Climate is changing,

… food and agriculture too

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Climate is changing,… food and agriculture too1

I feel quite optimistic about the future of pessimism.

Edmond Rostand, biologist and moralist (1894-1977)

Year 2021 has been an important … and disappointing year for the climate.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report that focuses on the ‘The Physical Science Basis’ of climate change, looking back at past trends and building scenarios for the future that are projecting a more marked evolution of the climate than initially envisaged, as commitments made by governments at the COP21, in 2015, have not been respected. 

Worse even, this year’s COP26, touted as the world’s “last best hope”, failed to meet expectations and was considered by some stakeholders as a “deadly distraction” [read].

This document here updates some of the data presented and reflexions made earlier on [read] regarding climate change, particularly seen from the food and agricultural perspective.

It will start by examining climate trends and what could occur between now and the end of this century.

Then it will focus on the analysis of how food and agriculture contribute to climate change and are affected by it.

Finally, it will attempt to formulate suggestions on what could be done to avoid climatic and food disasters.

1. Some facts on recent changes in the world’s climate

As can be seen from the graph below, average world temperature has continued to increase in recent years (Figure 1).

In fact, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, 2011-2020 is the hottest decade ever recorded, and 2020 is one of the three warmest years on record, as the average global temperature was 1.2 °C higher than in preindustrial times (1850-1900) [read]. Finally, July 2021 was the hottest month registered in 142 years! [read].

The above-mentioned IPCC report notes that heatwaves, heavy precipitations, droughts, and tropical cyclones have become more frequent and intense. Western Europe, the Mediterranean area, and the western facade of Africa have particularly suffered from increased droughts, while the whole of Eurasia, Southern Africa and Eastern and Central North America have witnessed heavier rainfall.

Figure 1: Change in world average annual temperature

over the 1850-2020 period

(IPCC, 2021)

download Figure 1: IPCC_temperature.png

Figure 2 shows that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have grown continuously since 1990. As illustrated by the case of the US, emissions by rich countries, which are by far the main cumulated emitters of anthropogenic GHGs since the beginning of the industrial era, have been relatively stable. In contrast, emerging economies, well represented by China, have seen their emissions rise steadily. In 2018, the top three GHG emitting countries were, by order of importance, China (1.4 billion inhabitants) with almost 25% of the world total, the US (0.350 billion inhabitants) with 12%, and India (1.35 billion inhabitants) with 7%. Rich countries were responsible for approximately 30% of GHG emissions, low-income countries 5% and middle-income 65%.

The GHG emissions per person were almost double in the US (more than 18 tons/person/year) than in China (nearly 9 tons/person/year) in 2018. These data can, however, be misleading, as much of the emissions of China are in fact linked to the production of goods exported to be consumed elsewhere, while in importing countries, the carbon footprint can be considerably underestimated. In France, for example, a 2020 report by the Haut Conseil pour le Climat (HCC - High Council for the Climate) calculated that 40% of GHGs generated to meet the demand of French households and businesses were emitted abroad [read].  

Figure 2: Evolution of GHG emissions over the 1990-2018 period

Source: Climatewatch data

download Figure:Past_GHG.png

2. IPCC projections of the world’s future climate.

In its above-mentioned report, the IPCC envisages five different scenarios (Figure 3):

  1. Two scenarios with high GHG emissions. One (SSP5-8.5) corresponds to no effort to reduce climate change. Fossil fuels continue to be the main source of energy and global warming will be by 4.4 °C, generating large-scale coastal disasters and exceedingly devastating meteorological events, and making parts of the world unliveable. The other (SSP3-7.0) is less extreme, characterised by poor international cooperation. It results in an increase of the world average temperature by 3.6 °C, and sea levels rise catastrophically.

  2. One scenario is intermediate (SSP2-4.5) and consistent with current commitments that would lead to a global warming by 2.7 °C. In this scenario, there is no ice in the Arctic Ocean in summer. Food production is reduced, extreme heat, floods and droughts are more frequent, and inequalities increase.

  3. Two scenarios with lower GHG emissions. In one (SSP1-2.6), net-zero emissions is achieved after 2050, and global warming is by 1.8 °C. However, sea levels rise and there are risks of coastal flooding. In the last scenario (SSP1-1.9), countries cooperate well and fossil fuels are no more used for energy. Average global temperature is up by 1.4 °C.

Figure 3: Evolution of global GHG emissions and of average world temperature

in the five IPCC scenarios

(IPCC, 2021)

download figure: IPCC_futures.png

It is quite clear from the results of the Glasgow COP26 in November 2021 that unless humanity puts its act together, it is the rather dreadful intermediate scenario (SSP2-4.5) that is most likely to materialise. The fourth scenario described above (SSP1-2.6) could only be envisaged if radical changes are implemented immediately.

3. Food and agriculture’s contribution to climate change

Food is responsible for a third of global GHG emissions

Until recently, systematic estimates available were limited to GHG emissions for agriculture. This had obliged us, in 2016, to make a ‘back-of-the-envelope’ calculation of food and agriculture GHG emissions. We had then reckoned that they contributed to 35 to 40% of global emissions generated by human activities [read].

In 2021, a major study published on Nature Food, made very detailed estimates for the period 1990-2015, and concluded that food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions, and that they are not growing as fast as total emissions.

Figure 4: Evolution of global GHG emissions from food and agriculture

by source (1990-2015)

Source: EDGAR-FOOD data

download figure: Food_emissions.jpg

Basically, food and agriculture generate GHGs in three ways: (i) land use and land-use changes; (ii) agricultural production; and, (iii) post farm activities (Figure 4).

  1. Land use and land-use changes (LULUC) were responsible for around 31% of total GHG emissions resulting from food and agriculture, in 2015. These emissions are diminishing (less 17% over the period). They are mainly the consequence of deforestation linked to agricultural expansion, as well as to the degradation of soil organic matter present in the soil. They consist mostly in carbon dioxide (CO2).

  2. GHGs generated by agricultural production represented 39% of the total in 2015. They grew by 13% over the period, mainly because of the development of livestock production, a major source of methane, and to a more limited extent by the rising importance of mechanization (fuel and electricity). These emissions are made predominantly of methane (CH4 - 63%), nitrous oxide (NO2 - 23%) and carbon dioxide (14%).

  3. Post-farm activities (transport, processing, packaging, retail, consumption and end-of-life disposal) weighed 30% of total emissions from food and agriculture in 2015. These emissions increased tremendously since 1990 (+66 percent growth) essentially because of the larger share of food that is being commercialised, processed and stored, and the energy these activities require. GHGs generated by retail were multiplied by 4 and those by packaging jumped by 88%. The amount of fluorinated gases - which have several thousand times more warming power than carbon dioxide - exploded over the period due to the development of cold chains. Emissions at post-farm stages are made of carbon dioxide (51%), methane (39%) and F-gas (7%).

The above figure shows that, at world level, the reduction of GHG generated by the way land is being used is not sufficient to compensate increasing emissions from agricultural production and post-farm activities.

Figure 5 illustrates how different the composition and evolution of food-related GHG emissions are, depending on the level of wealth of the country or region considered.

If one ignores the amounts involved - they pertain to a country of around 65 million inhabitants (France) and a sub-region with 352 million inhabitants (West Africa) in 2015 -, one can note that whereas emissions in France seem to have reached a maximum, they are still growing in West Africa.

The other difference, even more striking, is the origin of GHGs. In France, land use and change in land use are only a marginal source of GHGs (7% of the total), while production is where most of the emissions are taking place (54%). Post-farm represents 39% of emissions, characteristic of a highly urbanised economy where home consumption is very limited. GHGs from retail (in orange) is the fastest-growing cause for emissions.

In contrast, in West Africa, land-use and land-use change is the major source of GHG emissions (64% of the total), followed by GHG related to end-of-life of products (9%), while production and post-farm (apart from end-of-life) are marginal. This is characteristic of a rural economy where home consumption is very important, where deforestation and other land-use-related activities are key, and the question of food losses is a major issue.

It is clear from this comparison that reducing GHG emissions from food requires very different approaches in these two settings.

Figure 5: Evolution of GHG emitted by food and agriculture

in France and West Africa (1990 to 2015)

Source: EDGAR-FOOD data

download figure: France_WAfrica.png

In agriculture, livestock is the major source of GHG emissions

Table 1 provides a breakdown of the sources of global GHG emissions in agriculture. Enteric fermentation and animal manure management, taken together, represent half of all agricultural production-related emissions, far ahead of fires and cultivation of drained organic soils (e.g. peatlands).

Table 1: Sources of GHG emissions in agricultural production (2019)

Source: FAO data

download table: Table_1.png

Over the 1990-2019 period, the main sources that have seen their emissions increase at world level are crop residues (+44%), followed by synthetic fertilizers (+42%) and manure left on pastures (+35%).

4. Main impacts of climate change on food and agriculture

Climate change affects the processes that determine food production, quality and safety. Evolving temperatures and rainfall patterns, more frequent extreme meteorological events and higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the air are the main modifications of the conditions within which production and conservation of food takes place.

Lower yields

There is now good evidence that yields are negatively affected by new conditions created by climate change. The actual consequences depend on the crops, the varieties, the regions considered, but they are generally more negative than positive, and, in particular, variability of food production is increasing [read]. In semi-arid areas, which cover more than 15% of the Earth, warming is greater, rainfall more erratic and risks of drought higher. In contrast, temperate areas benefit from warmer weather.

The imperative to change crops and varieties

As temperature and rainfall change, crops and varieties cultivated are not suitable any more for the new conditions. This implies not just to employ new varieties or crops, but also, probably, to modify cropping patterns and the way land is used.

For example, in the highly sensitive winegrowing domain, vineyards may have to move northwards and some special wines which need very specific agroclimatic conditions may disappear (the emblematic case is that of the famous Sauterne wine, the taste of which is due to a special mushroom that requires very specific weather conditions to thrive at the right time) [read in French]. For wine, some would say that the problem is limited to what can be considered as a luxury product produced by a modest number of growers and only consumed by some - not all - consumers. When it comes to staple food, this problem can have disastrous consequences for hundreds of millions of people, if appropriate measures are not taken on time to avoid the occurrence of major crop failures.

More and new pests and diseases

Climatic conditions influence the distribution of pests and diseases and their effect on food production. Climate change affects the biology of pests and diseases or their vectors, by accelerating their metabolism, allowing a greater number of generations in one season and impacting on their evolution.

It can also alter the presence of their natural enemies or of the vectors that transport them. This has consequences on the impact of pests that, if their metabolism is higher, can cause more damage to crops.

Change of climate conditions can also, in some cases, reduce or eradicate some pests or diseases.


Pollinators (insects, birds or bats) are responsible for around one third of global crop production (1,500 crops are concerned), increasing yields of about 75% of the leading food crops worldwide [read].

The impact on pollinators of a changing climate varies according to conditions and it rests on complex processes that determine, for example, the presence of pollinators at time of flowering, or the existence of pest or parasites that may affect them.

Climate change also affects the quality of food

Higher temperature, water stress or excess, and greater concentration of carbon dioxide modify biological processes that influence the assimilation of nutrients by plants. Warmer weather and more carbon dioxide in the air reduce the amounts of protein and nutrients in food, potentially creating mineral deficiencies among consumers. This is clearly established for very important crops like wheat and rice [read].

Livestock at risk of more diseases and parasites, and poorer animal feed

Warmer temperatures have an impact on animal production and reproduction, as well as health, particularly through heat stress and more presence of parasites and pathogens. They can also have some effect on immunity.

Climate change may also reduce water availability and impact negatively the quantity and quality biomass grazed by animals on rangeland and pastures.

Fisheries and forestry risk major disruption because of climate change

Climate change modifies surface water temperature, acidity, oxygen concentration that influence productivity of aquatic systems. It impacts on the quantity and distribution of phytoplankton and can trigger major migration of fish. Projections foresee a substantial increase of fish catch potential in high-latitude regions, and a comparable decrease in the tropics. Moreover, as the sea level rises, saltwater intrusion in freshwater can have devastating effects on production.

Like crops, when climate changes, trees in forests may not be fit any more for new conditions. Lack or excess of water affects forest health by creating circumstances favourable to the proliferation or introduction of insect pests and pathogens and risks of forest fires. Increased presence of carbon dioxide in the air stimulates growth of trees, if other factors remain favourable.

Long-lived trees tend to be threatened by climate change as they cannot adapt to the new environmental conditions quickly enough. Extreme meteorological events such as hurricanes and storms also constitute a major danger for trees [read].

These impacts have to be considered when making tree plantations to ensure that the species selected fit future climatic setting.

Climate change increases food safety risks during transport and storage

High temperatures and humidity modify population dynamics of contaminating organisms (e.g. mycotoxin-producing fungi, bacteria such as salmonella and dinoflagellates) and create food safety risks at the production, transport or storage stage (read). For instance, there is good evidence that aflatoxin contamination of maize in Southern Europe and deoxynivalenol contamination of wheat in Northwestern Europe will increase significantly in the future [read].

5. Why should food and agriculture change?

There are two main reasons why food and agriculture should change:

  1. To adapt to the evolving climate.

Failing to adapt to the changes just reviewed would imply that all the negative impacts listed above would happen on a large scale, bringing decrease in production and increased global and local food insecurity.

  1. To mitigate climate change by reducing GHG emissions.

Food and agriculture being major sources of GHG emissions, any cut in global emissions will mean that food and agriculture have to evolve in order to reduce significantly their own emissions and help develop GHG “removals by sinks”.

6. How can food and agriculture change to adapt to climate change? [read]

Adapting to climate change means essentially modifying agricultural production to make it appropriate for prevailing local agro-ecological conditions as they emerge and while anticipating further evolution. Suggestions made here are general and actual action will depend on specific conditions, as well illustrated by the earlier comparison of France and West Africa.

What does “adapt” entail?

Change species, varieties and breeds

Each species, variety or breed is adapted to a certain range of agro-ecological conditions. As circumstances evolve, some crops or animals find themselves in an environment where they do not perform well any more. They should then be replaced by those who fit better to the situation. This implies having a large stock of species, varieties and breeds available within which producers can choose the most suitable ones for new conditions.

Agrobiodiversity is therefore a key prerequisite for adaptation. Unfortunately, evolution of global agriculture has been towards a loss of agrobiodiversity and a narrowing down of the genetic materials being used on farms, mainly because of the priority given to private interests and profits through restrictive regulations. This trend has to be reversed [read pp. 6-11].

Change in species can also be useful in cases where crops have been introduced that are not well adapted to local conditions and have to rely on irrigation. They become increasingly difficult to produce as climate gets warmer and drier and they exert an increased pressure on limited water resources. The example of maize in France is a good illustration of a crop that has spread since the 1960s under conditions that do not really suit it, in support of the development of industrial animal production and now meets serious problems because of water availability2.

Diversify to reduce risk

Over the last decades, agriculture has become an industry relying on a limited number of varieties and monoculture. This has made the system extremely vulnerable to pests, diseases and meteorological events. Income of individual farmers has become very sensitive to these hazards, to which are added those risks emerging from higher volatility of prices of agricultural commodities.

A solution to achieve more security is to diversify varieties or breeds for each species and adopt crop associations or rotations that use complementarity among different crops (e.g. cereals and leguminous crops) and bring further benefits in terms of combatting pests and diseases, improving soil fertility and diminishing the use of toxic chemical inputs. Polyculture rather than mono-cropping also reduces economic risks related to price fluctuations, as a given farm is less dependent on one sole product.

This process of standardisation is not limited to crops as the same trend is observed in livestock production, where industrialisation led to an amazing gigantism3. Livestock farms gather huge genetically homogenous herds living in a confined space ideal for spreading infectious diseases.

Improve drainage and irrigation facilities

Drainage and irrigation infrastructure have been historically the most visible means humans have used to adapt their agriculture to the vagaries of climate and resulting excess or shortage of water. In recent times, the green revolution has made extensive use of this type of infrastructure and of massive quantities of chemical inputs, in order to achieve record levels of food production. This infrastructure has represented the lion share of investment in agriculture during the last decades. As a result, agriculture today consumes around 70% of the water used by humans. But irrigation is a fragile, wasteful and unequal solution, and its further expansion will prove extremely costly and risky [read]. However, it may still be an answer in some specific and limited cases, provided technologies adopted are not energy intensive.

Change in research priorities

Rather than spend billions on irrigation infrastructure or on subsidising the use of toxic agrochemicals or crops harmful for the climate and the environment [read], public policy should reorient these resources towards agricultural research so as to protect and improve agrobiodiversity, develop new varieties able to cope with drought or excess of water [read], exploit crop/microorganism symbiosis [read], test crop associations and other ecologically sound techniques4 that can help making agriculture more resilient through crop complementarity, biological combat against pests, prevention of crop and animal diseases, regeneration of degraded land, improved fallow, agroforestry, conservation agriculture and sustainable land management.

Developing this type of technologies would also have the advantage of promoting knowledge-based practices that are not costly to adopt and are therefore more accessible to the mass of small farmers who do not have the means to purchase expensive inputs, provided efforts are made to inform and train them. The difficulty in doing this “new food and agricultural revolution” is that technologies required will have to be location-specific, and, as they are low-input technologies, they will not attract private investment in research as there are no huge profits to be made like in the case of the building of large infrastructure or selling green revolution-type inputs. They will therefore need a strong public involvement [read].

7. Which changes in food and agriculture can mitigate climate change?

Adapting to climate change will not be sufficient. Mitigating climate change by cutting GHG emissions is also key. Being major emitters, food and agriculture must evolve to become more climate-friendly.

The IPCC’s scenarios reviewed earlier demonstrate that the challenge is considerable and gains made from reducing GHGs will be determining the way humanity lives decades from now, and the extent to which it will have to face disasters and hardship. It is clear that the two IPCC scenarios simulating drastically diminished GHGs are out of reach without food and agriculture being profoundly redesigned.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

The answer to this question requires the identification of practical ways of reducing emissions caused by food and agriculture by examining successively each main source of GHGs.

Protect forests and peatland and increase their capacity to act as carbon sink

It is estimated that agriculture is responsible for almost 80% of the 1.2 million hectares of land that are deforested every year (63% are due to expansion of family farming and 16% to expansion of agricultural plantations). This reduction of area under forests is only partly compensated by various types of forest plantations and regeneration programmes that are implemented yearly on approximately 800,000 hectares [read].

Combatting deforestation caused by agriculture requires boosting productivity of agricultural land and ensuring a fairer distribution of land so that all rural dwellers have access to sufficient land for securing their livelihoods and are not obliged to encroach on forests. It also necessitates protecting forests and even more so peatland - by banning its destruction to grow oil palm [read] - and improving forest management so as to increase the amounts of carbon sequestered by trees and the soil. This strategy should be supported by remunerative payments for carbon storage that really provide effective compensation to rural communities [read] and by programmes that generate genuine development opportunities and jobs for them, a feature which, unfortunately, is generally missing.

Reduce and improve management of livestock production by lowering consumption of animal products, changing feeding technology for livestock and bettering manure and waste management

Recent years have seen a rapid rise of consumption of animal products (particularly of meat) the production of which generates GHG emissions and is a major cause of deforestation. Total world meat output grew from 71 million tons in 1961 to 179 million tons in 1990 and 337 million tons in 2013 (FAOSTAT), thus more than quadrupling in six decades and increasing manifold the pressure exerted on the environment.

Moreover, excessive consumption of meat and meat products has proven to have a negative impact on human health. Massive intensive livestock rearing creates additional hazards such as zoonotic diseases [read], pollution due to inadequate manure and animal waste management that, inter alia, affects drinkable water and causes proliferation of algae in some costal areas.

Industrial livestock production also competes with humans for food and reduces availability of some basic food items for human consumption. In addition, it lowers overall efficiency of agriculture as a source of food.5

For all these reasons, livestock production should be controlled by stricter environmental rules, and consumption of animal products discouraged by massive consumer information and nutrition information campaigns, as well as by higher prices to reflect their full real cost and provide proper income to producers. Improved feeding technologies and feed mixes that reduce enteric fermentation should be adopted, based on results of ongoing research.

Reduce food waste and loss

This requires changes of consumer behaviour to reduce amounts of food that are thrown away. It also implies changing grading standards - that make that a sizable share of production is thrown away at harvest -, rules for food management by retail shops and supermarkets, increased flexibility in shelf life regulation and incentives for donations to associations and food banks that support vulnerable population groups [read].

Reduce energy consumption for cultivation, processing, storage and transport

This requires adopting less energy consuming technologies (e.g. zero/minimum tillage) that also have other agronomic advantages, using less agrochemicals (for example, nitrogen fertiliser that is produced by a very energy-intensive process [read]), adopting less energy-intensive technologies and improving energy management in food processing plants (e.g. recycling waste as a source of energy). This can be achieved by progressively eliminating subsidies on energy6 and especially on fuel, removing fertilizer subsidies, and reorienting public resources towards research, and particularly for developing local-specific low-input agricultural techniques. These policy changes should be encouraged by more favourable conditions for Community Supported Agriculture and more information for consumers so as to modify their behaviour and orient them towards consuming more local and seasonal food rather than commoditized food, ‘food from nowhere’ (untraceable, creating obscure relationships and often, unfortunately, cheaper).

Increase the carbon storage capacity of agricultural land

This can be achieved by adopting agricultural technologies that increase the biomass in surface (e.g. agroforestry) and organic matter stored in the soil (e.g. regenerative organic agriculture). Estimates show that if half of all cropland shifted to such technologies, the equivalent of one year of world GHG emissions could be accumulated in the soil [read].

8. Opportunities exist, but the challenge is to reverse well established ongoing trends

It is encouraging to note that there are synergies and no contradiction between measures aiming at reducing GHG emissions and those seeking to adapt food systems to climate change as they contribute to making the food system more sustainable (See Table 2).

Implementing required changes will necessitate a radical re-engineering of food systems, including a profound modification of agricultural production management methods and a fundamental transformation of our consumption patterns: a “new food and agricultural revolution”. This will neither occur overnight, nor happen “naturally”. Rather it will need extensive explanation, information, education and mobilisation of all stakeholders (producers, transformers, traders and consumers) and demand a sharp turn in public policy to provide the proper legal framework, incentives and support.

The difficulty in implementing these changes is that they will threaten the interest of powerful economic forces that strongly influence policies throughout the world.

Table 2: Synergies between climate change mitigation and adaptation measures

download: Table_2.png

On the production side:

Over the last 70 years, all efforts have been geared towards the promotion of one particular type of food system: a system that is extremely energy intensive throughout the food chain, the development of which has supported the emergence of the chemical and public works industries. And today, rules and incentives protect that system and act as barriers for developing a more climate-friendly food system (see Box 1) [read here and here].

Based on Are existing food and agricultural policies supportive to local sustainable food systems?

Even though this existing system has shown its limitations in rich countries, it is still being promoted in poor countries through huge programs that are supported by public as well as by private interests, funded by public resources. They tend to marginalise the mass of peasants who is not able to join the bandwagon because poor family farmers do not have the basic means to adopt the proposed technologies or because they are ruthlessly deprived from the natural resources (land, water and genetic resources) on which their livelihoods depend (see Box 2 below).

Based on The European Union investigates on the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.

On the consumption side:

Changes observed in consumption patterns show a tremendous increase in reliance on processed food. This trend has been effective for decades in rich countries where processed foods and snacks have become common and eating in fast food and other restaurants, particularly but not exclusively for lunch, is more and more frequent. This is also reflected in the change in trade flows of which processed food represent a growing share.

Until recently, it was believed that this was not the case for the majority of consumers in poor countries whose main change in diet was thought to consist in a shift from basic staples towards higher-value livestock products, when income allowed it. A study shows, however, that, following the 2008 food security crisis, consumers in poor countries, including very poor people, are eating an increasing amount of processed foods and snacks. They do it to save time so as to be able to work more, and because industrial foods with high sugar, fat and salt content tend to become addictive, particularly for young people. They also provide their consumers with status and identity [read]. Apart from having serious implications on health and social cohesion that are well known in rich countries, this change also contributes to boost trade flows and goes against the idea of consuming local, as consumer preference then increasingly turns towards diets based on “food from nowhere” that can come from anywhere.

These few examples show that there is indeed a need to change radically the direction of evolution of the food system if it has to take its fair share in mitigating climate change and if it has to adapt to climate modifications. Table 3 below sums up the main points raised so far in this paper.

Table 3: Intrinsic characteristics of the global food system

and how they relate to climate change

download table: Table_3.png

6. So what should be done to re-engineer the global food system and make it more climate-friendly?

A few ideas to chart the way forward

Below are a series of changes that would transform fundamentally the global food system to make it more resilient to climate change and at the same time that would reduce its own impact on the climate. They could trigger a much-needed “new food and agricultural revolution”.

  1. Redesign the incentive framework:

      1. Tracking and removal of all subsidies that support practices generating GHG emissions. This includes subsidies on fossil fuels, on chemical inputs and machinery operating on fossil fuels (including electricity, as long as most of it is generated through burning fossil fuels) in primary production and all along value chains.

      2. Support through subsidies for encouraging climate-friendly practices that, for the time being, are at a disadvantage as they have to compete with practices that generate negative externalities7 for which they are not taxed.8

      3. Allow some increase in the price of food to reduce waste and compensate the poorer sections of the population through an enhanced social protection system.

      4. Offer tax exemption to retail shops and supermarkets for donations to associations and food banks.

      5. Grant incentives for recycling of waste.

      6. Reevaluate amounts paid to local communities who accept to preserve their forests and support them to create climate-friendly activities that can help them develop their economy.

      7. Protect effectively land rights of local communities.

  1. Redesign the regulatory framework:

      1. Impose rules that ban certain particularly harmful practices in food value chains that generate large amounts of GHGs.

      2. Modify/adapt the regulatory and institutional framework to remove hurdles to the development and operation of local and sustainable agriculture and Community Supported Agriculture (see Box 1).

      3. Preserve agrobiodiversity by protecting the freedom of producers to use and exchange their seeds and supporting research for breeding new varieties.

      4. Revisit food handling processes in retail shops and supermarkets to reduce waste.

      5. Develop and apply stricter environmental norms for large-scale industrial livestock production.

      6. Ensure effective protection of peatland, including a ban on oil palm expansion on peatland.

    1. Invest in research, development and dissemination of climate-friendly technologies:

      1. Develop research activities into technological innovations that do not generate negative externalities (including GHG emissions) and do not require investment in infrastructure for which the construction is energy-intensive. Priority should be given to knowledge-intensive (rather than capital-intensive) technologies so as to facilitate access by poor producers and reduce costs to the benefit of both producers and consumers. This will contribute to increasing productivity of agricultural land, diminish pressure on forests and boost carbon storage in sols. It requires more public funding of research as resulting technologies will not be easy to embody in marketable goods and thus will not be attractive for the private sector.

      2. Conduct more location-specific research to develop technological packages that are well adapted to changing local conditions.

      3. Strengthen research into how agrobiodiversity can be used for better soil fertility management and combat against pests and diseases.

      4. Develop less energy-intensive food processing and storage technologies and techniques for recycling waste with a view to producing energy that can be used for food processing and storage.

      5. Invent improved forest management techniques for enhancing biomass storage and preserving biodiversity.

      6. Invest in research in agroforestry so as to use its benefits in terms of microclimate management, soil fertility improvement and greater surface biomass for carbon storage.

      7. Implement programmes to disseminate and promote the adoption of new technologies resulting from boosted research efforts.

    1. Promote rural development through programmes that help create jobs and opportunities for rural communities so as to reduce pressure on agricultural land and forests.

    1. Implement information campaigns on food for the public and label systems to influence their consumption choices and behaviour, and reduce consumption of commoditised and off-season foods.

Additional suggestions and thoughts can be found in two articles published earlier on

  1. Obstacles to transition - Why is it so difficult to make our food system more sustainable and climate-friendly? (2019).

  2. Policies for a transition towards more sustainable and climate-friendly food systems (2018).

7. Conclusion

This review of the food/climate relationship shows that it is quite complex and that it has two main aspects: food is a cause of climate change and climate change is a threat to our food security. There is therefore a need to act both on the reduction of emissions produced by the food system and on the adaptation of the system to change of climatic conditions. Interestingly, one can note that this second aspect is usually dealt with quite explicitly in global food and agriculture stakeholder narratives. It denotes a declared will to ‘manage and preserve’ our food system, but without questioning it and the paradigm on which it has been resting for over a century, as if the evolution of the food and agriculture system had been a ‘natural event’ with no alternative, when we very well know that it was a process that was driven by specific objectives (e.g. produce large quantities of cheap food, generate business, and use inputs produced by chemical industries).

Solutions to the problem are known and have been listed here. They amount to engaging in a real “new food and agricultural revolution”. To apply them requires addressing several issues:

  1. The need to sort out the politics of implementing them because, as is usually the case when there is a change in policy, there will be winners and losers. What makes dealing with the political problem more difficult is that many potential losers are large and powerful companies that can mobilise huge resources to influence policy, as could be seen recently during the Food Systems Summit [read] and COP21 in Glasgow [read]. Also, it means that all of us will have to change our personal behaviour [read] and it is not sure that we are ready to do so until we are either encouraged through information and incentives, or obliged through rules and regulations. Many of us will be beneficiaries of this change, through improved health and better jobs, and there will be even more beneficiaries in the future, generations that have yet to come and are voiceless, with no means to influence today’s policies…9 

  2. The need to think global and not national, while the current trend almost everywhere in the world is a reaction against multilateralism and a tendency to be more country centred, if not nationalistic.

  3. It will take time …, one aspect being the time needed to obtain results of renewed efforts and investment in research, and even more time to feel the impact of putting them in practice.

  4. It will require resources, which puts countries in different situations: rich countries have the means to do the job, but not poor countries. According to the Paris Agreement, rich countries had committed to help finance efforts in poor countries through a financial mechanism that was to mobilise $100 billion per year by 2020 (for all sectors). This promise, however, was shamelessly betrayed [read].

In other words, until there is a strong mobilisation to put all these ideas in practice, climate will continue to change and food systems will remain based on the same paradigm, while all deadly consequences that can be foreseen will not be avoided.

There is hope from the numerous local initiatives of many kinds that go in the right direction such as the development of CSA, the rapid growth of organic and ecological agriculture, and the youth movement for the climate. But the change in food systems will be of sufficient depth only on the day when the regulatory and incentive framework will have been redesigned and reoriented, and our individual attitude changes so as to allow the coming of the “new food and agricultural revolution” that is so vital for preserving our future.

Materne Maetz

(December 2021)



  1. 1.This text updates and brings some complements to “Climate is changing - Food and Agriculture must too - Towards a ‘new food and agricultural revolution’” published on in 2016.

  2. 2.The production of maize in France jumped from 2.5 million tons in 1961 to 12.8 million tons in 2019, after having reached a maximum of 18.3 million tons in 2014.

  3. 3.In 2020, in the US, the size of some pig and cattle herds were close to one million animals! [read]

  4. 4.See for example the Push-pull technology developed by ICIPE - African Insect Science for Food and Health.

  5. 5.Intensive livestock production relies on extensive consumption of crop products (cereals and oilseeds in particular), often transported over long distances, which are inefficiently transformed into animal products, animals thus becoming our competitors for crop products.

  6. 6.The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates at $5.2 trillion (6.5% of world GDP, more than the GDP of Japan) the amount of energy subsidies paid in the world [read].

  7. 7.An externality corresponds to a situation where the act of producing or consuming by an economic agent has a positive or negative impact on one or several other agents not directly part of the act, and where these affected agents do not have to pay for all the benefits that have accrued to them or are not fully compensated for the harm they have suffered. In practical terms, this often means that the costs of suchexternalities end up being met by future generations.

  8. 8.On this topic, read The dark side of chocolate: a comparative study of ‘conventional’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘fair trade’ cocoa value chains,, 2016 and Researchers show that organic agriculture generates more economic value than conventional agriculture,, 2015. See also A. MacMillan, Some_brave_new_thinking_on_food_management.pdf, 2014.

  9. 9. This question is dealt with from different points of view on our page “Intergenerational Equity”,, 2012-2015.


Additional references

  1. IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2021.

  2. Crippa, M., Solazzo, E., Guizzardi, D. et al. Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions. Nat Food 2, 198–209 (2021).

  3. IPCC, Food Security. In: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems, 2019.

  4. FAO, Sustainable agriculture for biodiversity. 2018.

  5. FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture 2016 - Climate change, agriculture and food security, 2016.

Selection of past articles on related to the topic:

  1. Opinions: Climate Injustice at Glasgow Cop-Out by Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury, 2021.

  2. France: Forty percent of greenhouse gases generated to meet the demand of households and businesses are emitted abroad, 2020.

  3. Opinion: Combatting climate change in our daily life by M. Maetz, 2020.

  4. Obstacles to transition - Why is it so difficult to make our food system more sustainable and climate-friendly? 2019.

  5. Policies for a transition towards more sustainable and climate friendly food systems, 2018.

  6. Food and climate change : it is up to us, as consumers and producers, to change our food system, 2017.

  7. Climate is changing - Food and Agriculture must too - Towards a ‘new food and agricultural revolution’, 2016.


Last update:    December 2021

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