Can our Food Systems Weather the Climate Storm? | 5 Core Insights

junho 25, 2024


In the run-up to London Climate Action Week, Purpose convened a provocative discussion on Food Systems and Climate Change as part of the “Ideas with Purpose” speaker series.  

Food systems are responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, through direct emissions caused by practices such as cattle grazing, rice production, fertilizer use, and conversion of land for food production and indirect emissions from deforestation driven by food production. To stay within a 1.5C global warming limit, food systems must be transformed. While food systems are having a significant impact on the environment, extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding exacerbated by climate change are having devastating effects on food security, nutrition, and livelihoods. Despite these challenges, public understanding of the impacts of human activity on our planet remains low. 

The invitation-only discussion was hosted by Dr Corina Kwami, Senior Strategy Director and Head of EMEA, drawing from experience across our climate portfolio and expertise in infrastructure, sustainability, and the water-energy-food nexus. The dynamic panel brought together leading thinkers and practitioners from across the food systems and climate space:  Anna Taylor OBE, Executive Director, The Food Foundation, Trewin Restorick, Founder of Sizzle (having previously founded Hubbub, Global Action Plan), and, Obie Pearl, Co-Director of the Black Farmers Market.

How should we adapt and what shape should that take on a global, societal, and individual level? What does that mean for the health and welfare of us all – and that of the planet? 

Five key insights emerged from the discussion.

1. People and Politicians are not making the link between climate and food

Climate change exacerbates weather events, with prolonged drought and heavy rainfall a more common occurrence, which have severe implications for food production and water availability. Trewin noted,

“If you put more CO2 into the atmosphere, you have more extreme weather events. With climate change, these weather patterns are stuck repeating themselves —times with extreme droughts and times with heavy rainfall. All have massive implications.” 

We are seeing the effects of changing weather patterns on food security as seen with rising prices and supply issues that result in new government interventions such as Indias’ temporary ban on some rice exports. As extreme weather events become the norm, supply chains get disrupted – which trigger price hikes for raw goods and commodities. The rising costs of essentials like sugar and potatoes illustrate this trend, as seen in a 2023 study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research projects a 1-3% annual inflation of food prices due to climate change. Addressing these issues requires immediate and coordinated action to stabilize our climate, secure our food and water resources and ensure our systems, policies, and response models are prepared for sustained mitigation efforts and adaptation.

2. Food Policies must build in resilience and collective responsibility in the face of climate change 

Modern agricultural practices do not build resilience to environmental shocks or encourage diversity, and consumption patterns are highly individualized, relying on the personal choices and preferences of consumers. Politicians in the UK don’t want to be seen to dictate what people eat for fear of being seen as enabling a ‘nanny state.’ Anna Taylor stated:

“The voices we need are not in the space where they make these choices. The ‘nanny state’ terminology is pervasive within the space of food. We have a very dominant frame ‘You decide what you eat-it’s up to you.” At The Food Foundation we are working on how to apply thinking and knowledge around climate challenge to make environments more conducive to sustainable diets and this feeds into conversations around policy.”

The absence of key voices in this conversation—nutritionists, public health experts, climate scientists, and community advocates—results in a fragmented approach to food policy. These experts bring invaluable insights into how our diets impact not only personal health but also the environment. They understand the intricate links between food production, consumption, and sustainability. Yet, their perspectives are often marginalized in policy discussions. 

The question we must ask is what shape this integration would take, we need policymakers to proactively seek out farmers’ voices as Obie Pearl discussed: “Our network is the farmers market. Farmers do not have the time to promote themselves, create flashy websites and so on” – going on further to explore ways to find creative and innovative ways to integrate their voices. 

Developing coherent policies that support sustainable practices is vital to address the impact posed by climate change, but will only be possible if these key voices are in the spaces where these choices and decisions are being made.

3. Striking a balance between land use and sustainable agricultural practices is vital

Efficient use of existing agricultural land is crucial, as we can no longer afford to expand agricultural boundaries. Trewin emphasized, “We cannot take any more land for agriculture; we need to use the land we have more efficiently. We need to shift the focus of our diet and food production.” 

The heavy reliance on meat, which requires significant land for grazing and feed production, exacerbates environmental degradation. Advocating for a shift towards sustainable diets and reducing meat consumption can help restore natural habitats and improve environmental health. Additionally, recognizing where it may be more advantageous to graze animals or grow certain foods, can be a more effective way of allocating land for different uses. For example, Irish land use policies were noted as examples where this balance has been made. 

While land-use choices can help enhance food production efficiency, shifting our dietary habits can also help to mitigate the environmental impact of agriculture. In the UK, the average meat consumption per year is 97kg, a drastic difference from the 30kg global average. The path to changing how we use our land or shift diets is not simply about restricting meat consumption in its entirety but rather eating meat less and integrating more sustainable alternatives. As Anna stated “one clear agricultural winner often overlooked – beans and pulses.” Across socio-economic groups, we see lower consumption rates of meats and a diversity of cultural traditions that rely on beans and pulses – encouraging us to look to social innovation as a path to encourage integration into mainstream diets. Engaging communities and promoting diverse food systems are vital steps towards a more sustainable future.

4. Education is key to the success of sustainable food practices

Initiatives enabling dialogue between a diverse range of stakeholders both public and within food system development are critical in bridging the gap between research and real-world application. By focusing on lived experiences and where audiences are most connected with food systems, we can educate in ways that not only fill information gaps but also unite communities such as farming communities, advocacy groups, and cultural influencers to name a few. 

As Obie Pearl highlighted “Not only policy but education is so key,” emphasizing the importance of incorporating environmental education into curricula to foster a deeper understanding of sustainability from a young age. 

She went on to discuss the link between a lack of education and barriers to entry. “There is a need for policies that support sustainable agriculture and empower communities to manage their food production in the way many of the Black Farmers Market collaborators do.”

Furthering the point she explained that schools, as a place of education, play an intrinsic role in our food education, and initiatives such as school-based community gardens, should be added to the curriculum.

Activities that empower communities can be strongly supported by voices of trusted and credible messengers to share accurate messaging and can be drawn from the local community in connection with climate and food advocates.

5. Local Communities must be empowered to preserve traditional systems

Empowering communities and preserving traditional agricultural systems are critical for sustainable food production. Obie Pearl emphasized the importance of grounding interventions in culture, heritage, and empowerment, supporting communities to grow and sell their food: “Private market operators [through lower prices and other price-busting actions] are constantly creating barriers to block people from being able to take hold of their own livelihood.”

Many communities feel left behind and it is critical to close the gap between farmers, traditional market-goers, and local businesses in ways that reflect lived experience and uplift trusted voices in the community. May Project Garden is a community garden and hub in South London that provides practical, affordable, and collective solutions for people to live sustainably and challenge power structures that don’t serve their interests. They do this through activities that reconnect people with nature for personal, social, and economic transformation and leverage universally connecting tools – nature, food, and creative arts – in connection with local traditions, heritage, and culture. Obie Pearl noted: 

“Traditional systems and practices such as the gathering of cleavers, dandelions, and nettles – often considered weeds- are overlooked aspects of diet and an environmentally sustainable food source”

Integrating practices like this not only promotes sustainability but also empowers communities to take environmental approaches into their own hands.

The Future

Can our food systems keep up with the challenges that new climate systems bring and how will we adapt? To unlock the considerable benefits of transformed food systems for everyone’s benefit, we need to take an intersectional and intergenerational approach grounded in impacted voices and connected to global challenges around hunger, health, and livelihoods. 

The answer certainly lies with a global community, as our panelists highlighted the interconnected challenges and solutions related to climate change, food security, and sustainable agriculture. Addressing these issues will require a united and holistic approach, combining policy changes, community empowerment, and innovative practices.

“Ideas with Purpose” is a series of conversations designed to connect leading thinkers, practitioners and collaborators from different backgrounds and disciplines together around a series of provocative discussion topics. These invitation-only events provide a platform for genuine, open interrogation of challenges that are both global and local. 

Join us as we uncover new insights and include new voices at our future events. Please get in touch if you have an idea for a topic or would like to attend. Explore past editions on Youth and Democracy and Partnering for Impact and key learnings here.


Corina Kwami Strategy Director
Sonia Sheta Partnerships Director, Europe
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