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Addressing global food security and climate change: insights from the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum

20 June 2024

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Addressing global food security and climate change: Insights from the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum

Reported by Maheera Abdul Ghani, PhD candidate, Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge.

In a world increasingly challenged by climate change and biodiversity loss, the need to ensure global food security has become critical. The recent Cambridge Zero Policy Forum lunchtime seminar with Professor Tim Benton, Director of the Environment and Society Centre at Chatham House, focused on the challenges and opportunities facing the global food system in the context of the climate and biodiversity crises, and how researchers at the University can play a role. The seminar was held in collaboration with the Cambridge Global Food Security Interdisciplinary Research Centre and provided an important platform for understanding global food security and exploring transformative action.

Global food security: a developing crisis

Due to the increasing challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, the need to ensure global food security has become critical. Insurance costs from loss of crops due to floods, droughts and wildfires resulting from climate change would disrupt the global economy and prevent food aid from combatting food shortages. For example, in the USA alone, natural catastrophes in 2023 resulted in economic losses of $108 billion covered by insurance. Such catastrophes also result in related population health costs and environmental costs which may not be covered by a Loss and Damage Fund. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) report released on 6 November 2023, estimated a $10trn annual cost from unsustainable food systems, representing an average of 12% of GDP in middle-income countries.

As well as global climate change, geopolitical tensions such as the war in the Ukraine are also disrupting food supplies, leading countries to further securitise supply chains, increasing geopolitical tensions. The lack of organised efforts to address environmental and food system challenges was partly attributed to the influence of large incumbent organizations and insufficient political support for farmers. Global carbon markets were also found to sideline discussions on food and agriculture, neglecting pressing issues like famine. The question is: what institutional changes are needed to overcome these challenges, and how can academic research support this.

Regulation and accountability

Participants agreed that due to a lack of effective regulation by government in both climate adaptation and climate mitigation, global food system security is now at risk. We therefore require stricter regulations to hold producers, suppliers and supermarkets to account. One participant suggested that institutional restructuring was required to effectively address climate-related risks. Operational plans with clear metrics are needed, alongside listening to the insights of key stakeholders, such as farmers. One participant compared the challenge to that of a country such as the UK preparing for the Olympic Games in 10 years’ time. Such preparations would not only involve targets, but a clear operational plan at a national level to mobilize resources to achieve the target.

However, some participants expressed concern that the incumbent political agenda, as well as the behemoth of big business, would mute the interests of civil society and the impetus for transition in food, energy and biodiversity. The example was given here of WWF shelving a report warning of pollution of the River Wye by Tesco, who had given £6M in donations to the charity since 2018. Better regulation and accountability in the private sector were agreed as a means of restoring rationalism to democracy and our global food systems.

At the level of businesses, another participant stressed the importance of management expertise to enforce self-regulation. They highlighted that CEOs should take into account diverse perspectives, be proactive in identifying opportunities, and develop effective solutions based on thorough systems knowledge. For a business to transition to organic food, for example, the CEO and board of directors would not only need to be aware of the opportunity to do this, but also have the right motivation and ability to leverage their capabilities in this space. The role of management and leadership in companies was therefore highlighted, as well as the suggestion that business models should be rethought to enact change.

Evidence-based policymaking

Participants expressed concerns about the costs of inaction and stressed the need for universities to challenge conventional paradigms for collective action. Participants also highlighted the need for interdisciplinary collaboration and meaningful engagement with policy makers to bridge the gap between research and tangible policy outcomes, with an emphasis on efficacy over volume of activity. There is a pressing need for meaningful dialogue between academia and government, and in this regard, academic institutions such as the University of Cambridge play a significant role in shaping policies and strategies to address the multifaceted challenges related to global food security. In particular, it was suggested that holistic, multidisciplinary research is required that looks at strengthening food systems against environmental shocks, as well as preparing a response to negative policy headwinds and the potential breakdown of multilateral architecture.

Multidisciplinary research that addresses the more difficult and ‘unpalatable’ questions of how to move beyond GDP is also required. An exponentially growing rate of consumption is unsustainable on a finite earth, and research should explore an era of post-consumption, whilst promoting sustainable livelihoods. Addressing these issues were agreed as the only way to achieve real and lasting change, reflecting the University of Cambridge's commitment to interdisciplinary solutions.

The discussion also highlighted the need for academics to cultivate a deeper political awareness in their research. While academia can support policy development, complexities in the policy process can hinder effective implementation. Some participants highlighted the importance of enhancing political awareness among academics in order to effectively advocate for policy change. One participant emphasised that, as well as research dedicated to transforming our food systems, further research is needed in reforming our political structures. It was argued that academic research, particularly in the realm of disruptive innovation, currently falls short in its ability to inform policy effectively.

Synergising bottom-up and top-down strategies

As well as the need for stringent regulations on the private sector, participants emphasised the potential for generating positive local impacts. Participants stressed civil society's crucial role in holding policy makers and businesses accountable for their environmental impact. The need for both bottom-up and top-down strategies was suggested, where government, farmers, suppliers and consumers all play a pivotal role in food system security and sustainability. Bottom-up approaches could include activism e.g. Extinction Rebellion, citizens assemblies and celebrity endorsements to engage citizens such as Feargal Sharkey’s spotlight on water pollution. It was noted that political change only happens when society stands up and carves out a political space. This includes forming local movements, championing issues, and driving the research agenda. As well as these efforts, participants advocated for robust regulations and sanctions to promote sustainable consumption patterns, and a consensus emerged on the need to synergise bottom-up grassroots movements with top-down policy interventions.

Towards a theory of change

The seminar stimulated reflection on the need for a coherent theory of change that aligns economic incentives with environmental responsibility. Against a backdrop of geopolitical tensions and climatic extremes, innovative business models and inclusive governance structures were emphasized for transformative change. The imperative of international cooperation and knowledge sharing to navigate the complexities of global food systems underscores the need for agile, evidence-based policymaking.

Participants noted the catalytic role of visionary leadership in driving systemic change towards sustainability. Embracing diversity of thought and expertise, particularly through gender-inclusive leadership, emerged as a linchpin for building resilience. It also emphasised the need for partnerships between academia, industry and policy makers to foster knowledge sharing and innovation, signalling a paradigm shift towards collaborative problem solving. It is incumbent upon us to catalyse interdisciplinary research and advocate for policy reforms that will secure the future of the global food system.


Image by Megan Thomas on Unsplash