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5 ways the food system can mitigate the impacts of climate change 

Climate change is happening all around us and the food system is both a cause and casualty. There are many ways the food system can drive positive change and reduce its environmental impact. Here we highlight five.

01 Oct 2022
7 min reading time

We can no longer consider climate change as a future threat. Every corner of the globe is experiencing change now, from unpredictable weather patterns, extreme climate events and seasonal shifts, to increased health risks, rising food insecurity and rapid biodiversity loss. We need to act, and we need to act quickly.

In May 2022, the World Meteorological Organization published a new climate update warning that we are facing a 50:50 chance of global temperatures temporarily exceeding the Paris Agreement 1.5°C threshold in the next five years (1). The study warned of a 93% probability that at least one year between 2022-2026 will become the warmest on record (1). With some parts of Europe already experiencing the warmest temperatures on record in 2022, this likelihood is becoming our reality.

With COP27 on the horizon and targets such as the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals drawing closer, time is running out to make the necessary changes to limit global warming.

Our food system and climate change

In order to limit the impacts of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recommended a 1.5°C threshold for warming, which is based on scientific evidence. This has formed an important part of the Paris Agreement, in which over 190 countries committed to a legally binding international treaty on climate change, and involves them submitting their plans for climate action known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

As part of these NDCs, the food system has a huge role to play in helping us stay below the 1.5°C threshold.

The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report found that the Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Uses (AFOLU) sector, on average, accounted for up to 21% of global total anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between 2010-2019 (3). This impact highlights the urgent need for systems change within the agrifood sector, but also presents the huge opportunity that a sustainable food system has to have a positive impact on our environment.

Here are 5 ways the food system can mitigate the impacts of climate change:  

  1. Increase sustainable and regenerative agriculture 
  2. Reduce loss of natural landscapes and increase biodiversity 
  3. Support local food production 
  4. Promote a dietary shift and increase protein diversification 
  5. Implement sustainable food packaging solutions.

    1. Increase sustainable and regenerative agriculture

    Agriculture is at the centre of our food system. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), for agriculture to be truly sustainable it must meet the needs of present and future generations while ensuring profitability, environmental health, and social and economic equity (4). Increasing sustainable agricultural practices, including regenerative farming methods, will help to mitigate the impacts of climate change, for example through increasing soil health and maintaining soil carbon capture, maximising biodiversity, limiting agricultural chemical inputs and reducing the need for natural land conversion.

    Increasing innovation capacity and providing support for farmers is a key route to scaling sustainable and regenerative agriculture and maximising the positive impact. Agriculture has huge potential to reduce the impacts of climate change and by connecting farmers with other food system stakeholders, challenges can be better tackled holistically. Programmes such as Test Farms, for example, connect farmers with startups, enabling farmers to learn new skills and startups to test their solutions and receive support to scale. Head over to our soil health blog to read about a case study from this programme.

    “Agriculture is our greatest chance for delivering on our commitments under the Paris Agreement, and inclusive innovation will be the key enabler for a just transition to net-zero, nature-positive food systems.”

    - Dr. Andy Zynga, CEO of EIT Food

    2. Reduce loss of natural landscapes and increase biodiversity

    Reducing the loss of natural landscapes such as forests, wetlands and peat bogs is a key route to mitigating the impacts of climate change and increasing biodiversity. By converting these landscapes for resource-intense activities such as conventional agriculture or urban development, there are not only higher rates of carbon emissions, but the carbon sequestration functions of these ecosystems are also reduced. Forests, for example, maintain the majority of terrestrial biodiversity and contain almost 662 billion tonnes of carbon which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and contribute to global temperature increase (5). However, it is estimated that 10 million hectares of forest are cut down each year (5).

    Although the majority of deforestation occurs in the tropics (6), EU consumption was responsible for 16% of tropical deforestation in 2017, making it the second largest importer of deforestation-derived products (7). The European Commission is acting on this, with a new proposed regulation to curb EU-driven deforestation and forest degradation. The proposed new rules would guarantee that the products that EU citizens buy, use and consume do not contribute to global deforestation and forest degradation. The main driver of these processes is agricultural expansion linked to the commodities soy, beef, palm oil, wood, cocoa and coffee (8).

    3. Support local circular food systems

    On average, 15% of EU farms sell more than half of their produce directly to consumers (9). Increasing this percentage and encouraging local circular food systems will create fairer prices for farmers, greater access to fresh and seasonal produce for consumers, a reduced environmental impact, greater social cohesion at local level, and the potential to support economies by creating new jobs (9).

    On top of support for local food producers, technological solutions can help to build local circular food systems by introducing controlled environments agriculture (CEA) methods. Whether in urban or rural areas, CEA enables people to grow food on land in a more diverse range of locations, providing the opportunity for producers to locate their production close to their consumers. This includes production methods such as in-land aquaculture systems, greenhouses and vertical farms. Maarten Vandecruys of EIT Food RisingFoodStar Urban Crop Solutions said that CEA methods can “bring production and consumption closer together, shorten supply chains, and offer higher quality produce to the end consumer.” (10) Increased regulation of growing environments can also provide improved protection against harsh climatic conditions and pests and diseases, as well as enable more precise and sustainable provision of inputs such as light, temperature and nutrients (11).

    4. Promote a dietary shift and increase protein diversification

    Diversifying protein consumption and changing dietary habits is another potential solution to reducing the environmental footprint of the food system. Total emissions from global livestock represent approximately 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions (12), meaning a dietary shift away from conventional animal-based products to other alternative protein sources could drastically reduce emissions. These protein sources include products such as plant-based foods, cultured meat, alternative dairy products and insect-based protein.

    Cultured meat, or cultivated meat, is one of the sectors predicted to have a huge impact in the food system in the coming years. Cultured meat removes the need for animal slaughter and resource-intensive farming entirely by growing meat cells in controlled environments. On an episode of the Food Fight podcast, Seren Kell of the Good Food Institute Europe also explained that the process can reduce its climate impact even further by using renewable energy. Learn more about cultured meat in our novel foods blog.

    “Because the cultured meat process takes place in closed, clean facilities, and the energy source coming in is electricity, this can be renewable and therefore completely cut the climate impact of meat production.”

    - Seren Kell, Good Food Institute Europe (13)

    5. Implement sustainable food packaging solutions

    Food packaging helps to preserve food, increase the shelf life of food products and reduce food safety risks. However, the production of food packaging also adds to the environmental footprint of a food product and can often end up in landfill. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are two of the most widely used plastics in the food industry, some of which can take hundreds of years to decompose (14).

    Alternative packaging solutions can help to combat this, such as RisingFoodStars alum TIPA’s compostable film and laminate reels. The compostable packaging mimics the positive qualities of conventional plastic such as its durability and protective properties but is fully compostable and can break down in compost environments into water, CO2 and biomass within 180 days.

    How else can the food system help achieve the 1.5°C target?

    There are many ways the food system can be used to mitigate the impacts of climate change. From limiting food waste and food loss to enabling collaboration between food system stakeholders to accelerate action, we must work together to drive change.

    One of the ways in which we are doing this is by ensuring food systems become part of international climate dialogues. We are a co-host of the COP27 Food Systems Pavilion, which brings together over 15 international leaders in the food space, and aims to put food systems on the table at COP27. The Pavilion will focus on actions, strategies and solutions spanning the entire food value chain that offer the potential to accelerate the transition to healthy, sustainable, and equitable food systems for all. Find out more about the Food Systems Pavilion and EIT Food’s involvement.

    To learn more about how the food system can mitigate the impacts of climate change, explore our website and join our community. Why not also take a look at some of our relevant online courses?

    References

    1. World Meteorological Organization: WMO update: 50:50 chance of global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5°C threshold in next five years
    2. IPCC: Global warming of 1.5°C
    3. IPCC: Sixth Assessment Report
    4. FAO: Sustainable Development Goals: Sustainable Agriculture
    5. FAO: The state of the world’s forests 2022
    6. Our World in Data: Deforestation and Forest Loss
    7. WWF: EU consumption responsible for 16% of tropical deforestation linked to international trade – new report
    8. European Green Deal: Commission adopts new proposals to stop deforestation, innovate sustainable waste management and make soils healthy for people, nature and climate
    9. European Parliament: Short food supply chains and local food systems in the EU
    10. EIT Food: Food Fight: Spotlight: Urban Crop Solutions on vertical farming
    11. EIT Food: Report on controlled environments agriculture
    12. FAO: Livestock: Key facts and findings
    13. EIT Food: High steaks: will cultured meat save the planet?
    14. Rui M.S.Cruz, Bruna P.M.Rico, Margarida C.Vieira, 2019 (Department of Food Engineering, Institute of Engineering, University of Algarve, Faro, Portugal, Centre for Mediterranean Bioresources and Food (MeditBio), Faculty of Sciences and Technology, University of Algarve, Faro, Portugal): Food quality and shelf life: Food packaging and migration
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    Key takeaways

    Increase sustainable agricultural practices Open Close

    Reduce the loss of natural landscapes Open Close

    Support local circular food systems Open Close

    Diversify protein consumption Open Close

    Implement sustainable food packaging solutions Open Close

    Sustainable Development Goals

    Responsible Consumption and Production
    Climate Action

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