Farm fields; Farm fields;

How do we transition to a food system that supports both human and planetary health?

In much of our work here at Arup, we explore how systems work, and if they don’t work well, how to improve or fix them. We’ve come to realise the central importance of the food system in delivering a sustainable future and as a sector we should apply our thinking to.  

In their 2019 report, the Eat-Lancet commission asked a stark question: will we be able to feed a future population of 10 billion people a healthy diet without destroying the planet? As they noted, “food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth. However, food is currently threatening both people and planet.”  

The environmental threat on your plate

Scientists and policy makers now recognise that up to a third of global CO2 emissions are food related. If we’re honest, this shouldn’t be surprising. How else does a supermarket half a mile away from me here in London offer fresh mange touts from Kenya? Globalisation has brought us incredible choice all year round, but as a series of productive systems it has evolved unchecked, become resource intensive and unsustainable. Apart from fuelling global warming, food production also accounts for 70% of freshwater withdrawal and is a major factor behind biodiversity loss.  

The industry is, of course, aware of these issues. International bodies like the EU are committed to Green New Deal programmes and working on farm-to-fork policies aimed at reforming how farming operates, to reduce waste and make agriculture a key plank in protecting the environment. For producers and processors, the expectation of growing emissions regulation is also a given. So if everyone knows change must follow, the question remains: which systemic improvements are most effective and commercially viable? 

More broadly, the very centrality of food production and consumption to all human life actually gifts us an enormous opportunity: by transforming the way we farm, process and distribute our food we can accelerate along the path to a sustainable way of life within the means of our planet. A sustainable food sector will protect the planet’s biodiversity, sequester more CO2 than it emits, lower the risk of flooding, bring rural and urban communities closer together and stimulate a more equitable economy. 

So, how can we transform this system we depend on? Let’s see how a systems-thinking approach might tackle common issues in the food sector. 

Climate-positive food production

A first step would be to move away from using the soil like dead substrate, with all the harmful effects of pesticides and artificial fertilizers, to a practice known as ‘regenerative farming’. This commits farmers to focusing on soil health, leaving the land improved by the agricultural process year on year.  

Companies like Nestlé – the world’s largest single food producer – have started to see the value of this approach, especially given that the vast majority of their greenhouse gas emissions are in the farming process itself. There is a huge prize here, a transformation of farming into a soil-focused system that improves biodiversity, manages the water system more effectively, reduces flooding, lowers pollution and above all sequesters carbon. This is how food could become climate positive. 

An end to waste?

 Staggeringly, a third of all food is wasted. In developing countries the level of waste is taking place post-harvest, usually thanks to lack of effective storage. In developed nations, the waste is consumer-led, part of a food production system that artificially maximises supply by relying on pesticides and fertiliser (from oil and phosphates), generating considerable emissions, only for us to throw the food away. 

We can and must eliminate waste from the food system, entirely. We need to revisit the creation/consumption relationship, the use of plastics and of sell by dates. This would take a new level of collaboration between farmers, processing companies, regional governments, waste managers, supermarkets and consumers – to produce new behaviours and productive practices that  replace the concept of “waste” with the idea of resource and value creation. If food was viewed as core element of the urban infrastructure, if it could also work as an energy source with all organic waste used to generate new energy and fertiliser into the bargain.

Think more holistically

Our globalised, just-in-time supply chains are a marvel, but maximising supply and all year around availability comes at the cost of low sustainability. Here in the UK, many of our tomatoes are imported from Spain, from an area with far more sunshine but little water. This might make sense in carbon emission terms. But given a tomato is essentially 70% water, we are effectively importing water from a region that needs it, to one that doesn’t. It’s also removing nutrients from the soil of one country to another, with limited means of recycling them back to grow our food, and thus baking in reliance on non-renewable artificial fertiliser. This makes no sense and is not sustainable. 

The food sector has an opportunity here, to collaborate with another industry in transition: energy. Farmers and landowners could share land under regenerative land management with renewables generators like on-shore wind or solar. Organic waste could go to anaerobic digestion to generate biogas as well as fertiliser gaining additional income and producing climate positive food for local communities. New business models may become possible, meaning food has to travel far shorter distances, and nutrient cycles can be closed and making food a more integral part of the country’s infrastructure.  

Food systems must address the sustainability challenge

Today’s food production systems and practices must change, transition and transform. We need fundamental change in how we get our food from field to plate. Unlike carbon, we cannot simply ‘transition away’ from food – a deep rethink is in order. 

As we have seen, food production is a thread connecting many elements of the entire climate and sustainability challenge, but it’s also central to human health, rural development and a more equitable and integrated society. Getting the food system right is our chance to make step changes that address many related issues at once.  

Learn more about how we're developing sustainable solutions