Decarbonisation of the food system: 3 key takeaways from the Future of Food Conference 2022
The EIT Food Future of Food Conference 2022 explored how agrifood innovation can enable and accelerate the decarbonisation of the EU’s food system. As we draw closer to COP27, this blog highlights some of the key takeaways from the event.
Bringing together stakeholders from across the European food system, the Future of Food Conference explored topics such as protein diversification, climate-smart agriculture, and sustainable aquaculture as key areas of innovation which could accelerate the decarbonisation of the EU’s food system.
Through the dialogues and discussions about these core themes at the event and online, three key takeaways have become clear:
- The food system must act now if we are to limit the impacts of climate change
- Agrifood innovation - and supporting frameworks - are more crucial than ever to enable food systems transformation
- Inclusivity must be embedded at every level in food systems, to enable impactful change
The food system must act now
In November 2022, the UNFCCC will convene COP27 to make progress on global climate negotiations. In the past, environmental impacts from agriculture have been the focus of these dialogues where food is concerned, however the conversation is now shifting to the role that food systems innovation can play, providing an opportunity to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and to contribute to a more sustainable future.
The IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report found that the Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Uses (AFOLU) sector, on average, accounted for 13-21% of global total anthropogenic GHG emissions between 2010-2019 (1). As the impacts from climate change increase across the world, there will be growing pressure on food security, affecting availability and access to food, as well as utilisation and stability of the food system (2). What’s more, low-income producers and consumers are likely to be amongst the most affected groups, due to a lack of resources to invest in climate adaptation and diversification measures (3). Food systems have a responsibility to act now. This responsibility requires acceleration of the decarbonisation of the food system, but importantly we need to ensure this necessary transition is equitable and just for all involved, from farm to fork.
In a session discussing the decarbonisation of the food system, Gaelle Le Gelard of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation highlighted the point that time is not on our side and that “if we don’t fix food, we won’t fix climate.” We need to dramatically accelerate the transition to sustainable food systems which form part of the circular economy if we are to meet the EU’s sustainability objectives, Gaelle said. This includes limiting the impacts our food systems have on natural ecosystems, biodiversity, water systems and landscapes.
“Our climate is in crisis mode. We need to do everything in our power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the health of our planet. We desperately need to add a new chapter to the story, to think and see things differently. We need a paradigm shift.”
Addressing the delegates, Andy explained that, despite the huge amount of environmental and societal damage currently being caused by food systems, we must look to the opportunities and solutions that food systems transformation provides. He stated that although the momentum of food systems dialogues is indeed moving in the right direction in the run up to COP27, food system solutions must play a key role in climate negotiations and commitments at the conference in Egypt.
Agrifood innovation is more crucial than ever to enable food systems transformation
“Innovation is critical for the transformation of the food system and one of the best ways to generate societal and economic impact,” said Dr Andy Zynga at the Conference. With the ongoing war in Ukraine, speakers at the Conference emphasised the urgency of innovation uptake to not only limit the impacts of climate change, but to embed greater resilience in the food system. Technological innovation will play an important part in this equation, through enabling faster and more resource-efficient methods of production as well as bringing new foods and feeds to the market.
The role of technology and innovation is crucial for future-proofing our food systems and protecting our planet, with innovative nature-based solutions offering new methods for decarbonising the food system, all while protecting nature. “Our future food security and resilience relies on nature. We need healthy ecosystems, pollinators, rich soils, and clean waters to provide for the next generations,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries.
Climate-smart technologies, regenerative agriculture and carbon positive farming provide opportunities for the food system to work better with nature and become part of the solution to decarbonisation. However, to speed up and scale up these solutions we face a variety of barriers that need to be addressed through a systemic approach, from regulation and access to finance, to education and consumer awareness.
Technological solutions and innovations that support the diversification of protein sources, including functional ingredients such as algae, can help to accelerate the shift to healthier and more sustainable diets. The development and uptake of innovations in this area have great potential to transform our food system, and promote more sustainable production and consumption practices in Europe.
During a session on protein diversification, Hélène Miller, Head of European Affairs at cultured meat startup Aleph Farms, said that protein diversification innovation can also help to embed crucial resilience. “The diversification of protein sources is a way to embed resilience and increase our ability to adapt,” she said. “If you have several solutions, you can use another one if one isn’t working. The idea is not to replace everything, but it is to provide more options in order to improve the resiliency of the food system.”
Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries (below)
Inclusivity must be embedded at every level in food systems
Inclusivity is crucial for the transition to more sustainable, healthy and trusted food systems. We need all voices to be heard and for ideas to be developed by – and for – every part of the food system. Dr Andy Zynga stated that for innovation to truly drive change, it must be inclusive and “promote the act of participation of all members of society, including women, consumers and youth.”
Andy also highlighted that the progression of the European food system is reliant on the growth and inclusion of agrifood startups and entrepreneurs. At the Conference, the EU Code of Conduct, a voluntary industry initiative whereby associations and companies in the food sector can commit to take action to support the transition towards a sustainable food system, was discussed by a panel of experts including Dirk Jacobs of FoodDrinkEurope and Kristin Schreiber of the European Commission.
They discussed the role of the Code of Conduct in fostering inclusivity and collaboration, and whether the initiative needs to now evolve to enable more, fairer and economically feasible participation of SMEs which, in turn, would help to develop greater synergies between corporates and startups. These collaborations would combine the reach and potential of large corporate entities with the focused vision and dynamism of startups, which, collectively, can help to create more scalable, innovative food system solutions.
“Companies cannot innovate in a bubble; only partnering up with others will lead to tangible solutions for a sustainable food system.”
Consumers are also central to this goal. The food system must work with consumers to increase trust. This includes trust for food system actors, the innovation process and ensuring good access to and transparency of information about food. Education has a key role to play in this and can empower consumers, as well as early-career professionals in the agrifood sector, with the necessary food skills and knowledge.
As the generation who will be most impacted by the decisions made today, young people also need to be part of this transition and have their voices heard. This includes enhancing access to knowledge, training, education and career opportunities for young people. During a session at the Conference, teams of young people aged 16-19 from the 2022 edition of ‘Skills for the Future‘ project demonstrated this and called for greater collaboration between the agrifood sector and young people. The teams involved had the chance to pitch agrifood business plans, market strategies and products to the audience, which they had developed as part of the process. Pitch ideas included a cleaning spray made from tomatoes, an educational app for children to collect nutritional information and an automatic smart irrigation system.
Participants of the 2022 edition of ‘Skills for the Future‘ project (below)
The future of food depends on a just transition for all. To ensure a faster and stronger uptake of solutions to decarbonise the food system and to accelerate and scale food systems transformation across the EU, we need to involve stakeholders from across the agrifood value chain. Only by coming together and collaborating can we break down the barriers to food systems change.
1. IPCC: 6th Assessment Report
3. UNCCD: Global land outlook