Demanding action – food policy for the climate emergency

8th Aug 19 by Daniel Jones, Policy Researcher

Why food policy must deliver sustainable diets, shorter supply chains and (finally) prevent food waste.

Out today: Demanding action: Why food policy must deliver sustainable diets, shorter supply chains and prevent food waste

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) today outlined the massive and urgent task ahead of us to transform the food system.

The report concludes that the climate crisis is already affecting the food system, exacerbating global food inequality, shrinking wheat yields in India and driving environmentally damaging rice cultivation in China. It also definitively shows that food production and consumption is responsible for roughly 25-30% of total Greenhouse Gas emissions. As diets across the world are changing, emissions are increasing. In other words, the way we produce food is damaging life on earth, and our ability to go on producing food into the future — the worst of both worlds.

The implications are clear and the situation grave. To meet the commitment to a warming limit of 1.5°C made under the Paris Climate Agreement, widespread, deep ranging and radical transformation of the food system is needed.

Fortunately, this year, there have been more and more fantastic ideas about how to do this. The Food And Farming Commissions recent report Our Future In the Land, EAT Lancet’s landmark commission, Food in The Anthropocene and Eating Better’s Roadmap to Less and Better Meat.

The IPCC report also sets out priority areas that show enormous potential for transformation. The report splits these areas into two categories, interventions into food supply or food demand.

The problem, as we see it, is that when they are thinking about mitigating the climate impact of agriculture at all, policymakers are currently overwhelmingly focusing on supply: producing more food with fewer resources, usually through an unhealthy dose of the magic of corporate innovation.

But this is to miss an enormous, planet-saving trick: by also acting to change food demand, we can create opportunities for the massive, known wins which can come from large-scale shifts in what food we eat, where it comes from and the way it is wasted. So far, climate policy makers largely avoid food demand, including as part of the Paris Agreement process.

We’re pulling out three ways of changing demand for the better, all of which feature in the IPCC’s most recent report: transitioning to more environmental diets, promoting local food from shorter supply chains and (finally) tackling food waste – something we at Feedback have been banging on about for a decade.

All three ideas could deliver fast, effective and long-lasting decarbonisation of the food system as well as considerable co-benefits, for land-sparing, ecosystem regeneration, human health and wellbeing. More environmentally-friendly diets, with less meat and dairy, are supported by a substantial body of public health evidence. Less food waste means greater areas of land freed up for other uses (like afforestation), and less pollution disposing of waste. Shorter supply chains help reduce emissions from transport and minimise the risks of food waste- as well as offering important opportunities to build regional economic and community resilience.

The IPCC shows that these changes to demand have massive potential for mitigating environmental breakdown. And while the interventions required to revolutionise our food system are systemic, changing production without changing demand will not transform a broken food system.

So today, Feedback is demanding action. Over the next two months, we are releasing reports exploring how to put the IPCC’s evidence into policy action. Today we are releasing a primer on demand-side food policy which asks the important question: if policy-makers were to take the potential of demand-side food systems measures as seriously as is warranted by the IPCC’s findings, what should they do?

There’s been a lot of wheel-spinning on policy interventions to change public diets. We’re hoping that this body of evidence can start to shift us from ‘should we do anything about this’, to ‘how can we do something about this’. In other words, it is time to grow up and face the music on the role of the food we eat in driving climate and biodiversity breakdown.

Coming soon:

  • The cow in the room – our call for policy for sustainable diets will be published next week.
  • And later this year we’ll publish similar policy reports on re-regionalising food economies and public policy to prevent food waste (once and for all!).
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