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Transforming food and agriculture: Creating food security while fighting climate change

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Climate change, plagues of locusts, the multiplying effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have come together to push more people into hunger and poverty.

For smallholder farmers struggling to feed their families, resilient agriculture and smarter food systems can support nations inpreparing, responding and recovering to the multiplying crises that could result in300,000 people starving every day, cost our economy trillions of dollars, and push millions back into poverty.

Working in partnership with national governments, over 40 international organizations and NGOs, donors, and UN Agencies such as FAO, UNEP, UNICEF and WFP, UNDP’s vision is to transform food and agriculture to be more resilient, equitable, inclusive, and environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

Agriculture employs an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide. It contributes about one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions and is a primary cause of biodiversity loss. It is both one of the central causes of, and answers to the climate crisis.

This means when disasters hit, from droughts, to the locust plague in East Africa that threatens food security for 13 million people, children will not starve to death, and together, as a global community we can reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for zero hunger and zero poverty by 2030.

Over the past 12 years, UNDP climate change adaptation projects have supported more than 4.8 million smallholder farmers in building climate-smart agriculture , incorporating new techniques in water harvesting, crop and income diversification, developing markets for climate-resilient crops, improved land management, and weather insurance.

With US$701 million in funding from the Adaptation Fund, Global Environment Facility (GEF) and Green Climate Fund, over 853,000 hectares of agricultural land have been restored in 46 countries.

Understanding challenges and opportunities

The challenges posed by climate change, and the risks connected with the COVID-19 pandemic, are far-reaching and complex.

Farmers have lost their markets, supply chains have been disrupted, consumer demand has plummeted, and even food safety monitoring is being interrupted. Climate change and environmental degradation contribute to food insecurity. The WFP estimates 135 million people face crisis levels of hunger, and another 130 million are on the edge of starvation as a result of the coronavirus.

A holistic approach

UNDP doesn’t tackle climate change or food security as stand-alone issues. Our approach improves productivity, profitability and sustainability from farm to fork.

This means reducing agricultural emissions, and encouraging renewable energy, integrated pest-management, and livelihoods diversification. It means making better decisions on land management with improved data and climate information to ensure transparency and consistency. It means greening value chains from farms to urban areas. It means climate-resilient agricultural practices. It means improving storage, while limiting carbon output with green approaches to transport and refrigeration. And it means helping farmers rethink the way they do business, reach markets, process goods and adapt their enterprises and livelihoods to the unique realities of the 21st century.

These efforts are building momentum through the UNDP Climate Promise and partnerships with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the Global Commission for Adaptation (GCA),and more.

The GCA seeks to build the resilience of 300 million small scale farmers. To achieve this goal, the commission and its partners, including UNDP, will increase investment in agricultural research, and expanding farmer advisory and financial services and risk management mechanisms.

Last year the Government of Germany announced a €20 million for a joint collaboration between the UNDP and FAO that will support developing countries in building more effective agriculture land-use plans to accelerate the ambition of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement. The programme builds on a joint NAP-Ag Programme that worked with 11 partner countries to integrate agriculture into National Adaptation Plans.

Important partnerships and programmes

UNDP works through a number of global partnerships that support climate resilient agriculture and food security and the response to COVID-19.

Stories from the field


“*These days, families have so many children. And there’s less land available every day. That means fewer crops, less food. I never know if what my children eat is enough or not. Our land has steep slopes. So when it rains too much, all the nutrients in the soil are washed away. I want to learn how to take care of my land – how to build ditches and barriers, so that I can protect my crop from the heavy rains. [Before the project] I neither knew how to get the seeds, nor how to plant them. Now I do. Through a drawing, they showed me what my garden would look like. I dream that in the future my children won’t have to struggle for food. I don’t want them to have to go through what we’ve had to go through to be able to have food.”* - Marta Ixtós Ajú, farmer, Guatemala

Marta Ixtós Ajú lives with her husband and children in rural Guatemala. The daily life of her community, the indigenous people of Maya Quiche, revolves around agriculture and trade. Despite this, half of all children suffer from malnutrition. Through the Adaptation Fund-financed UNDP-supported Climate Change Resilient Productive Landscapes in Guatemala project, Marta has a vegetable garden of her own that she uses to ensure healthier meals for her family and surplus vegetables for hard times.


‘The weather is unpredictable these days. In the past, we could look at the sky or gather at our traditional ceremony to forecast the timing and quantity of rains. You can’t be sure anymore.’ – Grace Vandika, farmer, Zambia.

Grace Vandika’s crops were wiped out in a drought that scorched much of Zambia last year. She and other farmers like her are building climate resilient livelihoods.

A United Nations-led partnership including UNDP, FAO and WFP supports three million farmers build climate resilient lives. The GCF-financed project enables farmers to cope better with climate change through modern technology, sustainable growing techniques and better understanding of climate issues. Since the project was launched in February 2019, more than 170,000 farmers have been involved.

‘The idea behind the project is to let farmers involved in the frontline fight against climate change access real-time climate information, obtain weather-based insurance, and use drought-tolerant crop varieties’ - Maziko Phiri, Project Manager, Zambia.

Women first

Women will play an essential role in achieving the SDGs protecting our planet’s natural resources, and building a climate-resilient future.

Across the globe, UNDP is sharing climate-smart agricultural tools and practices, promoting livelihood diversification, new policies and transformative changes in social traditions to empower women.

In Niger, collective gardens are boosting women’s standing in their communities. In Ethiopia, some women-led farming collaboratives have increased production two-fold. In Sudan, new wells and cook stoves are empowering women in the house and in the community. In the Solomon Islands, new farming tools and job opportunities are helping women to adapt to climate change and build savings they can use to recover in case of future disasters. In Cambodia, women were able to lower gaps in food supplies and earn around US$500 extra a year by selling excess crops, and the country is now dovetailing its COVID-19 response with ongoing actions to protect vulnerable communities.

A broader multi-country programme built with support from the Government of Canada and the Global Environment Facility worked in six countries to help women adapt to climate change. The project helped women increase food production, diversify their livelihoods and transform gender-based social norms in food production.

Linking to the bigger picture

UNDP’s signature solutions create lasting contributions to sustainable food and agriculture.

NDC Support Programme

About 90 percent of countries are acting to curb greenhouse gas emissions through their Nationally Determined Contributions. Under the Climate Promise, UNDP will help ensure countries’ new climate action pledges align with their national development priorities, including food security. UNDP has received formal requests from more than 110 governments to help form new pledges.

Oceans and freshwater

Global food systems and human livelihoods are heavily reliant on healthy oceans and freshwater ecosystems. Fish accounts for about 17 percent of all protein we eat and 60 million people are employed in fisheries and aquaculture. With a changing climate, managing these shared resources sustainably becomes ever more important. From promoting sustainable fisheries and protecting large marine ecosystems to managing the threat of invasive species and fostering innovation, UNDP is working with more than 100 countries to protect and restore their water and oceans. In Northern Ghana through a UNDP-supported Adaptation Fund-financed project the government is supporting water management and rehabilitation of small dams and their catchments to ensure dry-season production, enhanced food security and new markets.


Clean energy has a crucial role to play in the way we produce, transport, store and cook our food and it’s critical to food security. In parts of the world where the electricity grid is unreliable or non-existent, off-the-grid renewable energy systems provide cost-effective ways to produce and store food. In Sudan, solar-powered water pumps ensure land is irrigated and fertile. In India, solar-powered refrigerated units enable farmers to safely store seeds for future sowing seasons.

Some 2.9 billion people, almost 40 percent of the world, rely on inefficient stoves and on polluting fuels such as firewood or dung for cooking. This comes with considerable health, social and environmental costs. Every day, millions of women and children spend hours collecting fuel and breathing toxic fumes while cooking indoors. This encroaches both on nearby forests, and on time that could be spent on education, rest, or income-generating activities. But above all, it kills. Every year, 3.8 million people die prematurely from illnesses linked to smoke from open fires. Clean technologies is key to address this multifaceted issue. UNDP has more than 20 projects across the world to promote financing for clean cooking.

Ecosystems and biodiversity

Healthy biodiversity and ecosystems, including soil fertility and water provisioning, are the foundation of human wellbeing and sustainable development. Nature-based solutions are essential for tackling land degradation and desertification, climate crisis, inequality and poverty, insecurity and migration.Loss of biodiversity and the decimation of key pollinators such as bees weakens the resilience of agriculture and lowers its productivity, and threatens local food production for local consumption and global food markets, as highlighted by the IPBES Assessment Report on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production. Biodiversity loss has greatly accelerated over the past 40 years, and we have lost on average nearly 60 percent of populations of species around the world. Among the steepest declines are the pollinators that are essential for 75 percent of global food supplies.

Climate and forests

Agriculture is directly responsible for about 80 percent of deforestation worldwide and, through its impact on soil, forests and other land uses, is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, representing around 24 per cent of the total emissions. A transition to sustainable agricultural could transform farms into carbon sinks. UNDP’s Climate and Forests Programme is supporting countries to adopt zero-deforestation agriculture and sustainable agro-forestry to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation while addressing national commodity production goals and smallholder food security concerns.

Green Commodities

With support from UNDP’s Green Commodities Programme, good agricultural practices help to protect the natural assets that enable farmers and their families to grow crops needed for consumption and sale, and to ensure resilience. This will be even more important in the post COVID-19 world, as we see governments placing increasing priority on national production of food crops, with implications for farmers who have shifted their agriculture to export cash crops. The Good Growth Partnership (GGP) is working with governments to bring business, farmers, and conservationists together to encourage sustainable commodity production and good growth. The programme supports governments in raising awareness, improving transparency and strengthening demand for sustainably produced beef, palm oil and soy.

Small Grants Programme

According to FAO, the majority of the 600 million farms in the world are small farms of less than one hectare. As such, small farms play a fundamental role in ensuring food security and nutrition. The GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP), implemented by UNDP, has been testing and promoting community-based climate resilient agriculture and food practices that improve productivity and increase ecological connectivity. Since 2014, SGP has supported more than 1,100 projects developing sustainable agriculture, land management and forest management. During the last year (July 2018-June 2019), 523 farmer organizations and networks were strengthened to disseminate improved climate smart agro-ecological practices and 9,881 farmer leaders were trained and are now successfully demonstrating agro-ecological practices.

Pillars of success

  • Integrated approaches and partnerships will be essential in transforming food and agriculture systems into resilient, equitable, inclusive, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable systems.

  • Multi-stakeholder collaborations for systematic change approaches will ensure vulnerable groups are more resilient, attain food security and are empowered to pursue sustainable livelihoods.

  • Governance is key, and efforts should be made to reform policy frameworks to ensure the sustainability of food and agriculture systems.

  • Digitization strategies will help most vulnerable communities to access strategic information on markets, pricing, weather forecasts and early warnings, and are part of the ongoing COVID-19 humanitarian response.

  • Food waste reduction and management. If food waste was its own country it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. Efforts are underway to reduce wastage and refrigeration.

  • Food consumption and dietary choices. The modern diet is a greater disease risk than alcohol and tobacco combined. The global food production system is increasingly less diverse and less resilient and does not meet the nutritional needs of our global population. Although humans evolved to eat more than 7,000 species, today just three (wheat, rice and maize) provide nearly 60 percent of our plant-based calories.

  • The private sector. This is the business opportunity of the 21st century. There are endless opportunities to green value chains and agricultural production while supporting food security. These include the dissemination of forecasts, production of green manure, water efficient irrigation technologies, energy efficient storage facilities, and solar-powered irrigation and greenhouses.

  • Improving market and financial services. From mobile banking to cooperative banks and insurance, and more finance investments that connect private know-how and capital with public resources.