By the Food Culture Alliance
As COP28 takes place in Dubai, we’re excited to see an increased focus on the crucial role food systems play in tackling the climate crisis. With food finally in the spotlight, the Food Culture Alliance aims to secure culture a seat at the table. Why? Because culture is a climate solution hidden in plain sight. Here’s how.
COP is an annual opportunity to redirect the global spotlight and push for political and economic commitments to accelerate climate action. Fossil fuels and finance are always top of the agenda, but this year there is finally the addition of the much-needed third ‘F’ word: food!
This is great news. It’s a well known fact that our global food system is responsible for over a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, with meat and dairy contributing to more than half of these emissions. Now is the time to dig a little deeper and focus on the opportunity we have right in front of us.
The opportunity starts with a simple truth. The origins, catalysts, and consequences of these emissions are numerous, but an alarming reality underpins them all: the primary driver is society’s preference for and consumption of specific foods that are not nutritious or grown using sustainable production practices. We can’t meet global net-zero without tackling this.
The interconnected cycle of consumption
Excessive consumption of beef, lamb and mutton. Eggs, cheese and milk produced using practices that are not protective and respectful of biodiversity and the local ecosystems. These are the choices we make that set us on a collision course with sustainable development goals. The greater our indulgence of these foods, the more our food systems — farms, shops, and merchants — respond by providing us with an even greater supply, often at cheaper cost. This further ingrains the excess consumption of these foods in our daily lives. It’s the age-old cycle of supply and demand.
But the cycle is worse than this. It’s more vicious. The more we indulge in unsustainably sourced foods, the more carbon we pump into our atmosphere. As increased carbon accelerates climate change, the foods we grow and eat become less nutritious, and extreme weather destroys crops and agriculture, leading to heightened food insecurity. Already, studies reveal that the rise in extreme weather and climate events has left millions of people exposed to acute food shortages, with the most significant impacts evident across various regions and communities in Africa, Asia, Central, and South America1.
This is the reality of the interconnected crises we face today. A food consumption and food system crisis. A health and wellbeing crisis. A climate crisis. And we can’t solve one without solving them all.
Sustainable diets for a sustainable climate
It’s not all doom and gloom, and the resolutions are clear. To solve these crises, we need to get more people eating sustainably sourced foods that are also nutritious. These are foods that are sustainably produced – i.e. grown using practices that are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems – economically fair and affordable, culturally acceptable, and distributed and made accessible in ways that limit environmental impact and the generation of waste.
The call for this transformation is not new. These include strategies to improve supply chains and adapt product purchasing, champion locally sourced foods to reduce transportation emissions, or increase the availability of more sustainable products.
But to meet our critical goals and limit global warming, we must rapidly accelerate this work with more effective, demand strategies.
Accelerating the transformation
We need to prioritise creating demand for sustainably-sourced foods and the role that socio-cultural factors play in igniting it. At the Food Culture Alliance, our research shows that our demand for specific foods is shaped by the complicated world that surrounds us.
Most notably, there is a critical ingredient that has been missing in wider strategies to date: the socio-cultural factors such as beliefs, values and norms that influence our preferences and eventual food choices. We call this food culture.
We can put sustainably sourced foods in front of people. We can even make them cheaper. But how can we expect people to change their food habits or buy sustainably produced foods when their values, beliefs, and societal norms are telling them otherwise? We can’t. We need to inspire society to change.
Systems don’t change until there is a critical mass. Today, the critical mass still prefers to consume unsustainable foods. Until we redirect that preference towards more sustainably sourced foods, we won’t achieve our ambition.
Food culture is a climate solution hidden in plain sight. Let’s use it.
To reduce our emissions, safeguard our ecosystems, and slow down the march of climate change, we must use food culture to rapidly ignite demand and redirect consumption. Just as socio-cultural influences steer us towards unsustainable foods today, they can also drive us in the opposite direction. We just need counter strategies to make it happen.
Food culture provides just this, arming us with a toolbox of strategies to use. We can craft new narratives that stir emotion and change viewpoints; recruit storytellers, media channels and influential figures to be the trusted messenger; engage with cultural institutions such as schools, religion or sport to meet people in the spaces they connect with.
Working together, these strategies can shape how we value, think and feel about food – making us crave more sustainable diets. The Food Culture Alliance was created to focus on exactly this; using food culture strategies to build upon current efforts to create a more sustainable food system.
Over the next three years, we will build knowledge of food culture, establish local alliances in Kenya, India, and Indonesia, as well as drive the agenda forward on global stages such as COP.
Culture is a crucial aspect of the conversation on food system transformation. Together, join us in championing its role in igniting society’s preference for a nutritious, sustainable future. If you’re interested in finding out more, make sure to sign up to our newsletter to get a flavour of what we’re up to!
1 H. Lee and J. Romero (eds.). Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2023. pp. 35-115.
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