Blog 15 Dec 2023 

Meeting climate goals: an urgent need for transforming the global food system

What are planetary boundaries? How are they impacted by the climate crisis? And how can food systems curb global temperature rise by 2030?

Emma York

Emma York

Sustainability Placement Student

COP28 UAE presidency placed food systems transformation on the global climate agenda backed by 130 nations, with more than $2.5bn mobilised by the global community to support this transformation. 

UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment and COP28 Food Systems Lead, emphasised that to tackle climate change, we must place food systems and agriculture at the heart of climate ambitions to build a global food system fit for the future, that addresses global emissions and protects the livelihoods of farmers. 

The focus of COP28 on food systems emphasises the urgency and importance of transforming the ways we produce food today, to reach the goal of curbing global temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, an aim that is currently not on track. Achieving this goal will require urgent and substantial measures by policymakers and stakeholders worldwide to reduce current greenhouse gas emissions, which must be halved by 2030

Earth’s ecological ceiling upon which we all depend

Scientists have identified the Earth’s ecological ceiling for supporting human life, comprising of nine quantifiable planetary boundaries (as shown in Figure 1.), beyond which lies unacceptable environmental degradation and risk of triggering climate tipping points in the Earth System. These critical planetary boundaries, if transgressed, could lead to irreversible and abrupt environmental challenges that would impact society and the wider economy. 

Currently six of the boundaries have been transgressed, which is exponentially accelerating the climate crisis due to their interconnectedness. Recognising and respecting these planetary boundaries is crucial for achieving a sustainable future in the coming decades, requiring integrated global efforts to ensure a balance between industrial activities and the resilience of the Earth System. 

Planetary boundaries
Figure 1. Planetary Boundaries — Image Credit: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Richardson et al 2023

2050 is a pivotal year on various fronts, requiring a global effort for reaching Net Zero, to ensure that climate change is addressed. For the UK, this will involve the decarbonization of every sector within the economy, to reach Net Zero targets and to ensure the UK is positioned to continue as an industrial manufacturing region. The transition towards Net Zero demands a transformation of the food system over the next three decades. 

The food system adversely affects all nine of the Earth System’s planetary boundaries, contributing to over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, utilising half of the world’s habitable land for agricultural practices, and accounting for 70% of global freshwater withdrawals. Agriculture also contributes to 78% of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication, which affects ecosystem stability and water quality. 

This intensifying pressure emphasises the need for the food system to evolve and embrace more sustainable practices to protect the long-term health of our environment, for example through innovative emerging technologies. In the coming years, we must make massive changes in the ways we produce, distribute, and consume foods. 

Transformation of the food system for 2050

As a placement student at CPI, I am working within a highly-skilled team to produce a thought leadership paper fore-sighting the future food system for 2050. The paper will provide an insight into the seeds of the future” we are already witnessing today, which may bridge the gap between the current and future food system. To understand the complex shifts in the food system, we need to understand the emerging technologies, drivers and trends shaping the system, including environmental, socio-economic, and geo-political pressures. 

Meat production currently contributes to nearly 60% of all greenhouse gas emissions from food production. Therefore, shifting away from traditional meat production will play a substantial role in reducing the UK’s carbon emissions, to reach Net Zero targets by 2050 and to reduce our burden on climate change. This shift may involve the emergence of more accurate plant-based meat alternatives, reduced meat consumption via shifting dietary patterns, and/​or the rise of cultivated meat production. 

Many emerging alternative protein technologies are being explored by CPI, including precision fermentation, cellular agriculture, bioprinting, and many more. CPI is exploring the development of our capabilities within this sector, that will help companies to commercialise alternative proteins including cultivated meat products, to reduce the growing impacts of meat production on our planet and people. 

Cultivated meat, whilst technologically challenging, has many environmental benefits that reduce the burden of meat production on all nine planetary boundaries. The below table shows examples how the current food system adversely impacts on each planetary boundary, and how cultivated meat can help to significantly alleviate these pressures. The adoption of cultivated meat will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help to restore the climate resilience of the Earth System. 

Impacts of the current food system on planetary boundaries, and proposed benefits of cultivated meat.
Impacts of the current food system on planetary boundaries, and proposed benefits of cultivated meat.

Thought leadership paper

Our thought leadership paper will act as a compass, guiding governments, industry, and academia in making decisions on strategic investments, projects, and policies contributing towards the development of a more sustainable future food system over the next three decades. This is essential for reaching global targets for climate change and the UK’s Net Zero target for 2050, which will rely on major changes to the ways we manage, produce, consume, and distribute foods. 

These insights will allow stakeholders to foresight the complex landscape of the evolving food system, to understand which aspects align most with these important targets. The paper will also provide CPI with more knowledge of impactful sustainable solutions that are emerging and likely to be successful seeds of the future”, enhancing CPI’s impact on environmental stewardship and positive technological advancements.

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