Carbon Emissions

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The Lao PDR and the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) have signed an agreement to provide up to $42 million between now and 2025 to support the country’s efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). A ceremony today marked the launch of this forest- and climate-focused program.

Under this Emission Reductions Payment Agreement (ERPA), the World Bank commits to making payments to the Lao PDR for verified reductions of up to 8.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in northern Laos. The program aims to address the drivers and underlying causes of forest loss in six provinces (Houaphanh, Luang Prabang, Oudomxay, Luang Namtha, Bokeo, Xayabouly), encompassing a third of national territory. The region has been responsible for 40 percent of nationwide deforestation and forest degradation between 2005–15.

“We are committed to improving land use, strengthening forest protection, and enhancing forest restoration in line with the 2019 Forestry Law, the 9th National Socio-Economic Development Plan for 2021-2025, and the National Green Growth Strategy to 2030,” said Thongpath Vongmany, Vice Minister for Agriculture and Forestry. “This is an opportunity to drive economic growth and resilience with more sustainable rural land use based on participatory and integrated planning.”

The geography of northern Laos is distinct, with over 20 ethnic groups calling this mountainous region their home. Limited accessibility and infrastructure in these remote areas play a role in preserving cultural heritage, but also pose challenges for job opportunities, transportation, access to social services, and the promotion of industry and trade.

Working across sectors, the Lao emissions reduction program, entitled “Promoting REDD+ through Governance, Forest Landscapes and Livelihoods — Northern Laos”, supports better forest and land governance, land-use planning, livelihoods development, and sustainable ecosystem management to reduce pressure on forests. It also includes a benefit-sharing arrangement that will encourage communities and other stakeholders to participate.

“This innovative financing is part of World Bank support that helps the Lao PDR manage its landscapes for greener and more resilient economic growth and recovery,” said Nicola Pontara, World Bank Country Manager for Lao PDR. “This results-based funding will reduce emissions while benefiting people who depend on sustainable forests for their livelihoods.”

Lao PDR is the third country in Asia, after Indonesia and Vietnam, and the ninth country worldwide to sign an ERPA with the World Bank’s FCPF. The total value of these nine agreements, which have also been made with Chile, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and Mozambique, is nearly half a billion US dollars. Several other countries are expected to finalize their emission reductions programs and follow suit with ERPA signings early this year.

The Forest Carbon Partnership Facility is a global partnership of governments, businesses, civil society, and indigenous peoples’ organizations focused on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, forest carbon stock conservation, sustainable management of forests, and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries — activities commonly referred to as REDD+. Launched in 2008, the FCPF has worked with 47 developing countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, along with 17 donors who have made contributions and commitments totaling $1.3 billion.

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Environment

Climate change is a ‘global emergency’- Poll

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Almost two-thirds of over 1.2 million people surveyed worldwide say that climate change is a global emergency, urging greater action to address the crisis, results from a new UN climate survey revealed on Wednesday. 

Described as the biggest climate survey yet conducted, UN Development Programme (UNDP)’s “People’s Climate Vote” poll also showed that people supported more comprehensive climate policies to respond to the challenges. The survey covered 50 countries with over half the world’s population.

“The results of the survey clearly illustrate that urgent climate action has broad support amongst people around the globe, across nationalities, age, gender and education level,” Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator said in a news release

The poll also showed “how” people want their policymakers to tackle the climate crisis. 

“From climate-friendly farming to protecting nature, and investing in a green recovery from COVID-19, the survey brings the voice of the people to the forefront of the climate debate. It signals ways in which countries can move forward with public support as we work together to tackle this enormous challenge,” Mr. Steiner added. 

‘Biggest survey ever’ on climate change 

UNDP said that the poll was the world’s biggest survey ever of public opinion on climate change. It was conducted as countries prepare for negotiations at November’s COP26, the 26th session of Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

The survey asked respondents if climate change was a global emergency and whether they supported 18 key climate policies across six action areas: economy, energy, transport, food and farms, nature, and protecting people.  

Its target audience of 1.2 million included over half a million people under the age of 18, a key constituency on climate change that is typically unable to vote yet in regular elections. Innovations, such as distribution across mobile gaming networks, were used to ensure that the young audience were reached.  

According to UNDP, polling experts at the University of Oxford weighted the huge sample to make it representative of the age, gender, and education population profiles of the countries in the survey, resulting in small margins of error (+/- 2 per cent). 

People want broad climate policies 

The results showed that people supported “broad climate policies”, beyond the current situation, UNDP said. 

For instance, in eight of the ten survey countries with the highest emissions from the power sector, majority backed more renewable energy. In four out of five countries with the highest emissions from land-use change and enough data on policy preferences, the majority supported conserving forests and land. Nine out of ten of the countries with the most urbanized populations backed more use of clean electric cars and buses, or bicycles.   

The survey also found a direct link between a person’s level of education and their desire for climate action, according to UNDP. 

There was very high recognition of the climate emergency among those who had attended university or college in all countries, from lower-income countries such as Bhutan (82 per cent) and Democratic Republic of the Congo (82 per cent), to wealthy countries like France (87 per cent) and Japan (82 per cent).  

Findings also revealed that while younger people (under 18) were more likely to say climate change is an emergency, other age groups were not far behind, with 65 per cent aged 18-35; 66 per cent aged 36-59; and 58 per cent over 60, expressing affirmation. 

“[This] illustrated how widely held this view has become,” said UNDP. 

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Environment

Serving up sustainable food

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Along with a vow to return to exercise, upping personal intake of fruit and vegetables tops the list of New Year’s resolutions for many. But what if this year’s resolution didn’t end with the eating – and extended to reducing the amount of healthy, nutritious produce that gets trashed?

That’s a commitment that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is banking on to help achieve the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Global estimates suggest that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted every year. Those 1.3 billion tons of fruits, vegetables, grains and roots are lost through spillage or spoilage in the harvest-to-market chain, or to spoilage and discard once products hit retailers and, eventually, consumers.

In a world where malnutrition is a contributing factor to roughly 45% of deaths of children under age five in developing countries, and where consumption of highly processed foods is pushing obesity rates ever higher, remaining accountable to those New Year resolutions isn’t just personal – they’re critical for humanity.

They are also critical for the survival of the planet. Food production, consumption and waste – and how they impact the environment – will be a key topic of discussion at this year’s United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA-5), taking place online on 22-23 February 2021.

UNEP and partners are developing the world’s most comprehensive data analysis and modelling on food waste, which will be launched at the Assembly. Titled the ‘Food Waste Index’, the document will be released at UNEA-5. It offers new estimates of food waste at household, retail and food service sectors at country level, and provides a methodology that enables countries to measure and track progress on Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which aims to halve retail and consumer food waste and reduce food loss by 2030.

Food systems for the future

Agriculture and the pressure to produce cheaper, faster commodities are among the primary drivers of biodiversity loss. Resource-intensive food production that depends heavily on the use of inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides and complex irrigation and energy systems means fewer wild spaces for the other creatures we share nature with, whether it’s birds, mammals, insects or microbial organisms. Meanwhile, political and economic structures are pricing farmers off their land.

“The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the obstacles and blockages in our global food system. We have a timely opportunity to build back better and redesign the way we grow, harvest, sell and eat the bounty of nature’s production,” said Clementine O’Connor, from UNEP’s Sustainable Food Systems Programme.

Transforming our food systems will not only help restore biodiversity and habitat but can also strengthen market opportunities for smallholder farmers – many of whom are women on the road to economic self-sufficiency through sustainable production of fruit and vegetables.

A fruitful year?

At UNEA-5, the virtual convening of representatives of UN member states, the private sector, civil society, scientists and other leaders will be an opportunity to share and adopt best practices for transforming food systems. Momentum toward sustainable food production and consumption that is generated by the Assembly will be built upon going forward in 2021, with the historic first-ever UN Food Systems Summit.

The year 2021 has also been marked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables 2021 to highlight the role of fruits and vegetables in human nutrition, livelihoods, food security and health.

UN Environment

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