Overcoming the challenges of a just transition in the food system
We must transition to a healthier and more sustainable food system, but how do we ensure no one is left behind? Here we explore the opportunities and challenges of the just transition.
It is clear that the way we produce and consume our food needs to change. Contributing almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (1), the food system is one of the key drivers of climate change, and innovation within the agrifood system is critical to tackling biodiversity loss, food insecurity and health-related challenges. To address the scale of the challenge, changes must be deep and rapid. However, it is equally important for this transition to be fair and consider the needs of everyone.
What is the just transition?
The just transition is a concept that has gathered momentum in recent years. In the context of climate change, it refers to reducing the negative impacts while ensuring the benefits of a green economy are shared equally, without leaving anyone behind (2). While the just transition is primarily focused on environmental changes that seek to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it must also be shaped by equality and representation. This extends to supporting communities and stakeholder groups that stand to ‘lose’ from changes or the introduction of new solutions, reducing existing inequalities such as gender disparity in the process. Solutions must be shaped by - and for - everyone.
The challenges of a just transition of the food system
The challenges of a just transition are multifaceted and complex. They range from ensuring access and economic viability, to securing political will and increasing awareness and education. Above all, the primary challenge of a just transition is ensuring that all communities have equal access to healthy and sustainable food.
To enable the just transition, all agrifood stakeholders must be willing and able to take part in the process of change. This means that necessary support must be provided for stakeholders across various areas including funding and investment, collaboration and communication, and policy.
Funding and investment provide the necessary means for Research and innovation (R&I) to take place at greater speed and scale, meaning solutions can be found quicker and more efficiently. Although there is an upward investment trend in some food system sectors such as sustainable protein (€579 million in 2022 - almost 24% more than in 2021) (3), funding must still be distributed equally across sectors and regions. This extends to ensuring funding is increased in times of need, such as the cost-of-living crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure solutions are fast tracked and created with resilience in mind. Financial resilience must also be embedded in the food system at a deeper level so that stakeholders can deal with longer-term threats to food equality.
Strong policy frameworks that promote sustainability, equity, and social justice in the food system also provide the necessary support and guidance for a just transition. Policies such as stricter food labelling requirements, land tenure reforms, and subsidies for sustainable practices can help to create a more just and sustainable food system. According to a 2022 European Commission policy paper, the most significant challenge associated with equitable investment is a lack of focus on food and food systems as a thematic policy area. The paper states that this often leads to fragmentation in the funding ecosystem, with food systems R&I funding divided between multiple entities both within and outside of the agrifood sector. Not only does this make investments in food systems R&I difficult to measure at local level, but it also means there is no overarching view on what is being invested at national level and how this contributes to strategic objectives associated with the just transition (4).
Resistance to change can also be a challenge in achieving a just transition in the food system. Many food producers may be resistant to change, particularly if it requires a shift away from conventional farming practices that have been the norm for their communities for decades.
Resistance to change can also be exacerbated by climate change and environmental degradation. Extreme weather events, soil degradation, and loss of biodiversity, for example, can make it difficult for farmers to adopt sustainable practices and maintain productive yields. Creating a strong network of collaboration can help with resistance to change, ensuring that knowledge is shared widely and equally.
The opportunities of a just transition of the food system
The food system is a complex network including individuals, companies, organisations, often working in partnerships. As a result, achieving a just transition requires the participation of stakeholder groups from across the entire agrifood sector – from food producers and processors to retailers and consumers. Including diverse voices is also important to enable the development of policies and initiatives that are truly reflective of the needs and aspirations of all members of society.
Research and innovation (R&I) are key drivers in accelerating the transition to a better, more inclusive food system. R&I and support for entrepreneurs, startups and scaleups can help develop and test solutions, overcome barriers, and uncover new market opportunities (5). The Regional Innovation Scheme (RIS) Open Innovation Call for Central and Eastern Europe aims to accelerate R&I in Europe with the call for agrifood projects focusing on solutions and ideas that tackle some of the most significant food system challenges in the region, such as supply chain pressure and low investment in intellectual property. Future R&I is also needed to address regional disparities in diet-related non-communicable diseases.
To support R&I, education is an important element of the just transition whereby agrifood stakeholders can utilise up-to-date, accessible, and evidence-based information. This also extends to the future of the food system: young people. EIT Food research found that 65% of young people feel they did not get enough education on how to eat a healthy, sustainable diet while at school (6). This provides an opportunity for young people to become more embedded in the food system, providing them with the chance to help shape the future of their food system.
As part of the Farm to Fork Strategy, the European Commission also urges that all farmers and rural areas must be connected to fast and reliable internet to make the just transition a reality. This will in turn create opportunities for job creation, business, and investment in rural areas as well as advances in other sectors such as healthcare, entertainment, and e-government (5). The strategy also outlines how increasing access to fast broadband internet will accelerate the uptake of precision farming technologies and artificial intelligence. Ultimately, such developments can result in a cost reduction for farmers, improved soil management and water quality, reduced fertiliser and pesticide usage, improved biodiversity, and reduced GHG emissions. The Commission aims to accelerate the roll-out of fast broadband internet in rural areas to achieve the objective of 100% access by 2025 (5). The Memorandum for European Startup Village Alliance is an example of this in practice. The initiative aims to agree further practical actions that would significantly contribute to the long-term development of rural regions by implementing the Startup Village initiative, which is included in the long-term vision plan for EU rural areas.
Startups such as Climate Farmers are also helping to enable the just transition by monitoring, collecting, and sharing best practices for sustainable agriculture. Climate Farmers’ open platform enables farmers and stakeholders to assess the outcomes for soils, ecosystems, and the climate, meaning that stakeholders can better share knowledge and replicate methods and techniques based on local needs and capabilities. As climate-related challenges across Europe become more evident, knowledge sharing in this way will be crucial for the future of sustainable food system.
A future food system fit for everyone
The just transition of the food system is an urgent and complex challenge that requires collective efforts from various stakeholders. Governments and policymakers have a responsibility to act, but so too do businesses, farmers, consumers, and all agrifood stakeholders. We must all work together towards our common goal of creating a healthy, sustainable, fair and resilient food system for all.
- IPCC: Agriculture, Forestry and Other Types of Land Use (AFOLU)
- European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD): Just transition
- Good Food Institute Europe: Investment in sustainable protein up 24% in Europe for 2022 despite global economic turbulence
- European Commission: Food systems - Research and innovation investment gap study
- European Commission: Farm to Fork Strategy
- EIT Food: Our Food, Our Food System