The complexity of our food systems and the implications for climate change

  • 28 Aug 2020
  • Green recovery

By Keesje Avis, Senior Policy Officer and Clerk of Farming 1.5 Inquiry at Nourish Scotland

What do you think of when you think of food? Breakfast this morning? The wrappers on your desk? The celebratory feast you enjoyed with your loved ones? An exquisite dish from a restaurant you wish you could get a booking at? A hungry tummy? 

Food is constant to our everyday. Either because we enjoy it or loathe it or don’t have enough of it. It is embedded into our celebrations, our commiserations, our families and our culture. It is also central to human health, human rights and the natural world – an intersection, if you will, between how human beings treat each other, themselves and live as part of the ecosystem. This is why, from a climate change point of view the food system is so important and also currently avoided.

Food systems incorporate a range of activities from seed sowing to household and commercial waste disposal. Different scientists have estimated food related emissions to be anywhere from a quarter to a third of the world’s total emissions. The variation is due to differences in weather, culture, diets, wealth and habits from region to country to families and to individuals. It makes counting messy but it also makes accountability difficult. The international food system is managed by multinational organisations with complex supply chains and dependencies. They are outside governments, farmers and food citizens alike.

Think of a bottle of tomato ketchup – a ubiquitous product in people’s cupboards (or in their fridges – that’s a debate for another time!) across the world. A life cycle analysis back in 1999 of Swedish ketchup found that the tomatoes came from a range of Mediterranean countries. Other elements from the vinegar to the bottles came from a further 8 different countries and involved more than 52 transport and process stages. This was without tracing the fertilisers, seeds, lubricating oils, wholesale dealer, retailer, consumption and waste. There is a lot going on in that bottle loitering in the back of your cupboard! 

So, am I telling you not to buy it? No. Ketchup in itself is not ‘climate evil’. In fact a more recent life cycle assessment of different types of ketchup in different bottle types revealed emissions of only 5-10kg’s/year per person – a tiny part of your carbon footprint. So, if our individual consumption is insignificant, whose actions do count? Who is accountable? 

At the moment, the knee-jerk response is to refer back to the greenhouse gas emissions’ silos as set out by the UNFCCC. The growing of the tomatoes and the sugar beet in ketchup, officially sits in ‘agriculture’, processing would be under ‘industrial’ emissions, transport under ‘transport’. This ties emissions to a particular place making it easier to measure and simpler to designate accountability. Each country needs to reduce their emissions under each theme. But no farmer in Scotland grew the tomatoes in your ketchup, nor are they Scottish workers picking tomatoes in 40°C heat for 11 hours a day. Who is accountable for the fertiliser sales-person promising to sort out the yield issues because the soil is so barren? Or the retailer that sells ketchup at 2 for 1? Or the doctor who treats the diabetes and heart disease caused by eating too much processed food – often the accompaniment to ketchup? All of these issues have climate implications and yet managing them remains elusive.

This year’s global ketchup sales revenue is around US$27 227m. This is huge business, but only a condiment to the global food industry. And yet, how we as individuals, communities and nations produce and source food, our food choices and how it is wasted presents considerable scope for tackling climate change. It cannot be left to the market.  The creation of people, nature and climate friendly food systems needs governance, at the international, national and subnational levels.

In Scotland, there is talk of a National Food Plan. In Europe there are the beginnings of the Farm to Fork strategy. But could food take more of a centre stage during COP? Could the UK make a brave stand as host and include it within its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). Or could Scotland present its own NDC and include food as an intersectional theme?  

I say again, it’s complex stuff, but also very important. Our current strategies are not effectively dealing with the climate or nature or human health emergencies. It is time to get out of the silos and act systemically.

Find out more about Nourish’s work on climate and food systems by:

Find out more about a Scottish rural business trying innovative approaches to growing tomatoes: