Opinion

Looking Beyond our Plates: Food in a Changing Climate

We know how bad our modern appetites are for the planet, but diet-shaming evades more difficult questions about how we build and support resilient, food secure communities.

In August, the University of Sydney invited 250 guests to the Innovation Week Gala Dinner. We shared technologies and ideas that are transforming the way we eat, and live, over a delicious meal of indigenous bush foods, probiotics — and crickets.

The menu was designed to provoke us into thinking about how we innovate our food systems in response to a historically novel set of risks in a changing climate. These risks are environmental, economic, social and deeply political. How we tackle them will determine our collective food futures.

The need for sustainable diets

Shifts in growing seasons, extended droughts and extreme weather events are already impacting on food supplies, globally. In our current drought, the worst in 116 years, Australia is importing wheat for the first time since 2007.

Meanwhile the way we produce and consume food is contributing to the problem. The latest Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report describes how agricultural production is complicit in increasing emissions, reducing biodiversity and polluting environments. The entire food production system, including transportation and packaging, is responsible for as much as 37 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

The IPCC states that “balanced diets featuring plant-based foods such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-greenhouse-gas-emission systems present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health”.

This is an approach is also strongly recommended by another key climate-food report Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Its 37 ‘expert’ authors call for a Great Food Transformation.

Four legs bad, plant-based good?

In response to the IPCC report global headlines called for an urgent overhaul of food production. The Times produced the juicy soundbite “eat less meat and save the Earth”, while Agence France Presse asked whether we still eat Big Macs and “avoid climate chaos”. One foolhardy opinion writer in The Wall St Journal called out Vegetarianism as ‘climate virtue signalling’.

Food-shaming aside, shifting diets is definitely part of the solution. But the media’s simplistic framing of meat versus plant-based products is not helpful. The sustainability credentials of plant-based products should be interrogated as thoroughly as the origins of animal protein. Almonds, for example, are notorious water guzzlers and soy production, with beef, is linked to widespread deforestation in the Amazon. Large-scale industrial monocultures are input intensive, toxic to soil and insect health (as in the case of colony collapse disorder) and vulnerable to food safety risks.

In comparison, biodiverse systems contribute to soil health, sustain farmer livelihoods and feed communities successfully throughout the majority world. In many of these systems, livestock play an important role not only in supplying protein but in nurturing soil health without contributing excessively to climate change. Nature reports that widespread adoption of a semi-vegetarian or “flexitarian diet” might reduce greenhouse gases by as much as 52 per cent. This research cites that low-impact, sustainably produced beef, for example, can generate lower GHGs than crops like coffee or cocoa beans produced in deforested areas.

Our personal food choices must be underpinned by political consciousness and awareness of the paradoxes of a dominant industrial food system that overproduces food, for profit. But eating according to our ethics, even with the sincere goal of changing market practices, will fall short of achieving an environmentally sustainable and equitable food system. We need to look beyond our plates to who supplies our food, how, and for whose benefit.

Normalising food aid

In the City of Sydney Local Government Area thousands of people are food insecure (17,000 based on 2016 figures) as a result of a complexity of factors including housing unaffordability, high utility bills and incomes that are not increasing at the same rate as the cost of living.

In 2018, despite living closer to sites of food production, rural Australians were 33 per cent more likely to have experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months than urban dwellers. The data tells us why. Droughts in the 2000s reduced agricultural income by 45 percent and rural employment by 15 per cent. Under these conditions overall food prices rose by 4.4 per cent, double the rate of the Consumer Price Index, for everyone.

Food price hikes like this exacerbate household income stress. The ABC reports that banks in South Australia are now referring people to FoodBank to help them pay their mortgages. In 2017 FoodBank fed 625,00 Australians each month, a ten percent increase on 2016.

In a rapidly expanding food aid supply chain “successful failures” such as foodbanks depoliticise hunger. Despite their essential contribution to the health and well-being of thousands of people, their proliferation has the effect of ‘normalising’ food aid. This undermines the duty of the state to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to food, enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The role of the right to food is never more central than in times of crisis, according to the former UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter. In the absence of purchasing power and social protections, vulnerable Australians will be profoundly impacted by the food price increases that will continue with climate change. Visionary yet pragmatic action is urgently needed.

Building resilient communities

Enterprising thinkers recognise the power of food as a productive force in advancing social justice in communities. Programs such as FoodLab Sydney, inspired by partner pioneers FoodLab Detriot, focus on raising the capacity and aspirations of local people interested in a career in food through education and training. They aim not only to generate jobs but dignity and agency, vital ingredients missing from a food charity model based on waste and surplus.

FoodLab Sydney joins a host of local social enterprises fixed on bringing good food into neighbourhoods by growing vibrant and inclusive local food economies in which everyone has the opportunity and capacity to participate. It is unique example of cross-institutional partnership between the University of Sydney, the City of Sydney, TAFE NSW and an ecosystem of like-minded individuals and organisations who recognise that innovation comes from collaboration and that resilient communities are comprised of resilient residents who themselves are the assets for transformative change.

Resilience is essential to the achievement of sustainability as it refers to the capacity of a system ‘to function over time despite disturbances’. Dealing with the climate-related disturbances of the future will require adaptability and flexibility on a scale we are yet to grasp. Only through constant learning, negotiation and cooperation will we reduce barriers to resilience in our food systems.

These barriers are structural, institutional and informational and a consequence of the ‘mismatch’ between the aims and needs of growers, eaters, policy-makers and commercial interests. The Great Food Transformation we need is linked to the capability and political willingness of motivated public and private actors – including governments, corporates and universities – to reduce them. This can promote the emergence of a sustainable, resilient and democratic food system in which choice and involvement is based on community and mutuality. A system that works for the majority of producers and eaters, across the entire supply chain. All the way to our plates.


Alana Mann is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), University of Sydney, Australia, and a key researcher in the University’s Sydney Environment Institute. Her research focuses on the communicative dimensions of citizen engagement, participation, and collective action in food systems planning and governance. She is a Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project FoodLab Sydney (2018-2020) with partners including the City of Sydney and FoodLab Detroit, and is collaborating with Macquarie University and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) on the project Growing Food and Density Together: Enabling Sustainable Place-making through Local Foodscapes in the Inner City, funded by Urban Growth NSW.