by Macaulay Jones, Federated Farmers Senior Policy Advisor
The world is in a food security crisis. During the second half of the twentieth century over a billion people were lifted out of extreme poverty, and this trend seemed to be continuing into the early twenty-first century. In 2015 the United Nations (UN) announced that real progress was being made towards eradicating poverty and real progress was being made toward ending hunger. The UN Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) were largely achieved and the 2015 UN MDG report noted that:
“Extreme poverty has declined significantly over the last two decades. In 1990, nearly half of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day; that proportion dropped to 14 per cent in 2015.”[i]
Alarmingly this inspiring trend has begun to reverse. In 2016 the UN issued a new set of goals to replace the MDGs, called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Appropriately eradicating poverty and hunger is as integral to the SDGs as it was to the MDGs. However, unlike the case for the MDGs, progress on eradicating hungr via the SDGs is not on track. The World Food Program (WFP) put it plainly in a recent report stating:
“Globally, levels of hunger remain alarmingly high. In 2021, they surpassed all previous records… with close to 193 million people acutely food insecure and in need of urgent assistance across 53 countries/territories… This represents an increase of nearly 40 million people compared to the previous high reached in 2020”[ii]
‘Acute Food Insecurity’ is when people are facing hunger that is putting their life in immediate danger. To step back from this acute metric, there are 697 million people who are severely food insecure, meaning that they do not have enough to eat and to step back even further there are 1.9 billion people who are moderately food insecure, meaning that while they are receiving enough calories they do not have access to a healthy and nutritious diet. Tragically these figures also include almost 26 million children under 5 years old who are suffering from wasting and who are in need of urgent treatment. Numbers of this scale are difficult for the human brain to comprehend, particularly if one is living in New Zealand, a country with a population of just over 5 million.
It is impossible to determine the precise cause for this recent increase in food insecurity, with contributing factors including climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, generationally high inflation levels and violent conflicts. Although the WFP report does not consider the conflict in Ukraine, in a 2022 report titled ‘Hunger Hotspots’ the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has said the war “stands to have the most devastating impacts on food crisis countries and on those on the brink of famine“[iii]. A recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report also issued a dire warning on the potential food security impact the Russia-Ukraine war risks causing, with a media release issued by the OECD on the report stating:
“These rising prices of food, fertilizer, feed and fuel, as well as tightening financial conditions are spreading human suffering across the world,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. “An estimated 19 million more people could face chronic undernourishment globally in 2023, if the reduction of global food production and food supply from major exporting countries, including Russia and Ukraine, results in lower food availability hitting worldwide.”[iv]
The food security crisis is a international problem, caused by a myriad of interrelated factors and requires a nuanced international response. The current food security crisis is also being most severely felt in regions distant to New Zealand such as Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Both the complexity of the crisis and the day-to-day invisibility of the crisis need to be overcome if countries like New Zealand are to actively help improve global food security. Global food security is not wholly alone as an international wicked problem requiring an international solution. It is only one of seventeen UN SDGs, and other SDGs such as ‘SDG 13 Climate Action’ are also critically important and may even offer insights for the current food security crisis. In striving towards achieving all 17 SDGs it is critical that for UN member states, such as New Zealand, efforts to progress towards one SDG do not directly undo action toward another.
Like the current food security crisis, climate change is a wicked problem that is largely invisible, and which is tremendously complex. In an attempt to overcome the tragedy of the commons and to localize the global need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2015 New Zealand and 195 other parties adopted the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). One key mechanism the Paris Agreement uses to attempt to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees is the setting of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). As the name suggests, NDCs are goals that each party to the UNFCCC sets for themselves to reduce GHGs and adapt to the impact of climate change, with ambition ratcheting up over time as political pressure to do so grows. While achieving NDCs is important the UN does not shy away from the difficult balancing act that is required by countries, stating:
“NDCs factor in the understanding that countries have to balance emissions reductions with other critical demands like ending poverty.”[v]
This challenge of trying to satisfy often competing and sometimes conflicting objectives that contribute toward the SDGs is highlighted by the New Zealand Government in the first voluntary national review of progress towards the UN SDGs, with a 2019 report stating:
“One of the challenges for agricultural nations, including New Zealand, is how to continue to produce food efficiently for a growing global population, reduce emissions and, as the climate continues to change, how to enable rural communities to adapt.[vi]
In New Zealand there is however a fundamental political policy problem, reducing GHGs and taking climate action have targets set by the New Zealand Government, yet contributing towards ending the global food crisis does not. Politicians are pressured to ratchet up the ambition of NDCs, pressured to put in place policies that contribute toward meeting these NDCs and held accountable by passionate stakeholders if the nation is not on track to meet ambitious NDCs. Unlike climate action, there is currently no metric that quantifies domestic actions New Zealand can take in ending the misery of millions caused by the current food security crisis. It is easy to hold politicians’ feet to the fire on climate action as there is a simple domestic target that acts as a proxy for this complex international problem (NDCs) but no such domestic proxy exists for the food security crisis. This imbalance in quantifying SDGs invites serious perverse outcomes at times when such SDGs contradict and policy balance is needed.
New Zealand is fortunate to be one of the few net food-exporting countries in the world. New Zealand farmers export about 87% and 94% of all beef and sheep meat respectively to over 120 international destinations. About 95% of dairy, mostly as milk powder, butter and cheese, is also exported to over 130 markets.[vii] New Zealand dairy exports are even sufficient to meet the dairy dietary needs of 90 million people. Not only does New Zealand produce a lot of dairy and red meat but it is also very good at it, effectively receiving no subsidies while also being the most GHG-efficient producer of dairy and red meat in the world. Yet despite the growing global demand for New Zealand’s world leadingly GHG efficient dairy and red meat, there is a growing domestic tension between food production and climate NDCs in New Zealand.
As dairy and red meat emissions occur during production and not consumption (unlike fossil fuels), the entirety of the GHGs from New Zealand’s dairy and red meat production are accounted for in New Zealand (not just the emissions that result from the food consumed domestically). This accounting principle, coupled with the outdated metric used for estimating the warming from methane result in about half of New Zealand’s reported GHGs emissions coming from agriculture, and the majority of that from dairy and red meat production. This has led some within New Zealand to shortsightedly call for the reduction of livestock numbers, and therefore dairy and red meat production, as an easy and cheap means for New Zealand to meet domestic targets and NDCs. If achieving NDCs at least cost is the single goal of policy, then reducing livestock numbers is an appropriate policy. However, New Zealand’s NDCs are only a proxy for climate action and while reducing livestock numbers domestically could meet New Zealand’s NDC, it perversely would also likely make climate change worse by causing emissions leakage.
Emissions leakage is a process where reducing the efficient supply of goods to global markets (in this case, dairy and red meat) does not result in a reduction in the strong demand for these goods but rather results in international consumers meeting the gap in supply left by increasing the number of goods purchased from less GHG efficient countries, counterproductively increasing overall global emissions. As the global population becomes more numerous and wealthier, it is highly likely that demand for dairy and red meat will continue to grow. New Zealand has chosen to set absolute emissions reduction NDCs, these NDCs do not distinguish between GHG reductions that result in emissions leakage (and therefore increase global emissions) and those that do not. The use of NDCs by New Zealand as a proxy for climate action is perversely creating incentives for actions that exacerbate climate change, while also risking exacerbating the global food security crisis.
While NDCs are an imperfect proxy for climate action, there are no proxies at all for New Zealand to contribute toward ending the current food security crisis. No quantifiable number that incentivizes the government to put in place policies that would lift millions out of hunger. In May 2022 Federated Farmers and ten other farming organisations released a GHG pricing recommendations report in which “Emissions leakage from production moving offshore, and impact on food security” was listed as one of five factors that should be considered by a panel when determining a price on agricultural GHGs. Not making the food security crisis worse is not mentioned as a bottom line and improving global food security and reducing hunger is not referenced as a required outcome.
To overcome the global food security crisis standing still in food production is not good enough, and going backwards is certainly not. The food security crisis appears to be too complex and too invisible to be given adequate consideration domestically by politicians and policymakers in New Zealand. The process of setting NDCs overcame the complexity and relative invisibility of climate change and GHGs in New Zealand, leading to a political process where policy ambition and action rachet up over time. If countries such as New Zealand are to be incentivised to take concrete measures to fight the global food security crisis a similar approach is needed, where the wicked problem of the food security crisis is quantified, goals set and progress measured. This could potentially be done by New Zealand explicitly incorporating global food security targets into the current climate change NDCs, in a manner more concrete than the current often domestically ignored references the Paris Agreement makes to the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security.
If it is decided that incorporating global food security goals into New Zealand’s NDCs is not politically desirable or feasible, another potential proxy that could be used to both take climate action and end hunger, and to avoid the latter being compromised in pursuit of the former, is to prioritise the GHG efficiency of food production. In a May 2022 report ‘Advice on Agricultural Assistance’ the New Zealand climate Change Commission noted:
“Our analysis shows the most effective way to determine assistance is based on a farm’s output. Basing assistance on a farm’s output means a farmer pays for all their emissions, but they get assistance with that cost based on their rate of production. This results in farmers being incentivised to reduce their emissions while maintaining or improving productivity.”[viii]
Increasing the importance placed upon the GHG efficiency of food production (either in targets, inventories or a pricing mechanism) would send twin signals, to both reduce emissions and to also reduce GHGs. New Zealand is already the world’s most GHG-efficient producer of dairy and red meat (largely due to a lack of subsidies, favourable climatic and soil conditions and cutting-edge management practices) but there is still room to improve. New Zealand’s world-leading dairy and red meat GHG efficiency can be improved either through the rollout of innovative technology or by further improving management practices. The absolute GHG reduction NDCs set by New Zealand dangerously invites a reduction in this GHG efficient food production, rather than further efficiency improvements. Federated Farmers have consistently supported an output-based rebate in any pricing mechanism, such a rebate would likely help ensure that New Zealand farmers meet absolute emissions targets by farming better and not by simply farming less.
New Zealand is both a rare net exporter of food (such as dairy and red meat) and also the most GHG-efficient producer in the world. However, despite the likely increase in global GHGs and the negative impact on global food security that would result, the current absolute emission reduction NDCs set by New Zealand are incentivizing reductions in this efficient and highly demanded food production. As a proxy for climate action, NDCs are successful in sending a strong political signal to reduce emissions while also providing a means of quantifying success. However, balance is needed as simply producing less dairy and red meat is the easiest way New Zealand can achieve NDCs, but this easiest domestic action will also likely increase global emissions and deleteriously impact the ongoing global food security crisis.
As a small developed food exporting nation, New Zealand is well placed to show genuine international leadership in the twin wicked problems of climate action and food security. Under the current status quo policy framework New Zealand is dangerously incentivising farmers to reduce dairy and red meat production, an action that is likely to exacerbate the global food security crisis, and an action that larger less developed countries simply cannot follow. Demonstrating genuine global leadership means sometimes being an outlier. Incorporating global food security metrics into NDCs or prioritising the domestic value placed on the GHG efficiency of food production would result in New Zealand both showing leadership and being an outlier. However, the alternative to this leadership is New Zealand stepping back while the world continues to tragically treat the current global food security crisis as a wicked problem that is too complex and too invisible to meaningfully act upon.