National Climate Leadership on Healthy and Sustainable Diets: A Win-win for People and Planet

To meet global climate targets, it will be necessary to shift dietary habits and make consumption practices more sustainable.

This is the fourth piece in a series produced by the Global Action Platform on Sustainable Consumption and Diets. Read parts one, two, and three, and learn more by visiting their webpage here.

We are facing a “triple planetary crisis”—climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and a human health crisis. What is the connecting thread through all these crises? Dysfunctional food systems that are making us ill and driving climate change.

Unsustainable practices that underpin today’s industrialized food systems—like intensive livestock and commodity crop production, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, antibiotic overuse, long and deregulated commodity supply chains—negatively impact human, animal, and ecological health. Food systems cause significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and are intrinsically connected to increases in zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, antimicrobial resistance, environmental contamination, and deforestation and land degradation. Unhealthy dietary patterns, increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods, rising malnutrition, and compounding food insecurity are also visible worldwide.

More than 2.3 billion people or 30 percent of the global population lacked year-round access to adequate food in 2020; yet, another 677 million adults on earth are obese. All too often, we see the responsibility of a “healthy diet” being placed on the shoulders of the consumer but where is the scrutiny on the inequitable and unsafe food environments that limit and dictate people’s dietary choices and nutritional status?

The many correlations between industrialized food systems, biodiversity loss, and a lack of diversification in diets are painfully apparent too when we consider that of the world’s 6000 species available for consumption, only 12 crops and 5 animal species make up 75 percent of what we eat globally. Shockingly, 90 percent of agricultural subsidies—worth US$600 billion of taxpayers’ money annually—have no climate or environmental safeguards. Research also demonstrates that the consumption of much less animal protein is healthier for all populations and demographics as long as a culturally appropriate, diverse, and balanced whole-foods diet is accessible.

Fortunately, though our food systems are a major player in the climate problems we face, they can also be a source of the brilliant solutions we need. Addressing what we eat, how our food is produced, distributed, and finally disposed of is our chance to tackle the planetary emergency, keep global warming below 1.5°C, address the SDGs and improve health and well-being for all.

To achieve what is effectively a win-win-win situation, we must ditch the silos and act together: producers must be enabled to transition to regenerative, sustainable production practices; consumers enabled to eat healthier and diversified diets; and, we must insist that policymakers take a whole-systems approach to food that serves to connect diverse policy agendas and objectives: from the SDGs to climate to diets. Several studies already show that transforming how we produce our food in combination with other “nature positive” solutions could reduce and remove up to 98GT of CO2 equivalent by 2030 (a significant 20 percent of the challenge of halving emissions by 2030). Significant levels of engagement and technological and financial innovation will also be required to underpin the delivery of the many solutions we need.

Looking ahead to U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), food and climate advocates must do more to harness the growing global awareness of the interconnections between climate change and food systems—including the implications of nutrition and diets, as well as the impact of food waste and packaging—and demand action at the national level to also ensure food systems that are resilient to future shocks and stresses. The evidence is on our side: from the first-person experiences and stories we hear from consumers and farmers across communities to the IPCC’s 2019 Special Report and recent modeling presented in The Lancet, the consumption of healthy and sustainable diets can tackle climate change and improve public health outcomes. Importantly, it is a diversified diet that is essential for a healthy and balanced diet.

Where sustainable, equitable, and affordable food environments permit, consumer actions can be a powerful everyday way to take action for planetary health. At the policy level, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), required by the Paris Agreement, are a strategic opportunity to integrate a food systems approach across all relevant government policies and programs, from environment ministries to health, agriculture and economic development. NDC’s lay out each country’s climate plan, including their efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts. The Global Alliance for the Future of Food has developed an assessment framework for countries to integrate food systems into their NDCs (expected Spring 2022) and, of the NDCs assessed to date, the analysis shows that measures to promote dietary transitions are still not sufficiently included.

Despite the considerable potential of GHG emission reduction through dietary changes, so far only France and Germany include measures to promote the consumption of sustainable and healthy foods in their national climate and energy plans. The UK’s NDC also includes a commitment to shift towards healthy diets. Research underway in Kenya indicates that promoting a shift towards healthier and more sustainable diets is not tapped into in the current NDC, but there is appetite for improved collaboration between the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Agriculture. Similarly, in Bangladesh early research shows that efforts to change diets are being connected to efforts to make healthy and sustainably produced food more accessible.

Any climate commitments that are made without considering healthy diets for sustainable food systems will be inadequate given the vast mitigation and adaptation potential that the sector holds. Demand-side measures must go hand-in-hand with changes in production practices. For the next round of NDCs due in 2025, more progress in policy alignment, with food and health treated as two sides of the same coin, must be made if we are to maintain the realistic ambition of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C by 2050. The UNFCCC’s latest NDC Synthesis Report also shows that, as of today, GHG emissions would rise by about 16 percent by 2030, compared to 2010, under the available Paris Agreement pledges, leading to catastrophic 2.7°C of warming by 2100.

There are signs of momentum: 28 percent of the world food supply industry by revenue has a formal, science-based target putting it on a trajectory to halving emissions by 2030. Dozens of countries are developing voluntary national food systems pathways and, just last month, Heads of State gathered at the U.N. Food Systems Summit, where calls for sustainable, healthy and inclusive food systems were resounding. Importantly, as a result of the Summit, the UN Secretary General has pledged to revisit progress on commitments made every two years and the first review is expected to coincide with the UNFCCC’s Global Stocktake towards the Paris Agreement in 2023. The second will take place in 2025 when the next round of NDCs are due.

While it is encouraging that these agendas are beginning to converge at the international level , it is not at the speed and scale that the climate emergency necessitates. If we truly want to see tangible progress, now is the time to break down silos at the national level, and catalyze systems change from the ground up including more localized production and consumption. Through the NDC development and implementation process, countries have an opportunity to promote healthy diets which are underpinned by sustainable, diversified food production adapted to local ecosystems and sociocultural contexts as a means to reduce food systems’ emissions, with significant potential to deliver additional health benefits.

Now is the time for governments to act as leaders and commit to bold, ambitious, and holistic action that creates a resilient and equitable future for all.