What is a food system breakthrough?

By Tessa Vincent, Race to Zero Engagement Lead, Climate Champions | February 21, 2023

A “food system” refers to the complex network of people, organisations, resources, and activities involved in the production, processing, distribution, preparation, and consumption of food. It encompasses everyone in the entire food value chain, from the farming and harvesting of crops and raising of livestock to the delivery of food to consumers and its final disposal as waste.

Around one third of global emissions come from the food system. Beyond being a major contributor to climate change, the food system is also the leading cause of environmental degradation (60% of global biodiversity losses) and human health issues, such as malnutrition and obesity. The food system also underpins global food insecurity – with one in nine hungry today, increasing global shocks like Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and climate-induced extreme weather – that increasingly, resilience in the food system is needed. Given the vast potential to deliver not only on climate goals, but also nature, health, and livelihoods, we need to radically transform the food system – starting now.

Last year, Climate Champions spoke to 15+ food systems experts* and engaged with 40+ organisations** to crunch into what food systems transformation should look like by 2030.

First, we landed on a common vision – a ‘breakthrough’. By 2030, we must have ‘demand-side’ (consumer-oriented) action on food systems, through a culturally appropriate shift to sustainable healthy diets (e.g., EAT’s Planetary Health Diet), and halving food waste. To achieve that breakthrough, there’s a lot to chew on: across supply, demand, policy, finance, and civil society.

Around 45% of food system emissions come from the food choices we make. So, an immense amount of power lies with us (on the demand side) to deliver action. By 2030, this looks like:

  • Limiting meat consumption in high-consuming countries to no more than 500g per week per person (100g red meat, 200g fish and 200g poultry).
  • Halving food loss and waste at all stages of the food supply chain through actions such as retailers redistributing surplus food.
  • >80% of the population consumes all five food groups (fruits; vegetables; pulses, nuts or seeds; animal-source foods; and starchy staples) on a daily basis.

On the supply side, there are more actions we must take by 2030, such as:

  • Supporting climate-resilient, sustainable agriculture – with increasing crop yields and reduced emissions (see our ‘Agriculture’ Breakthrough for more detail here).
  • 1.5x increase in the global provision of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and legumes.
  • Ensuring a +5% global increase in local and indigenous food supply.
  • Endorsing healthy alternative proteins, which must increase from 2% of the global meat and seafood market share, to 15%. 

Policy is another game-changing area for the food system – especially when it comes to putting a true price on food. One Oxford University study finds that taxes on meat (especially in high-consuming countries) could annually reduce the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the aviation sector produces. The income from a true price on meat and dairy could also subsidize fruit and vegetables and / or support transition costs to regenerative farming. On policy, we need to: update national dietary guidelines to be science-based, create enabling food environments, and update NDCs to include food system targets (especially on reduced meat consumption and supporting healthy diets, which are notably absent across the board).

Finance is needed to enact the transformation of our food system. Clim-EAT, an independent think-and-do tank on food systems transformation, suggests we should be investing U.S. $35B per year into sustainable healthy diets. Investing in research and development into the food system is vital to support food innovation (like upcycled food products) and help to commercialise new industries (such as alternative proteins). For example, public R&D needs to increase from U.S. $55M to $4.4B by 2030 to endorse a 1.5C aligned growth of the alternative protein industry. Initiatives like Rockefeller’s investment of USD 105M into food and nutrition programmes is an incredible start, but in addition to philanthropic funding, more private and public investment is needed in food systems transformation.

Finally, we need civil society – you – to take part. Beyond existing campaigns like ‘Meatless Monday’ and ‘Love Food Hate Waste’, we need to mobilise more movement on food systems transformation. In 2021 the world held its first UN Food Systems Summit and engaged in hundreds of food systems dialogues across the world to connect civil society. Organisations like WWF and others are playing a critical role in raising awareness of healthy, sustainable diets – but the systemic links between climate, biodiversity, health, economic development and food still need to be better understood and communicated.

Talk about it at the dinner table or move to the streets to demand sustainable food choices. By unlocking our food breakthrough – through precise, short-term actions listed above – we will nourish people and the planet.

*These were from the following organisations: UNEP; International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES); Feedback; World Resources Institute; Systemiq; Consumer Goods Forum; Clim-Eat; RUAF; Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN); YOUNGO; CGIAR; Spira; Rockefeller; Exponential Roadmap Initiative; True Animal Protein Price Coalition.

**Organisations that endorse our broader ‘Nature Breakthrough’ are listed here.

Download our Food Breakthrough Poster here

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