TODAY’S STUDY: The Climate Change Diet
Climate Change & Food Systems: Assessing Impacts and Opportunities
Meredith Niles, Jimena Esquivel, Richie Ahuja, Nelson Mango, November 2017 (Meridian Institute)
Food and agriculture are significant contributors to, and heavily impacted by, climate change, but they also offer opportunities for mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Despite a growing body of literature about climate change and agriculture, relatively little analysis and focus has been put on climate change and food systems, more broadly. The narrower focus on climate change and agricultural production prevents consideration of a broad range of mitigation and adaptation strategies as well as the systems-level effects of narrowly targeted interventions. A broader food systems perspective creates opportunities to explore the feedback loops and multiplier effects of specific mitigation opportunities and to identify opportunities for systems transformation. Approaching climate adaptation and mitigation in the context of food systems broadens the range of opportunities to achieve mitigation and adaptation goals and facilitates the consideration of systemslevel effects and interactions. A food systems perspective also enables engagement of the full range of stakeholders that should be involved in food systems transformation. Such a perspective is critical to addressing climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which cover multiple sectors that are linked by food.
This report was written by a team of subject matter experts with input from a diverse advisory committee. Meridian Institute coordinated the development of the report, and funding was provided by members of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. The objectives of the report are to:
-review and synthesize peer-reviewed literature that examines the mutual impacts of food system activities and climate change, and identify knowledge gaps in that literature;
-illustrate how applying a food systems perspective to climate change mitigation actions can be used to drive transformation and help policymakers anticipate effects from specific mitigation and adaptation opportunities; and
-document opportunities (available online) for incremental changes that support climate mitigation while efforts to drive broader system transformation are pursued.
Food systems include the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food and food-related items. These systems include pre-production activities such as developing and delivering inputs (e.g., fertilizers, seeds, feed, farm implements, irrigation systems, information, and research and development); the production of crops, fish, and livestock; post-production activities such as storage, packaging, transportation, manufacturing, and retail; consumption activities either in supermarkets, homes, or dining establishments; and the loss (preconsumer), waste (consumer level), and disposal (post-consumer) that occurs throughout the system. Food systems operate within and are influenced by social, economic, political, and environmental contexts. People are involved throughout these systems as producers; information providers; policymakers and regulators; workers in the fields of health, forestry, trade, and finance and in companies; and consumers.
The following key messages emerged from the literature review and discussions with leading food and agriculture experts who work on climate change adaptation and mitigation. The key messages highlight critical considerations for identifying and evaluating actions for climate change mitigation and food systems transformation.
1. Food systems have significant, adverse effects on climate change, and climate change impacts food systems in many complex ways.
2. A food systems perspective is required for transformative change.
3. Immediate action is possible and needed as a stepping stone to food system transformation.
4. Equity issues should be central to creating fair, sustainable, and resilient food systems.
5. Actions need to consider local, Indigenous, and practitioner knowledge.
6. More peer-reviewed, systems-level information and research is urgently required.
7. More research on the impacts of food system interventions is needed, in particular in low- and middle-income economies.
8. New approaches and decision-support tools are required.
9. Food system transformations require the engagement of a broad range of stakeholders.
10. Governance and institutional innovations are required for system transformation.
The majority of the world’s countries have included mitigation and adaptation actions related to crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries, and aquaculture in their Nationally Determined Contributions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Low-income countries put a strong emphasis on these sectors, given the importance of agriculture to their economies and the predominance of their emissions resulting from agriculture. These actions are heavily focused on agricultural production. However, pre-production and post-production activities also contribute significantly to climate change, and as more economies develop we can expect proportionately more emissions from post-production activities overall. More mitigation alternatives for pre-production and post-production should therefore be developed in low-, middle- and high-income countries. For example:
-Pre-production activities have impacts such as energy and water use for agrochemical production as well as packaging and transportation. Preproduction mitigation opportunities should include research, development, and the promotion of climate-positive agricultural practices.
-Post-production emissions are largely associated with energy use. Processing – including milling and removing water – is energy intensive. Packaging and food waste can be a significant component of municipal waste. Transportation contributes less than commonly assumed, with the exception of many vegetables, fish, seafood and livestock products for which time-sensitive distribution involves airfreight. The cold chain, or refrigeration throughout the supply chain, contributes substantially to emissions, and its use is growing.
-Diets and consumption patterns also affect climate change, and their impacts differ across low-, medium-, and high-income countries. In high-income countries, diets tend to negatively affect both the environment and health. Dietary shifts in these countries that include reducing the consumption of meat and processed foods and balancing energy intake and output could drive more sustainable agriculture systems that have the potential to restore natural resources, climate resilience, and human health.
-Waste management should be improved along food systems. Roughly one-third of food – about 1.3 billion tonnes per year – is lost or wasted globally. Waste and loss occur throughout the food supply chain and mostly involve the waste of edible food by consumers in medium- and highincome countries and loss during harvest, storage, and transport in lower-income countries.
To support stakeholders’ engagement in developing food system transformation strategies and identifying adaptation and mitigation opportunities through a food systems lens, the report offers eight key Climate Change Food Systems Principles. These include (1) interconnectedness, (2) equity, (3) resilience, (4) renewability, (5) responsiveness, (6) transparency, (7) scale, and (8) evaluation.
In addition, the report provides three examples to illustrate how specific mitigation or adaptation opportunities may have implications, benefits, or unintended consequences in the various parts of the food system. The first example shows how diets impact the environment and health. Generally, the research suggests that diets that are healthier for humans (e.g., higher in plant-based ingredients) also have lower GHG emissions. But there are possible downsides. For example, while reducing red meat consumption could reduce dietary GHG emissions, it could have profound negative impacts on nutrition and livelihoods in low-income countries. Therefore, reducing meat consumption to reduce dietary emissions is a strategy mostly relevant to high-income or some middle-income countries – providing an illustration of how actions should be context-specific.
The second example explores the ways carbon pricing policies affect different stakeholders, including farmers, suppliers, traders, and transporters. Some stakeholders suggest that placing a price on carbon and gradually increasing the cost of carbon dioxide emissions are important tools to direct investments toward climate-neutral or climate-positive activities. However, pricing carbon has to be accompanied by strong social safeguards, and it may not be appropriate in all types of economies. For instance, many are concerned about the impacts of carbon pricing on farmers and low income consumers.
The final example, on soil carbon sequestration, illustrates tradeoffs. No-till agriculture offers soil organic carbon gains, but it is often used in combination with genetically engineered crops and herbicides for weed control, with implications for equity and sustainability. Some tradeoffs are political or economic, such as potential large-scale land acquisitions (land grabs) for carbon offsets. But soil carbon sequestration also has many co-benefits such as improved soil health and water management and offers great potential for climate mitigation.
Due to the complexity and diversity of food systems, food system governance emerges as a central challenge that needs to be addressed. This report can contribute to the development of governance approaches by identifying relevant literature, gaps, and opportunities across varying scales for policy approaches.
Overall, the report offers a broad perspective on food system activities and seeks to help stakeholders explore new partnerships, share knowledge, and identify diverse communities, sectors, and other stakeholders that have roles to play in support of changes needed within their food systems. We hope the report will contribute to a deeper understanding of food systems and climate change and the thoughtful review and development of actions that will – ultimately – contribute to sustainable, equitable, and resilient food systems.