Blogs, Systems Thinking


In early May 2017, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food hosted its 2nd International Dialogue with over 250 food systems leaders from the local to the global, to gain deeper insights into the connections between climate change and food systems, to craft visions of the food systems we need today and tomorrow, and to chart potential pathways to get there.

Global Alliance member Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) sponsored six of their youth alumni to attend the gathering. Alumnus Katarzyna Dembska sat down with Nadia El-Hage Scialabba, Ecologist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to ask pressing questions about where food and agriculture systems can point to positive solutions to climate change.

Through the International Dialogue and all of its work, the Global Alliance aims to bring together diverse stakeholders from different sectors, geographies, and ideologies to facilitate genuine global dialogue on critical issues related to transitions to sustainable food systems. To that end, we are pleased to make these interviews available to contribute to thinking, discussion, and debate about food systems reform.

Q: Where does your work intersect with sustainable food systems and climate change? Why is it important to get food systems on the climate change agenda?

Nadia El-Hage Scialabba (NS): Working on sustainability issues within the FAO Climate and Environment Division, I have been dealing with agriculture and the food system-climate change relationship for a long time. Nevertheless, it is only with Rio+20 that agriculture was officially recognized as one of the main drivers of climate change, but also as the sector with the greatest opportunities for mitigation, for example, through carbon sequestration.

Awareness is rising, but food systems and climate change are not as prominent as they should be in the COP22 agenda. Agriculture produces 24% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through land use change, and if we take into account consumption, distribution and waste of food, the contribution goes up to 30%.

It is only with Rio+20 that agriculture was officially recognized as one of the main drivers of climate change, but also as the sector with the greatest opportunities for mitigation…. Awareness is rising, but food systems and climate change are not as prominent as they should be in the COP22 agenda.

Q: Where do you think the greatest opportunities are for transitioning to more sustainable food systems in a climate changing world?

NS: I have published research on models for global food sustainability in 2050, intersecting the FAO perspective studies on 2050 energy and protein requirements with low, medium and high climate change scenarios. My personal opinion is that if we want more sustainable food systems that guarantee sufficient food and take into account sustainability measures, such as water and land use and GHG emissions, we should be focusing on livestock feeding.

Grass-fed livestock systems are an opportunity for climate change mitigation. If we are to continue business as usual, we will produce 27% more GHG emissions. Switching to grass-fed systems for ruminants, instead, implies not competing with human food production, and providing carbon sequestration through the land. Also, this comes with health benefits for humans: the fat profile of an animal that is fed grass is higher in Omega-3 than a grain fed animal, which is higher in Omega-6 (Omega-3 and Omega-6 are fatty acids determining good and bad cholesterol levels). With regard to monogastrics, investments are needed in order to create animal feed from agricultural residues, food industry discards and food waste. In brief, a more rational use of biomass would optimize edible protein output/input which is currently largely inefficient.

Q: What is the most important thing younger generations need to understand about how food systems and climate change are interconnected, and what can they do as individuals to support a shift in how we think about food systems?

NS: Millennials are perfectly aware of the effects of consuming certain types of foods, and of exponentially growing diet- and agriculture-related diseases, such as cancer. On the other side, they are also burger lovers, and are not that willing to give them up. They are trying to turn to sustainable alternatives, for example, deciding not to consume meat. And enterprises are taking advantage of that by placing highly processed plant-based substitute products, such as Impossible Burgers, on the market.

Contrary to my generation, the young today are better informed, but very often with contradicting information; we are actually all lost in this war on information. Thus, the younger generation has good potential for taking on good habits, but we need to provide better information for them.

The young today are food lovers and food culture is important: creativity is their strongest skill for looking for healthy alternatives.

Q: What are good practice examples, where you or others are involved in leveraging or transitioning to more sustainable, secure and equitable food systems?

NS: I would like to provide the example of the Tigray Project in Ethiopia, a land devastated by famine and land degradation until the 1980s. Today, it is a food secure region, where people have been empowered to grow food locally. The project was based on an agroecological system with land rehabilitation, focused on generating and recycling biomass. The land has become fertile, with the impact of a whole microclimate – food security, land rehabilitation with rivers flowing and plants growing again, carbon sequestration and all the social benefits have been achieved by using existing resources. The most interesting aspect of this project is the mobilization of the entire local community and the participatory indigenous approach.

Nadia El-Hage Scialabba is an ecologist and has worked at the FAO since 1985, where her main focus is analyzing the linkages between food systems and externalities in the environment. In recent years she has been looking at full-cost accounting, including food wastage footprints and the Natural Capital Protocol sector guide for Food and Beverages. Her current research focuses on health externalities, specifically the food system’s impact on human health.

The vision of the BCFN Alumni group is to make the best use of the potential of young people involved with the issues of agri-food sustainability around the world. The aim is to create a community of active and committed alumni that contribute to the development of a more sustainable food system, through projects and other activities.

More interviews with participants from the Global Alliance 2nd International Dialogue are available, here.