4.3.3 Food systems

Lukas Fesenfeld, Sol Kislig, Emma Bailey, Tom Powell, Antony Emenyu, Franziska Gaupp, Jürgen Scheffran

Lukas Fesenfeld, Sol Kislig, Emma Bailey, Tom Powell, Antony Emenyu, Franziska Gaupp, Jürgen Scheffran

Key Messages

  • There are strong synergies between key leverage points for achieving climate goals, biodiversity protection and other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These leverage points are avoiding food loss and waste, shifting to more plant-based diets, improving alternatives to animal products, and shifting to agro-ecological farming.
  • Triggering food system positive tipping points could be encouraged by a greater focus on adaptive and deliberative governance, a stronger science-policy interface, science-based targets and strategic policy design and sequencing to help support those who might otherwise be ‘losers’ in positive tipping points, such as livestock farmers.
  • The key leverage points require coordinated political and social action to change norms, accelerate innovation, disrupt dampening feedbacks and provide incentives.


  • Combine and sequence private and public interventions to create nonlinear reductions in food loss and waste. Examples include consumer apps and nudging in public cafeterias, supermarkets and restaurants and regulatory and incentive instruments that target retailers as central actors in the food supply chain, fostering reinforcing feedbacks.
  • Focus on policy synergies along the supply chain (i.e. nudges, public procurement standards and innovation-oriented measures) to foster demand-side shifts in public cafeterias, restaurants, and supermarkets towards more plant-based diets, while providing incentives to producers and processors to shift towards plant-based food production.
  • Integrate policies that foster innovation and diffusion of alternatives to animal products to drive positive tipping points through cost reduction, improved availability and quality, and social norm shifts.
  • Make agroecological practices or alternative land uses economically attractive to farmers by diversifying business models through well-regulated markets for payments-for-ecosystem-services (including carbon), or other innovations like Agri-PV. Reducing administrative burden (e.g. via satellite-based and outcome-based subsidies), and offering compensation schemes can also reduce barriers and political backlash.
  • Focus policies incentivising production-shift, new emission-pricing (e.g., nitrogen surplus fees and methane emission trading), phase-out and compensation schemes on large producers in key regions (e.g. regions and farms with excessive nitrogen pollution or organic soils). New revenues from emission pricing should be used to support most affected regions and low-income groups (e.g., via reducing VAT rates on plant-based food), foster innovation in alternative proteins, and create additional income sources for farmers. This can help to negotiate a feasible, efficient, effective, and just transition package.


Transforming the food system is critically important to meeting Paris Agreement targets, protecting biodiversity and achieving the SDGs. Three key leverage points to mitigate food system impacts are illustrated by case studies: reducing consumption of livestock products by shifting to more sustainable diets; avoiding food loss and waste; and restoring critical ecosystem service provision through improved farming practices. 

For dietary change, shifting behavioural norms and consumer experiences in high- and middle-income countries is key, and can be accelerated by policy choices and public procurement that increases exposure to low-livestock meal options. A positive tipping point in attractiveness and affordability of alternative proteins can help to accelerate this shift. Diffusion of alternative business models and income-sources for livestock and feed producers, e.g. in agri-photovoltaics, can also accelerate changes in livestock supply chains. To reduce food loss and waste, coordinated action by public and private initiatives can create reinforcing feedback and have transformative effects. To change farming practices, policy certainty and robust markets for ecosystem services can incentivise farmers to change, but strong information networks are critical. 

For climate vulnerable people in the Global South, this shift can lead to social-ecological reinforcing feedbacks that build social, economic and ecological capital. Together, these leverage points offer opportunities to reduce pressure on natural ecosystems, restore natural carbon sinks and increase social justice. Strengthening deliberative food system governance, science-policy interface and effective sequencing of policy can help to accelerate transformation. 

Figure: 4.3.9
Figure 4.3.9: Avoiding food loss and waste, shifting to more plant-based diets and improving farming practice through agro-ecological approaches are key leverage points which can interact to produce a cascade of benefits for natural ecosystems, climate change mitigation and food security. 
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