Blogs, Systems Thinking

Notes from the Field: We Must Take a Holistic Approach to Policymaking for Food Systems Transformation

Guest contribution by Haseeb Bakhtary, Senior Consultant at Climate Focus 

Food is essential for all living beings to survive. But for humans, food is more than that. It is an integral part of our social lives and our cultures.

For thousands of years, our food systems developed with benign effects on our environment. As our economic activities industrialized and globalized, so did our food systems. This has had profound impacts on how we produce, distribute, and consume food, creating a cascade of interacting processes that are pushing our food systems to the brink of collapse.

Today, food systems are responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and deplete the very sources of life on earth: our lands, forests, oceans, rivers, and other ecosystems at an unprecedented speed. At the same time, unequitable food distribution has left more than 2.3 billion people – nearly 30% of the world’s population – food insecure, while more than 930 million tons of food is wasted every year.

At Climate Focus, we recognize that there’s no separating the food-climate discussion. We can’t address climate change or achieve the 1.5°C targets of the Paris Agreement if we don’t rapidly reduce emissions from food systems. Even if we halted all other (non-food systems-related) emissions immediately and kept them to net zero through 2100, emissions from food systems alone could exceed the remaining carbon budget in the next 40 years.

Historically, policymaking has taken a narrow approach to the relationship between food and climate. Global response to climate change and climate policymaking is still too narrowly focused on emission reductions and carbon sequestration. Policy conversations related to food usually centre on changes to land-use and livestock practices or reducing deforestation driven by agricultural pressures. Meanwhile, other important pathways for progress such as building climate resilience within the agricultural sector, food security, food distribution networks, and health and nutrition are typically limited to sectoral policies and development work led by non-government organizations.

Both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement reference several actions affecting agriculture, land use, food security, and natural ecosystems — but omit the additional solutions listed above. Similarly, many of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that countries have submitted to the UNFCCC lack a holistic approach to food systems. Instead, these national climate action plans generally focus on land-use and ecosystem conservation as part of their climate mitigation and adaptation goals.

To mitigate climate change through food systems, we need to move away from siloed policymaking.

Our food systems are more than just agriculture. They cut across sectors like energy, transport, waste, and infrastructure. Food systems are dynamic and consist of many interconnected and interdependent parts that constantly influence one another. They encompass all activities that are directly related to how food is produced and consumed, including farming, food processing, transportation, and disposal; and indirectly, things like finance, infrastructure, technology, socio-economic conditions, trade, and more.

Because of these interconnections, any policy or action to fix one part of our food system will likely have unintended consequences — positive and negative. For example, efforts to reduce emissions from agriculture could negatively impact food security and the health of local communities. And increasing access to affordable food may drive the conversion of valuable ecosystems to boost food production. 

As such, climate and food policymaking and action must take a holistic and context-appropriate approach. This means examining food systems in their totality — from production to consumption to disposal — and working with stakeholders across sectors and all levels of government to design and implement appropriate policies. 

Only then can we build sustainable and resilient food systems that centre on equity, justice, and planetary wellbeing. 

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