Key Messages

Based on a review of the existing peer-reviewed literature on food systems and climate change, including mitigation opportunities and adaptation co-benefits, we identified the following key messages regarding climate change and food systems.

While it is estimated that agriculture contributes 14 percent of global GHG emissions (Porter 2014), food system activity more broadly is estimated to account for approximately 30 percent of global emissions. (A range of estimates have been published, with conservative estimates at around 30 percent). Changing weather patterns and extreme weather events impact crop yields, food prices, hunger, and social and political stability. And geographically, the impacts of climate change on food systems are unevenly distributed. Given the myriad connections in the food system, we believe what’s needed is a comprehensive and holistic understanding of food systems and the external environment in which they operate, in order to fully understand dynamics, future system behaviors, interactions, and, ultimately, opportunities for reform.

We observe that research, policies, and strategies about climate change, food, and agriculture have focused largely on changes to production practices within existing systems, rather than broader food system transformation. We consider these changes, while important, to be largely efficiency improvements that are unlikely to support more transformative change. Transformative change should consider cross-cutting issues. This requires a systems approach to identify mutually reinforcing strategies – for instance, strategies that support multiple SDGs and other global, national, and local goals. We believe a food systems perspective is imperative to successfully address climate change at the scale required; drive transformation in food systems beyond agriculture; implement climate strategies that do not have unintended consequences; and achieve climate mitigation and adaptation targets and the SDGs.

Even though systems-level research and new decision-support tools are needed, current evidence supports actions that can contribute to creating more sustainable food systems. We document opportunities for incremental change that could be considered in local, regional, and national contexts, as well as priorities and strategies to immediately incite action on food systems change. While these actions are important, they should be considered incremental and insufficient in driving transformative change. We call for immediate incremental action while research is pursued to fill knowledge gaps and support broader, systems-level analysis and action.

Equity is about social justice, fairness, and inclusiveness and can be defined in multiple dimensions, such as rights, resources, capabilities, outcomes, goods, and equality of opportunity among others (Tirado et al. 2013). Equity regarding food systems includes issues related to the ability of all community members to grow, process, transport, trade, and consume food and manage waste in a manner that prioritizes human health; adequate and nutritious food; culture; equitable rights and access to land, water, finance, and other resources; fair and equitable prices and wages; and ecological sustainability and the rights of future generations to inherit natural resources (von Braun and Brown 2003; De Schutter 2015). The achievement of equity in the context of sustainable food systems also includes the comparable distribution of productive resources, opportunities for employment and social services, and gender and ethnic inclusiveness (FAO 2014). The fundamental aspects of equitable food systems include ethical principles such as: the right to food, the right to healthy environments and other human rights; gender equity; environmental justice; ethical considerations of animal welfare, food waste, and emerging technologies (Tirado et al. 2013). Equity also relates to a food system’s contribution to broader economic development opportunities for all community members, as well as control over food system resources and community members’ meaningful engagement in policies that influence the system (FAO 2015a). We call for stronger inclusion of equity considerations in climate change mitigation and adaptation plans, particularly in light of the uneven burden of climate change impacts on low-income countries and vulnerable populations.

An extensive body of local, Indigenous, practitioner, and other knowledge exists regarding food system components, processes, and drivers, as well as mitigation and adaptation opportunities. A critical effort is needed to highlight and bridge local, Indigenous, practitioner, and academic knowledge to inform decisions on food systems and climate change, including major drivers (e.g., trade and economic systems; power and equity; governance; natural resources), as well as appropriate mitigation and adaptation opportunities. We call for efforts to highlight and bridge local, Indigenous, practitioner, and academic knowledge in designing actions that transform food systems.

Systems-level approaches require an equal understanding of the various food system components. Our current scientific understanding includes an extensive body of literature on climate change and agriculture, with a growing focus on consumption, loss, and waste as it relates to climate change. Less research exists on food systems and climate change from a pre-production, processing, distribution, and transportation perspective. Furthermore, knowledge about interactions among food system components is fragmented. We call for more systems-level research, particularly in the peer-reviewed literature, as the available analysis of systems-level impacts is mostly provided in non-peer-reviewed literature.

In addition to a lack of systems research, we also find a concerning dearth of research about climate change and food systems in low- and middle-income economies. Given the rapid changes in these regions – including shifts in agricultural production and diets –  as well as the importance of food systems for these economies and the uneven impacts of climate change, it is critical that we have greater peer-reviewed research in these regions. We call for an increase in research on the impacts of potential interventions, particularly with a greater focus on low- and middle-income countries.

Stakeholders who want to drive change at the country or regional level are considering many specific mitigation and adaptation opportunities. In considering these various interventions, however, systems-level issues need to be considered, requiring new approaches and decision-support tools such as the Climate Change Food Systems Principles. We recommend application of the Climate Change Food Systems Principles to help inform decision-making, as well as the creation of decision-support tools that help identify systems-level interactions and tradeoffs.

We face the challenge of creating food systems that will meet human nutritional needs, restore natural resources and maintain ecosystem functioning, maintain cultural diversity, and strengthen social cohesion while the Earth’s systems are rapidly transforming. Therefore, we need solutions that support (and adapt to) systems change, instead of limited, narrowly targeted efforts that do not account for the broader context or systems-level effects. For this, we need a confluence of perspectives. We call for a diverse array of stakeholders to engage together in envisioning equitable, sustainable, and resilient food systems and developing specific transformation pathways that include climate change adaptation and mitigation actions.

Existing governance structures are typically organized by sector (e.g., health, agriculture, environment). These structures tend to favor targeted interventions for climate change mitigation and adaptation and fail to fully consider and account for broader, systems-level effects. Food system governance includes governments, markets, traditions, and networks. Effective governance will require the engagement of governments, businesses, civil society, and other stakeholders that coordinate, manage, or steer these systems, as well as changes to the rules, structures, and policies that guide those organizations and institutions. These governance systems should ensure that power and equity issues are addressed as part of all interventions. We call for advances in governance structures and institutions to support the transformation of food systems in support of climate adaptation and mitigation.