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Climate change and food systems: Assessing impacts and opportunities

CSS Publication Number
Full Publication Date
November 30, 2017

Objectives and Scope of This Report

Food system stakeholders need to better understand, integrate, and create action related to food systems and climate change, beyond just agricultural production. This focal shift is critical for multiple reasons:

  • Food-systems-based approaches have greater mitigation and adaptation potential than a concentration on agriculture alone, because they enable the integration of sustainability options that fall outside of agricultural production (e.g., dietary choices, food waste, public health, technological innovation, clean energy, governance, and insurance as a strategy for risk management).
  • A food systems focus enables the exploration of supply-side and demand-side mitigation and adaptation co-benefits, as well as potential synergies or tradeoffs between strategies.
  • A food systems perspective supports the integration of equity, sustainability, governance, and other key drivers and components that make up food systems. It enables food systems transformation and can address the inequities inherent in climate change impacts and mitigation burdens.
  • A food systems perspective enables stakeholders to identify synergies with broader policy priorities, in particular priorities related to SDGs, thereby using available resources efficiently.
  • Food systems and climate change have been under-studied, with clear gaps in strategies that could impact food security in the future (e.g., cold chain expansion, sea-level rise, and food transportation).

This report seeks to support the application of a food systems perspective to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Specifically, the objectives of the report are to:

  • review and synthesize peer-reviewed literature that examines the mutual impacts of food system activities and climate change, and identify knowledge gaps in that literature;
  • illustrate how applying a food systems perspective to climate change mitigation actions can be used to drive transformation and help policymakers anticipate effects from specific mitigation and adaptation opportunities; and
  • document opportunities for incremental changes that support climate mitigation while efforts to drive broader system transformation are pursued.

By articulating a food systems perspective, we provide a starting point to broaden understanding beyond the individual components of food systems. The complexity of food systems and the historical research bias toward narrowly focused work has resulted in a body of literature that largely addresses the individual elements of food systems. We broaden the lens of past efforts by bringing together and summarizing peer-reviewed literature on the broad range of food system activities in sections 3 and 4. In section 5, we discuss eight key Climate Change Food Systems Principles to help stakeholders assess food system transformation opportunities through a food systems lens. These principles include (1) interconnectedness, (2) equity, (3) resilience, (4) renewability, (5) responsiveness, (6) transparency, (7) scale, and (8) evaluation.

The inclusive concept of food systems could be a starting point for those stakeholders who are exploring critical linkages among system components and processes, helping them to identify the wider range of stakeholders that should be engaged in food systems transformation efforts. However, peer-reviewed research on systems-level effects is scarce and urgently required, including analysis of interactions and feedback loops across food system drivers, components, processes, and activities. Our main findings are summarized in the key messages in section 2.

The authors have documented numerous specific mitigation opportunities and their adaptation potential, which are available separately online. However, for immediate actions to result in transitions to sustainable food systems, stakeholders should work together to co-define sustainability and identify their shared interests as well as obstacles to change. Such understanding will enable stakeholders to choose actions that can lead toward sustainability.

The range of opportunities are based on specific country experiences and may be relevant to a range of contexts and conditions. Stakeholders could consider these opportunities within their national or regional contexts, priorities, and strategies. In addition, stakeholders should consider opportunities that are not in the peer-reviewed literature, but are being devised, refined, and promoted by non-academic practitioners, smallholder farmers, Indigenous Peoples, and others.

In writing this report, we recognize the limitations of the current body of peer-reviewed literature. For instance, the peer-reviewed literature on mitigation opportunities across the full range of food system activities (i.e., not just agricultural production) is limited. Also, while we looked at the climate adaptation co-benefits of adaptation opportunities, we recognize that much additional work on adaptation strategies is available and more is needed to bridge local, traditional, Indigenous, practitioner, and academic knowledge and inform decision-making on food systems and climate change.

This report offers a broad perspective on food system activities and seeks to help stakeholders explore new partnerships, share knowledge, and identify diverse communities, sectors, and other stakeholders that have roles to play in support of changes needed within their food systems. We hope the report will contribute to a deeper understanding of food systems and climate change and the thoughtful review and development of actions that will – ultimately – contribute to sustainable food systems.

Report Authors and Contributors

This report was written by the following lead authors and contributing authors, with advice from the strategic advisor, input from the advisory committee and overall coordination by Meridian Institute. Funding was provided by members of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, including the McKnight Foundation and the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation.

Lead Authors

  • Richie Ahuja, Environmental Defense Fund (India)
  • M. Jimena Esquivel Sheik, Researcher Environmental Assessments for Sustainable Agriculture (Colombia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica)
  • Nelson Mango, Independent Expert (Kenya)
  • Meredith T. Niles, University of Vermont (USA)

Contributing Authors

  • Mil Duncan, Carsey School of Public Policy, University of New Hampshire (USA)
  • Martin Heller, Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan (USA)
  • Cristina Tirado, Institute of Environment and Sustainability, University of California at Los Angeles (USA) Strategic Advisor
  • Sonja Vermeulen, Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy, Chatham House (United Kingdom)

Advisory Committee

Advisory committee members provided input on the scope and contents of the draft report, but were not asked to seek consensus or to endorse any of the views expressed, for which the authors are solely responsible.

  • Kofi Boa, Center for No-Till Agriculture (Ghana)
  • Timothy Griffin, Friedman School, Tufts University (USA)
  • Tony LaViña, Ateneo de Manila University, University of the Philippines, De La Salle College of Law, Philippine Judicial Academy (Philippines)
  • Alexander Müeller, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood) (Germany)
  • Ruth Richardson, Global Alliance for the Future of Food (Canada)
  • Maria Sanz-Sánchez, BC3 Basque Centre for Climate Change (Spain)
  • Whendee Silver, University of California, Berkeley (USA)
  • Pete Smith, University of Aberdeen (Scotland)
  • Charlotte Streck, Climate Focus (USA)
Cristina Tirado
Jimena Esquivel
Meredith T. Niles
Nelson Mango
Richie Ahuja
Research Areas
Food & Agriculture
Food Systems and Consumer Products
Publication Type
Full Citation
Niles, M.T., Ahuja, R., Esquivel, M.J., Mango, N., Duncan, M., Heller, M., Tirado, C. (2017) “Climate change and food systems: Assessing impacts and opportunities.” Meridian Institute. Washington, DC. 1-54.