The majority of countries in the Index have strong policy responses to food loss, but the data shows there is still high levels of end-user waste at retail and consumer levels. No governments in the Index have implemented taxes on carbon intensive food products, despite it being likely that encouraging more climate conscious diets will require government intervention.
Efficiency of land use in agriculture is very low, reflecting underinvestment in research and development, and underdeveloped clean technology markets. Innovation in this area will be critical to sustainably increasing productivity and efficiency.
Similarly, more work needs to be done to protect the world's forests. The proportion of forest area under long-term management or located in protected areas is still relatively low, with forest certification an underused measure in enhancing sustainable management.
Top five countries in agriculture, land use and forestry sector decarbonization readiness
Feeding the world sustainably
According to the World Health Organization, in 2016 around 2 billion people in the world were overweight or obese1 while a 2019 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that a similar number of people, mostly in low and middle-income countries, do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.2 In addition to food security, economist Nicoletta Batini in her book The Economics of Sustainable Food wrote: “Science shows that the practices currently used in conventional agriculture and fishing are harming the planet beyond repair… fears are rising that industrial agriculture and fishing may not be able to feed a growing world.”3
Agriculture needs to produce greater amounts of food while enhancing nutritional qualities, as well as using less natural capital and supporting the development of ecosystems on behalf of society, says Ian Proudfoot, Global Head of Agribusiness, KPMG in New Zealand. “The need for the system to deliver on all of these objectives simultaneously means that transitioning towards zero emissions is only one variable in a highly complex equation that has to be balanced,” he adds.
While most countries in the Index are investing in research and development for sustainable agricultural practices, this is not yet sufficiently improving delivery capabilities. China, which has the world's largest agriculture sector, reports by far the highest number of emissions reduction patents in agriculture, land use and forestry followed by Denmark, South Korea and the US. But apart from these countries, this is an area of significant underinvestment.
New Zealand, which tops the sector overall, has a high number of agriculture clean technology companies, followed by Singapore, Norway and Denmark. There are several technology areas which promise progress over the next decade. Gene editing could allow significant progress, but many governments are opposed, with Proudfoot saying their views are often based on older and less sophisticated genetic modification technologies. Agriculture and food production are attracting high levels of research investment in areas including data and artificial intelligence, new growing systems, more extensive use of waste biomass and alternatives to animal products such as lab-grown meat.
There are also ways to reduce emissions from livestock and reduce the land needed to grow animal feed, including seaweed supplements to cut methane from digestion and using insects as a protein source. Modern versions of regenerative farming that support the interdependence of organisms could increase production while also providing decarbonization services such as locking carbon in soil.
Forests and oceans
Many countries in the Index are investing in reforestation initiatives but face challenges. China's billion tree project was launched in 1978 and has helped increase forest cover from 12 percent to nearly 22 percent despite some issues on planning.4 Turkey was recognized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization as the country in the EU with the highest net gain in forest area between 2010 and 2020 but suffered setbacks in 2020 due to wildfires.5 In addition to reforestation, more needs to be done to protect existing forests. Canada scored highest for forest certification in the NZRI as the country having the largest area of third-party certified forests.6
Proudfoot says that thought also needs to go into carbon offsetting, as many current schemes involve planting trees without consideration of whether the land involved is being removed from food production. Some existing offsetting operations are exposed to climate change related risks as shown by summer forest fires in North America, meaning that climate risk considerations should become an integral part of offsetting and afforestation operations.7
He adds that oceans play a major role in both food production and in lessening the impact of climate change, with around 70 percent of carbon dioxide generated by humanity absorbed by seas.8 “The practicalities of sequestering carbon in ocean plants needs to be a top research priority,” he says.
The NZRI shows many governments have established policies on food loss, but that waste at the end-user level is still too high in higher income countries. The US has the highest proportion of food waste for end-users followed by Canada, Australia and New Zealand, showing more work needs to be done to incentivize consumers and retail sectors to minimize waste. As part of its Towards Net Zero Waste Initiative, Singapore has implemented a food waste reduction publicity and outreach program to raise awareness and guide consumer choices as well as developing a food waste minimization guidebook to help minimize waste across retail supply chains.9
There is no getting away from the fact that people in many developed countries should be encouraged to eat less, particularly animal products, with COVID-19 highlighting health risks that can result from obesity, diabetes and other conditions linked to overconsumption as well as the impacts on climate change of these high emissions products.
The US is the clear outlier among the NZRI countries with the highest dependence on meat and dairy and the highest calorie supply in excess of per-person FAO recommendations. Dietary change will require a massive public health effort, “but is likely the most significant step the food system can take towards reducing its impact on the climate,” Proudfoot says.
The government and our food and natural fiber product sectors in New Zealand have entered into a climate action partnership, He Waka Eke Noa (we are all in this together), focused on reducing emissions in a sustainable way. The partnership has created the opportunity for the industry to be integrally involved in designing a pathway to achieving the desired zero carbon outcome rather than the traditional approach of government taking regulatory actions in response to current performance.
* While Singapore scores well in decarbonization of agriculture, land use and forestry, this sector’s share in national emissions is negligible since Singapore is dependent on imports for agricultural produce.
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1 `Obesity and overweight', World Health Organization, 9 June 2021. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight
2 'World hunger is still not going down after three years and obesity is still growing - UN report', World Health Organization, 15 July 2019. https://www.who.int/news/item/15-07-2019-world-hunger-is-still-not-going-down-after-three-years-and-obesity-is-still-growing-un-report
3 Nicoleta Batini (editor), The Economics of Sustainable Food: Smart policies for Heath and the Planet, Island Press and International Monetary Fund, 2021. https://islandpress.org/books/economics-sustainable-food
4 `China's 40-year, billion-tree project is a lesson for the world', Bloomberg, 14 September 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-14/china-s-40-year-billion-tree-project-is-a-lesson-for-the-world
5 'Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020', UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2020. http://www.fao.org/3/ca9825en/ca9825en.pdf
6 `Forest certification in Canada', Government of Canada, updated 16 April 2021. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests/sustainable-forest-management/forest-certification-canada/17474
7 Camilla Hodgson, 'US forest fires threaten carbon offsets as company-linked trees burn', Financial Times, 3 August 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/3f89c759-eb9a-4dfb-b768-d4af1ec5aa23
8 `You can't go green without blue', KPMG International, June 2021. https://home.kpmg/xx/en/home/insights/2021/05/you-cant-go-green-without-blue.html
9 'Food waste', Singapore Towards Zero Waste campaign, accessed July 2021. https://www.towardszerowaste.gov.sg/