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Will I be able to eat the same food in the future?

Dr Laurence Smith discusses the impact of climate change on our food systems and the challenges to meet the SDGs.
Photo of a woman standing in front of supermarket shelves with a phone, looking perplexed
© University of Reading

Have you noticed the growing number of stories in the media about the impact of the climate crisis on the food we eat? From not being able to access luxuries such as chocolate and coffee, to predicted price increases and scarcity of staples like meat and bread, it sounds like our supermarket shelves and the range of foods on our plates could look significantly different in the future. And this is despite the UN adopting resolution 70/1 in 2015: Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. So why is this?

Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The resolution, which UN member countries were expected to put into practice through relevant government policies, contained 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

graphic with different coloured squares representing each of the 17 SDGs: (1) No Poverty, (2) Zero Hunger, (3) Good Health and Well-being, (4) Quality Education, (5) Gender Equality, (6) Clean Water and Sanitation, (7) Affordable and Clean Energy, (8) Decent Work and Economic Growth, (9) Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, (10) Reducing Inequality, (11) Sustainable Cities and Communities, (12) Responsible Consumption and Production, (13) Climate Action, (14) Life Below Water, (15) Life On Land, (16) Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, (17) Partnerships for the Goals.

Sustainable Development Goals ©UN. Click to expand.

Goal number 2 is ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.’ Not only is this good for the people living on Earth, it’s good for the planet because global food systems are currently responsible for an estimated 21-37% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (1). A sustainable, resilient and healthy food system is key to delivering both health and climate change outcomes.

By 2019 however, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN reported that the number of people still hungry in the world had risen by nearly 60 million in 5 years. Moderate or severe food insecurity had increased to affect over a quarter of the global population and regions such as central and southern Asia and northern Africa were at risk from very high water stress levels. It became clear the world was not on track to achieve SDG goal number 2 by 2030 and that transforming the food system to achieve all the UN SDGs would be immensely challenging for three key reasons:

Challenge 1. The complexity of the global food system

The global food system is enormous, complex and interconnected. It encompasses everything and everyone involved in producing food, getting it to our plates and then re-using or disposing of the waste created. At a very basic level, it can be described as a linear system.

graphic showing a linear flow diagram with primary production flowing to processing flowing to retail flowing to food service/households

Linear representation of the food system

Realistically, it’s much more complex! It’s better described as circular system, with feedback and dependencies between different stakeholders on an international scale. And that’s before the added complication of global politics, economics and societal structures. This complexity is highlighted in the illustrative diagram below – it’s so complicated that on first glance it’s unlikely you will be able to make out all of the details (but you can click on the expand button to take a closer look which might help!).

graphic showing a complex global food systems map with a large number of components and arrows between them

An illustration of the complexity of the global food system and its multiple interactions. © in image Constança Belchior. Click to expand.

Because we’re all interconnected in this global food system, it’s predicted that a third of global food production will be at risk from the climate crisis. Of course, this impact will vary according to where you live and your social and economic circumstances but even if you live in a country where climate change may increase the productivity of land, reliance on imports from countries negatively affected will impact food availability. Scientists predict that 37% of the EU’s imports will be vulnerable to drought in the countries that produce them in the next 25 years, even if carbon emissions are cut (2).

Challenge 2. The impact of the global food system

The global food system impacts everything for everyone on the planet:

  • It’s responsible for the health of all 7.8 billion people.

  • It’s responsible for between 21-37% of all GHG emissions with 71% of those emissions coming from agriculture and land use. Nitrous oxide from fertilisers and methane from livestock production are some of the most significant.

  • It impacts the big issues of our era: biodiversity, pollution, antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic diseases and sustainable use of resources.

pie chart of global greenhouse gas emissions by sector in 2016 when global GHG emissions were 49.4billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent: energy 73.2%; Agriculture, Forestry & Landuse 18.4%; Industry 5.2%; Waste 3.2%

Pie chart of global greenhouse gas emissions by sector in 2016. © Hannah Ritchie Click to expand.

Challenge 3: The changing climate is making the targets even harder to meet!

Heatwaves, droughts, floods and extended periods of frost are becoming more and more common as a result of climate change. In order to estimate their effects on global food production, scientists in Finland developed the concept of ‘safe climatic space’ to define areas that have the right conditions to grow food. They show that climate change risks pushing one third of food production outside safe climatic space if emissions are not cut.

And as well as extreme weather, pests may also contribute to the challenge. A global study of 38 insect species predicts that pests will be eating 10-25% more wheat, rice and maize for each one degree rise in climate temperature.

Author: Dr Laurence Smith, School of Agriculture, Policy & Development

In the next Step, you’ll hear Laurence talking about some of the work he’s done to help work out the GHG emissions of different food products as well as the projects he’s involved with that help food systems to adapt to climate change.

References

  1. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems

  2. From Belchior, Constança & Boteler, Ben & Jansen, Henrice & Piet, Gerjan & Dickey-Collas, Mark & Maguire, Cathy & Royo Gelabert, Eva & Reker, Johnny & McFarland, Keighley & Smith, Lucy & Vidal, Irene. (2016). Seafood in Europe — A food system approach for sustainability. © European Environment Agency.

  3. Ercin et al. (2021) Cross-border climate vulnerabilities of the European Union to drought. Nature Communications.

© University of Reading
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