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UN calls for reform of $540bn farming subsidies to help climate

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The UN is calling for reform of the world’s $540bn in farming subsidies to help the climate and promote better nutrition. Livestock and food production are among the biggest emitters of carbon but also enjoy the most state support, it says in a new report.

Financial support to farmers accounted for 15 per cent of agriculture’s total production value globally, with the figure expected to more than triple to $1.8tn by 2030 if subsidies continue to grow at their current pace, the UN warned.

Agriculture is a big contributor to climate change due to greenhouse gases emitted by deforestation, manure, agricultural chemicals, rice cultivation and burning crop residues. Yet farmers are also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, be that extreme heat, rising sea levels, drought, floods or locust attacks.

“Governments have an opportunity now to transform agriculture into a major driver of human wellbeing, and into a solution for the imminent threats of climate change, nature loss and pollution,” Inger Andersen, executive director of UN Environment Programme, said.

Bar chart of Nominal rate of protection* (%) showing Top ten most incentivised products

Perversely, farming subsidies — which include tariffs, price support and subsidies for inputs such as fertilisers — skewed production towards those sectors that were also among the biggest carbon emitters, the report said.

The situation is particularly acute in richer countries that consume proportionately more dairy and meat. In less developed countries, where grain production receives the highest levels of support, farmers have fewer incentives to diversify their produce to more nutritious foods.

The report comes ahead of the UN food systems summit next week, where the sector’s impact on hunger and climate will be discussed, as well as COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow this year.

Debate has heated up recently about farming’s environmental effects, especially as much as 17 per cent of all food produced is lost or wasted.

Converting land for agricultural use has led to a 70 per cent reduction in global biodiversity alone, and half of all tree cover, according to the report. Food production, which generates about a quarter of all greenhouse gases, is also a big polluter of air, freshwater and oceans.

The UN estimated that such hidden costs to public health and the environment totalled about $12tn a year. That included $6.6tn in health problems caused by obesity, undernutrition and pollution; $3.3tn from agriculture’s effects on the climate and the environment, and $2.1tn due to wasted food and fertiliser leakage.

As a result, the real cost of food and its production was “undervalued”, the UN said, and there were better ways for governments to support food production. The report pointed to initiatives such as in India’s Andhra Pradesh, where conversion to 100 per cent chemical-free agriculture led to more stable yields and fewer crop losses.

“Repurposing agricultural support to shift our agri-food systems in a greener, more sustainable direction — including by rewarding good practices such as sustainable farming and climate-smart approaches — can improve both productivity and environmental outcomes,” said UN Development Programme administrator, Achim Steiner.

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