How can we achieve both food security and net zero? 

19 January 2022


How can we achieve both food security and net zero? 

Reported by Sarah Brakebill-Hacke, University of Cambridge

While it is true that our food security and our food system are vulnerable to conditions created by climate change, the agricultural industry is also a major contributor to the problem. The food system contributes as much as 37% of total emissions between livestock and crop production, food and plastic waste, transportation, and deforestation. How can the competitive tension between food security, consumer demand, and our goal of net zero emissions be resolved in a sustainable way to solve the earth’s most pressing problems?

The Cambridge Zero Policy Forum continued in November 2021, with a critical discussion about food security and net zero by four experts in the field representing a range of institutions: Dr Luke Spadavecchia, Agricultural Science Programme Manager (Crops & Horticulture, Agri-Climate and Innovation), Agri-Food Chain Directorate, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Dr Richard Harrison, Director of Cambridge Crop Research, NIAB; Professor Shailaja Fennell, Professor in Regional Transformation and Economic Security, Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge; and Professor Cristiane Derani, Professor of International Economic and Environmental Law, Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil and Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge. The discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule, and was organised by Dr Angie Burnett, a David MacKay Research Associate at Darwin College and Cambridge Zero in collaboration with the Cambridge Global Food Security Interdisciplinary Research Centre. The event was chaired by Dr. Rob Doubleday, Executive Director of the Centre for Science and Policy.

The panel discussion provoked much thought about the intersection of these crucial issues and contributed to framing the discussion around its key elements. It was noted that 71% of the land use in the UK is agricultural, with 85% of that land devoted to the production of animal-related products. Land use change (particularly peatland drainage) and the production and use of soil amendments such as mineral fertilizers are key components of the crop system’s carbon footprint. Much is already being done by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) with their England Peat Action Plan and Soil Action Plan to restore peatlands and manage soil nutrients. Improving the use of protein crops for human consumption can further improve the emissions profile of agriculture, and progress is being made in this space via conventional breeding technologies. It was expressed that at least in the near term most progress can be made by further improving nutrient management in a way that does not negatively impact crop yields or food security, and by supporting breeding efforts to increase crop resilience to climate threats and to increase the efficiency of nutrient uptake. Alongside conventional breeding, new techniques such as gene editing may be used to improve crop characteristics.

Another key factor impacting the global food system is the instability of energy prices. It was stated that energy security determines food security. Food security and emissions present a complicated landscape that is in a large part dependent on volatile fuel costs, which are themselves affected by climate variation. Volatile fuel prices can cause crop cancellations, making growers shift to seasonal crops and creating shortages in certain items, thus making the continuity of supply a challenge.

Multiple panelists alluded to the importance of land use change for mitigating carbon emissions. These changes can include managed afforestation, the rewetting and restoration of peatlands, and increasing the production of plant-based proteins. The benefits of afforestation are contingent on planting the right species in the right location. There is a growing recognition that it is necessary to reimagine our farming practices, for example by adopting agroforestry systems in both pastoral land and cropping lands. Under-utilised crops such as millets can reduce agricultural water use and increase diversity in the food system, but will require a significant breeding effort to realise their potential benefits in UK agricultural systems. Finally the reduction of food waste and the elimination of single-use plastics from the agricultural supply chain will further reduce the carbon footprint of our food systems.

To change our food system, there must be consumer cooperation. Panelists discussed whether consumers are willing to voluntarily change consumption habits, or whether these habits will be policy driven. Economic evidence demonstrates a relatively weak linkage between primary production and domestic consumer influences given the globalized nature of agricultural commodity markets, and that changing patterns of demand are more likely to impact national trade balance than emissions. It is therefore likely that much of the transformation to less carbon-intensive food may need to be policy driven: through regulation, prohibition, subsidy of preferred activity, and promotion of change in direct appeals to consumers and decision makers. These efforts are necessarily international, as the food system is global. Change can be made domestically, or internationally through conforming to shared rules and international trade agreements.

Our public sector needs urgent action to prioritise the greening of our food system to provide sustainable food security for future generations. Climate change cannot be mitigated without a robust international commitment to fund the green initiatives and research necessary to attain the ambitious goals of net zero, and zero hunger worldwide in the coming decades.

For more information on this issue, read PR-EN-GlasgowDeclaration.pdf (, the Glasgow Food Climate Declaration published by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food.

Image credit: Jan Kopřiva on Unsplash