Food security concerns spurred by the Ukraine war – and enhanced by weather setbacks – will limit progress at the COP27 summit on curbing agriculture’s, substantial, greenhouse gas emissions, Fitch Solutions warned.

Food production, which accounts for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, is taking an enhanced profile at the event, which is hosting the first official food and agriculture pavilion at a COP summit, and devoting Saturday’s agenda to the sector.

Papers released in the run-up to the summit, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, include a call by the Sustainable Markets Initiative, and backed by food giants including McDonald’s, Mondelez, Olam and PepsiCo to triple the level of world cropland farmed with regenerative methods, from today’s 15% level.

However, food supply worries enhanced by the invasion of Ukraine, a big exporter of grains and sunflower oil, by Russia, the world’s top wheat exporter, will limit attendees’ appetite for action to counter farming’s contribution to climate change, Fitch said.

‘Significant threat to meaningful climate action’

“The disruptive effect of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on food security around the world will serve to constrain the scope of action at COP27 to reduce emissions from the global food system,” the analysis group said.

“We see the prioritisation of domestic short-term considerations as posing a significant threat to meaningful climate action.”

The group noted that food prices, as measured by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, are 40% above their average level from 2018-20, before a series of weather setbacks, which many observers would blame at least partly on climate change, crimped output of major crops.

“Consumer food price inflation remains high across the globe and is still rising in a number of markets.”

“Moreover, food insecurity, pervasive hunger and even the risk of famine are all on the rise across the Global South, especially those directly exposed to the fall in grains exports from Russia and Ukraine, and those in which an active conflict is taking place.”

‘Year of unprecedented hunger’

Indeed, according to the World Food Programme, the number of people facing acute food insecurity globally has grown from 135m in 2019 to 345m in 2022, which it has termed a “year of unprecedented hunger”.

Such a backdrop will “heighten the likelihood of unilateral decision making at COP27… [and] reduce the likelihood of meaningful policy progress on the issue of the impact of agriculture on the climate”.

Nonetheless, Fitch underlined the potential for agriculture to contribute to curbing rises in world temperatures, quoting European Commission estimates that the food industry overall was responsible for 31% of greenhouse gas emissions, with agriculture responsible for 70% of this contribution.

By geography, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and the US are between them responsible for 45% of food system emissions.

By ag sector, livestock account for 57% of farmgate emissions, with drainage of organic soils responsible for 11.5%, and rice cultivation 9.5%.

Policy clash

Fitch also noted a divergence in opinion on how best agriculture can curtail its emissions, between those who believe in boosting the efficiency of industrial farming and those who promote “agroecology”, which advocates regenerative strategies such as crop diversification and growing crops for local markets.

However, the group said that “the complexities innate to the global food system render it highly implausible that one approach will be suited to all contexts, decisions and time”.

It saw measures such as corporate emission reporting standards and a trend towards boosting sustainability criteria in financing as easy wins in tackling the food industry’s carbon footprint, with the potential too for consumer pressure through a “willing premium” on certified products.