The escalating risks posed by climate change and biodiversity loss will require big changes in what we put on our plates and the decisions farmers make in their fields, scientists warn. Amy Brown reports

The global food system is expected to feed a world population of 9.8 billion by 2050, but it is under threat from all sides. The system that produces and delivers food from farm to fork is responsible for 19-29% of greenhouse gas emissions, but is also threatened by the impacts of climate change, as higher temperatures, extreme weather, drought, and sea level rises take their toll on harvests.

And last month’s alarming report from the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services highlighted how agriculture is also a prime contributor to the catastrophic loss in biodiversity globally.

Several recent reports on sustainable food systems have urged large reductions in meat consumption as their primary recommendation. Intensive livestock production is responsible for about 14.5% of annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

It is clear that over-reliance on too few varieties and species leaves the food system more exposed to climate change

A much-publicised report from the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems published in the British Medical Journal in January called for a 50% reduction in meat and sugar consumption as part of a healthy human and planetary diet. Compiled by a group of 30 scientists from around the world who study nutrition or food policy and the nonprofit group EAT, it recommended a largely plant-based diet, with small, occasional allowances for meat, dairy, and sugar.

Not all experts agree that plant-based diets are the panacea to food security or to human health (see Climate concerns help fuel rise in plant-based diets), but it is clear that over-reliance on too few varieties and species leaves the food system more exposed to climate change and puts food security and nutrition at severe risk.

The FAO’s 2019 State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture report points out that of some 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output, and only nine account for 66% of total crop production.

Just nine crops, including potatoes, account for 66% of global agriculture. (Credit:Alexpunker/Shutterstock)

The world’s livestock production is based on about 40 animal species, with only a handful providing the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs. Nearly a third of fish stocks are overfished, and more than half have reached their sustainable limit. Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases.

Transforming food systems to address these risks will require unprecedented levels of collaboration across the food value chain, says Diane Holdorf, director of food and nature at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Every business engaged in producing, processing and supplying food will have to play a part.

More than 30 companies are now part of FReSH (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health), WBCSD’s effort to drive the transformation of the food system and to create a set of business solutions for industry change.

We’re seeing signs of progress but I don’t think we’ve seen a tipping point yet

FReSH works in partnership with the EAT Forum to ensure the business solutions are science-based. As one of its recent activities, FReSH convened multi-stakeholder “science to solutions” dialogues to help address concrete actions to achieve dietary shifts.

Last October, the WBCSD, together with Unilever, Olam, Syngenta, Rabobank, and Barry Callebaut, also launched CSA 100, a global initiative designed to accelerate climate-smart agriculture to bring the food and agriculture sector in alignment with the Paris Agreement.

The initiative, which is supported by the World Economic Forum, the We Mean Business coalition, and the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance, aims to bring 100 leading companies into the fold by 2030.

WRI identifies reducing food waste as one of 22 solutions to feed the planet. (Credit: Evan Lorne/Shutterstock)

Holdorf says there are four “transformation pathways” where the private sector can collaborate and lead: climate resilience, mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, livelihoods and human rights, and nutrition and health.

Progress along those pathways, however, will take three to five years to bear fruit, Holdorf said. “We’re seeing signs of progress but I don’t think we’ve seen a tipping point yet. I can’t wait until we get there.”

The EAT-Lancet report was not alone in advocating a more climate-smart approach to food production. A report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) in December presented a five-course menu of solutions for a sustainable food future. While acknowledging there “is no silver bullet” to closing the food, land and GHG mitigation gaps that need to be closed to feed the planet in 2050, it identifies 22 solutions that include changes in consumption, reduction of food loss and waste, and avoiding competition from bioenergy for food crops and land.

We’re trying to be pragmatic here. Really big changes have to happen, and behaviour changes are hard

To get more food out of every acre of land, WRI suggests increasing livestock and pasture productivity, improving crop breeding to get additional yield gains, improving soil and water management, and planting existing cropland more frequently.

New technologies can help reduce enteric methane, or cow burps, such as a chemical additive being tested in New Zealand that cuts methane emissions by 30% and may increase animal growth rates.

Emissions from fertilisers, accounting for about 19% of agricultural production emissions, can be cut by increasing nitrogen use efficiency. (See Yara's mission to sow hope in Africa)

When tested, a chemical additive cut methane emissions in cattle by 30%. (Credit: Rob Kemp/Shutterstock)

And, WRI cautions, it will be important to implement “realistic options to sequester carbon in soils” including halting conversion of forests and developing innovative strategies for building carbon where soil fertility is critical for food security. (See Turning agriculture from climate culprit to carbon sink)

“We’re trying to be pragmatic here,” says Richard Waite, one of the authors of the WRI report. “Really big changes have to happen, and behaviour changes are hard. What you put on a plate and the decision farmers make in their field – there is a reason why those decisions are made.

Technological innovation will be necessary, as well as a greater emphasis on education and awareness for consumers.

Not only do diets have to change to meet ambitious climate targets, but the whole way we produce and provide food

“Given the scope of the challenge, it would be a mistake to rely completely on the market or public policy to get it right,” Waite says. “Not only do diets have to change to meet ambitious climate targets, but the whole way we produce and provide food.”

Some farmer groups, meanwhile, say they want more of a role in defining a sustainable food system.

Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, said: “I think many of these well-intentioned multi-stakeholder coalition groups should really include farmers in the conversation. As stewards of the land, they’re full of untapped ideas and can be part of the solution and increased pathways to a more sustainable food system. The EAT-Lancet report failed to even imagine a future where agriculture is successful.”

Industrial agriculture in the Australia wheat belt. (Credit: Taras Vyshna/Shutterstock)

Agriculture in the US, in particular, she says, has shown continuous improvement over the last 30 years, with developments such as precision agriculture, integrated pest management, crop protection, and harvesting techniques all helping to reduce inputs, improve resiliency and  outcomes to both food production and ecosystems services, she notes.

Environment, social and governance (ESG) investors, however, are paying increasing attention to the challenges faced by the $7 trillion food industry, particularly risks and opportunities caused by intensive livestock production.

Maria Lettini, executive director of Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR), says: “Animal factory farming poses myriad environmental and human risks that we believe have not been fully understood by both the capital markets and consumers. These material financial risks, if left unaddressed, could significantly impact long-term value of corporate earnings and institutional investor portfolios.”

The Coller FAIRR Index assessed 60 of the world’s largest intensive farming companies and found 'many extremely concerning trends'

Among the problems that FAIRR seeks to address in the food system are antibiotic use for animals, which increases antimicrobial resistance, GHG emissions, waste management and food safety standards. The Coller FAIRR Index, launched in May 2018, assessed 60 of the world’s largest intensive farming companies and, according to Lettini, “found many extremely concerning trends across all these and other risk factors.”

FAIRR sides with the reports recommending reduction of meat consumption and a shift to plant-based diets. Its investor engagement on sustainable proteins, which is supported by 74 institutional investors with $5.3trn assets under management, asks 25 global food companies to diversify their protein sources to drive growth, increase profitability, reduce risk exposure, and improve their ability to compete and innovate in a resource-constrained world.

Amy Brown is a journalist covering sustainability and responsible business with a particular interest in sustainable agriculture. She also works occasionally as a freelance writer preparing reports for the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance.

Main picture credit: EAT Forum

About this content: This article is an independent piece of journalism supported by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Organisations that support our content can suggest subject matter but exercise no editorial control, or final approval.

This article is part of the in-depth briefing Climate-smart agriculture. See also:

Turning agriculture from climate culprit to carbon sink

Innovative BNP Paribas loan helping 6 million Indian farmers go chemical-free

The American farmers who are ploughing a regenerative new furrow

Dutch farmers plot a greener revolution by sowing biodiversity

How Syngenta’s regenerative approach is helping Spanish olive groves to flourish

Yara’s mission to sow hope in Africa

Growing fears for climate help fuel rise in plant-based diets

New hope for solutions to deforestation in the Cerrado

Why business holds the key to a healthy, fair and sustainable food system

How investors can catalyse a blue revolution to save marine ecosystems


WBCSD  EAT-Lancet  climate-smart agriculture  food waste  Coller FAIRR  IPBES  climate change  biodiversity loss  FAO  World Resources Institute 

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