Focus on food to address climate change

18/02/2020 - Bringing together agricultural production, supply chains, and consumption: In a comment published in the new journal Nature Food researchers discuss a new global food system approach to climate change research. When these activities are considered together, they represent 21 to 37 percent of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, the authors note. This new approach also enables a fuller assessment of the vulnerability of the global food system to increasing droughts, intensifying heatwaves, heavier downpours, and exacerbated coastal flooding. Food system responses thus play a major role in both adapting to and mitigating climate change, the authors assert.
Focus on food to address climate change

“The global food system approach represents a significant advance in helping producers and consumers plan effective and well-integrated climate change responses,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, lead author and head of the Climate Impacts Group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. To respond to climate change via their food systems, countries can now move beyond supply-side mitigation in crop and livestock production, which has been the traditional approach, to encompass demand side strategies, mainly dietary changes. Plant-based diets reduce the amount of methane emissions, a powerful greenhouse gas released by ruminants. They also require less land, thus sparing areas that can be used to plant trees and store more carbon. 

“This approach reveals several synergies in response options across food systems, bringing co-benefits to livelihoods and biodiversity. And in this way, these responses also help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Prajal Pradhan, a co-author and an agro-ecologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. For example, increasing soil organic matter could help sequester carbon and enhance resilience to drought, as well as boost productivity and soil biodiversity.


Concurrent with the paper, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released new emission statistics for the period 1990-2017 that provide the shares of agriculture and related land use in total emissions from all economic sectors, for all countries.

Further PIK research on the topic:

  • Looking beyond the farm gate: New IPCC Special Report on Land Use and Climate Change - with lead authors Alex Popp and Prajal Pradhan, see press release here
  • Dieter Gerten, Vera Heck, Jonas Jägermeyr, Benjamin Leon Bodirsky, Ingo Fetzer, Mika Jalava, Matti Kummu, Wolfgang Lucht, Johan Rockström, Sibyll Schaphoff, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (2020): Feeding ten billion people is possible within four terrestrial planetary boundaries. Nature Sustainability [DOI 10.1038/s41893-019-0465-1], see press release here
  • Steffen Kriewald, Prajal Pradhan, Luis Costa, Anselmo Garcia Cantu Ros, Jürgen Kropp (2019): Hungry Cities: how local food self-sufficiency relates to climate change, diets, and urbanization. Environmental Research Letters. [DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/ab2d56], see press release here
  • Walter Willett, Johan Rockström, et al (2019): Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet. DOI: [10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4], see press release here