Philanthropy’s Role in the Climate Emergency: “Transformation means challenging the status quo”

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Food system experts gathered at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) Nourish Scotland Pavilion in Glasgow on November 7 to discuss the role philanthropy should play in the climate emergency. The discussion explored the ways in which philanthropy can help translate commitments made at global, national, and regional forums—like COP26 itself—from words and into action.

“It’s just drastically bad to see how little contribution goes to climate philanthropy in the broader context,” Stefan Schurig, Secretary General of the Foundations Platform F20, an international network of foundations and philanthropic organizations calling for joint, transnational action towards sustainable development. “When you look at the numbers, it says we only have 10 years left…What are we waiting for?” he says.

While philanthropy spends billions on issue areas that are implicitly connected to food systems such as environment, nature conversation, climate, health, nutrition, human rights, and sustainable development, food systems issues are seldom explicitly addressed in these funding strategies.

“More and more, we’re seeing we need to connect the dots and take a systems approach,” says Patty Fong, Program Director of Climate, Health, and Well-Being for the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. “By itself philanthropy can’t solve the crisis, but it plays a crucial role in partnering with others.”

According to Petra Hans, Programme Manager at the IKEA Foundation, “Transformation of food systems means challenging the status quo.” This starts with building collaborations that help transition industries, however, these collaborations must be built on participatory decision-making.

“Especially for developing countries, when we talk about land-use changes….A lot of the decisions being made are not including the people being impacted by the changes,” says Gabriel Lui, Coordinator of the Food Systems Portfolio at the Instituto Clima e Sociedade in Brazil, where deforestation is a major issue. “Especially with this rise of nature-based solutions, they need to be part of the construction of the solution,” Lui believes.

Clearly communicating the costs and benefits of our current food system helps to ensure that ways forward are inclusive. A recent report from The Rockefeller Foundation found using true cost accounting (TCA)—or measuring the food system’s external costs on human and environmental health—that the cost of food in the U.S. is triple what consumers currently spend.

“We’ve actually created a value-destroying system…And when you put it out there in a straight way, people see this doesn’t make any sense, it needs to change,” says Roy Steiner, Senior Vice President for the Food Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation.

These numbers provide the opportunity to build a common goal for food systems stakeholders. “On climate, it’s a 1.5-degree goal…in food and agriculture, we don’t have one goal to go to. But we could set these goals,” says Hans.

Common goals can help to form a narrative that both policymakers and the public can get behind. According to Adele Jones, Deputy CEO at the U.K. nonprofit Sustainable Food Trust, global NGOs also have a responsibility to build a unified message surrounding food systems.

“Food and farming is probably the only sector that doesn’t have a major global campaign that everyone can get behind,” says Jones. “I wake up every day of the week and hear a different word being used.”

In the end, all stakeholders agree on the need to improve soil health, water quality, biodiversity, animal welfare, and more. The past 20 months of the COVID-19 pandemic have shifted more awareness towards the interconnected nature of food and its ability to deliver benefits across sectors.

“There are so many analogous opportunities in the food system, and the delivery starts now,” says Avery Cohn, Program Director of Food and Agriculture at ClimateWorks. “Food is here, it’s arrived now. The net-zero goal cannot proceed without food.”

Throughout the conversation, panelists pointed to the tremendous opportunity in joining forces through partnerships and co-funding to meet all of these interconnected goals.

“Work together, we have to do this together,” says Hans. “We cannot do it alone.”

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