In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, there’s no doubt that food security needs to be tackled internationally. With the growing impact of climate change and environmental degradation on food production, as well as risks related to public health, pandemics, and geopolitical shifts, moving towards a more plant-based diet in order to protect global food security has never been so relevant.
About food security
The Committee on World Food Security defines1 food security as “when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” The aim of defining “food security” is to “work towards the eradication of food insecurity, hunger, and malnutrition, consistent with the right to adequate food and the right to be free from hunger.”
Pandemics threaten food security
Food security is vital to providing people across the globe access to healthy and nutritious food. As we’ve all seen during the pandemic, our reliance on our current food system is a risky one, as the foods we consume worldwide rely heavily on animal-based ingredients, which can be more difficult to produce under challenging conditions. For example, in 2021 in the UK, shortages of turkey were reported2 due to Brexit and the pandemic, while in 2020 in the US, meat shortages were reported3
due to the pandemic.
By exploring the crucial connection between the current crisis and our animal-based food system, the ProVeg Food & Pandemics Report highlights how our food choices help to create a recipe for zoonotic pandemics. By shifting to plant-based and cultured foods, we can help to minimise the risk of future pandemics as well as helping to resolve many of the other key challenges we face, including climate change, biodiversity loss, world hunger, antimicrobial resistance, and the rise of other food-related diseases.
The climate crisis threatens food security
It’s not only pandemics that pose a risk to food security worldwide – extreme weather conditions such as heavy rainfall or droughts similarly threaten food security. In the US in 2021, pea production fell by 45 per cent – the lowest levels in a decade – after wildfires destroyed crops in the wake of an arid summer on the Canadian prairies.4 Globally, we therefore need to move towards sustainable diets.5
In order to be sustainable, agriculture must meet the needs of present and future generations,6 while ensuring profitability, environmental health, and social and economic equity. Sustainable food and agriculture (SFA) contributes to all four pillars of food security – availability, access, utilisation, and stability – and the three dimensions of sustainability (environmental, social, and economic). The FAO promotes sustainable food and agriculture in order to help all countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 2 (zero hunger).7
All-time high food prices threaten food security
In November 2021, global food prices rose 1.2% compared to the previous month, and were at their highest level since June 2011 (unadjusted for inflation).8
Extreme weather conditions, combined with the ongoing pandemic, has helped to drive global food prices to a 46-year high, leaving many people across the world in challenging situations. The Centre for Economics and Business Research halves growth forecasts and says inflation is expected to remain at 7% until 2023.9 The all-time high food prices are a clear sign that there is a need for a change in our food system in order to protect global food security, and one of the best ways to ensure this food security is to move towards a more plant-rich diet.
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More plant-based diets mean justice for all
Net-zero plans are not enough
A recent report10 published by Oxfam shows that although the ambition of companies to get to net-zero is an admirable one, it often tends to be a dangerous distraction from the priority of cutting emissions from actual production.
Many companies with net-zero targets rely heavily on carbon offsets. These offsets usually come in the form of land use – e.g. planting trees. Using more land to offset emissions means that there is less available agricultural land. This in turn means that food scarcity and food insecurity will become more prominent – especially in the Global South – as there simply isn’t enough land to offset carbon emissions without threatening the food security of hundreds of millions of people.
Using land alone to remove the world’s carbon emissions to achieve ‘net zero’ by 2050 would require at least 1.6 billion hectares of new forests, equivalent to five times the size of India or more than all the farmland on the planet
Intensive animal farming produces high emissions which threaten global food security
Continuing to intensively farm animals at the current scale means that emissions will continue to stay high. Despite the many promises from the respective industries, it’s hard to imagine meat, dairy, fish and egg production using innovation alone to achieve net zero, without relying on offsets, especially when taking into account the short time window available to keep the global temperature increase below 1.5°C, as pledged in the Paris Agreement.
As such, continuing with widespread industrial animal agriculture will use more available agricultural land, and result in further food scarcity and food insecurity around the world. While this will likely affect all countries, there is a risk that it will disproportionately affect the Global South.
Put simply, moving towards more plant-rich diets is the quickest and easiest way to ensure food security for all in the face of the climate crisis.
Policy changes necessary to ensure global food security
In order to ensure global food security, countries need to enable citizens to move towards more plant-rich diets. This requires coherent policies across countries and regions. Subsidies that support more plant-based initiatives and divestment from intensive livestock farming are just a few examples of how legislation can play a key role in supporting food security worldwide.
Europe in lead?
A good example of a step in the right direction is Europe’s Farm to Fork strategy, which specifically states that the “Overconsumption of meat and highly processed foods with high salt, sugar and fat content must be addressed, including by setting maximum intake levels11” and that “moving to a more plant-based diet […] will reduce not only risks of life-threatening diseases, but also the environmental impact of the food system.12”
The European Commission recently announced that, “Following the COVID-19 crisis and as announced in the Farm to Fork Strategy, the EU intends to step up coordination at European level to ensure citizens do not face food shortages during crises.”13
In order to enable this change, it is particularly important to ensure that countries, as well as farmers, food-processing companies, transportation companies, and retailers, can coordinate and work together in emergency circumstances so that a shift towards a more plant-based diet and production process is not neglected.
Other positive policy changes needed are:
- Key public institutions and schools serving more plant-based meals
- Subsidies and a just transition towards a more plant-based food system
- Supporting plant-based food innovations
- Supporting plant-friendly dietary guidelines
- Fair taxation on plant-based products
- Transparent labelling on animal-based and plant-based products
The Paris Agreement can contribute to food security worldwide
Shortly after COP21, the FAO described the Paris Agreement as a “breakthrough climate agreement recognising food security as priority”.14 Achieving food security implies worldwide compliance with the Paris Agreement in order to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius and preferably no higher than 1.5 degrees. In Article 2.1 (c), the Agreement recognises the importance of protecting food production while adapting to the effects of climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.15
However, although food security, including maintenance of food production, is acknowledged, there is no mention of agriculture or food systems in the agreement. Indeed, while the agreement has a focus on food security, it does not refer to the largest contributors to climate change – key areas where emissions and other climate targets should clearly be addressed.
On the other hand, following the Paris Agreement, the launch of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015, which seeks to end poverty and hunger, has provided countries and governments with guidance to achieve the Paris Agreement. The two are indeed linked, with the climate actions contained in countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) connected to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).16
More specifically, food security is closely aligned with the SDGs, including SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG 13 (Climate Action), SDG 14 (Life Below Water), and SDG 15 (Life on Land).
Policy commitments towards a more plant-based diet
After the Paris agreement, the most recent outcomes of the global climate action are:
- Global Methane Pledge: signed by nearly 100 countries who agreed to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. While Brazil, the US, and the EU have signed, China, Russia, India and others did not. Unfortunately, the pledge barely mentions the fact that agriculture and food systems are responsible for nearly 40% of the methane global emissions.17 Cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by developing innovative solutions and switching towards more plant-rich sustainable diets can help to fight food insecurity. Indeed, climate change, the vanishing of biodiversity, and the shrinking of diversity of agricultural cultivars, along with new plant and animal diseases, increasing energy and food prices, food loss and waste, and speculation on the food market, will have a negative impact on global food security if national governments do not take the necessary steps.18
- Glasgow Leader’s Declaration on Forests and Land Use: signed by more than 100 countries and pledged $19.2bn towards ending deforestation by 2030. The declaration shows similarities with the New York Declaration on Forests, signed in 2014 and pledging for the same objective, with deforestation having risen significantly since then, particularly because of intensive animal agriculture, which is responsible for nearly 80% of deforestation.19 Moreover, deforestation negatively impacts on the livelihoods of those that live in or near forests, causing a decrease in the future capacity of forests to protect biodiversity and provide fundamental environmental services.20
- Kingsley, T. (2021): UK shops facing shortages of paracetamol and turkeys ahead of Christmas. The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/shortage-paracetamol-turkey-supply-crunch-b1981364.html [Accessed: 21.04.2022]
Law, T. (2020): COVID-19 Meat Shortages Could Last for Months. Here’s What to Know Before Your Next Grocery Shopping Trip. TIME. Available at: https://time.com/5830178/meat-shortages-coronavirus/ [21.04.2022]
- Pavia, W. (2021): Veggie burgers are off the menu as supply of peas dries up. The Times. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/veggie-burger-production-hit-pea-shortage-drought-canada-vcj8lww0m [Accessed: 21.04.2022]
- https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/shifting-sustainable-diets. The FAO defines sustainable diets as “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair, and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources (FAO 2012).”
FAO: World Food Situation – FAO Food Price Index. Available at: https://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/ [Accessed: 21.04.2022]
- Oxfam (2021): ‘Net zero’ carbon targets are dangerous distractions from the priority of cutting emissions says new Oxfam report. Available at: https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/net-zero-carbon-targets-are-dangerous-distractions-priority-cutting-emissions-says [Accessed: 21.04.2022]
- European Parliament (2021): New EU farm to fork strategy to make our food healthier and more sustainable. Available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20211014IPR14914/new-eu-farm-to-fork-strategy-to-make-our-food-healthier-and-more-sustainable [Accessed: 21.04.2022]
- COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS A Farm to Fork Strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system. COM/2020/381 final. Link: Farm to Fork Strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system
- European Commission (2021): Commission adopts contingency plan for food supply and food security in times of crisis. Press release: Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_5903 [Accessed: 21.04.2022]
- FAO (2015): Breakthrough climate agreement recognizes food security as a priority. Available at: https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/358257/icode/ [Accessed: 21.04.2022]
- Dzebo, A., H. Janetschek, C. Brandi and G. Iacobuta (2019). Connections between the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda: the case for policy coherence. SEI Working Paper. Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm. Available at: https://www.sei.org/publications/connections-between-the-paris-agreement-and-the-2030-agenda/ [Accessed: 21.04.2022]
- United Nations Environment Programme and Climate and Clean Air Coalition (2021): Global Methane Assessment: Benefits and Costs of Mitigating Methane Emissions.Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme. Available at: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/35917/GMA_ES.pdf [Accessed: 04.02.2022]
- Kwasek, M (2012): Threats to food security and common agricultural policy. Economics of Agriculture 4/2012 UDC: 663/664:658.562:338.43.02. p.703
- Kissinger, G., M. Herold, V. De Sy (2012): Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers. Lexeme Consulting, p. 12
- World Economic Forum (2021): Forests, Food Systems and Livelihoods: Trends, Forecasts and Solutions to Reframe Approaches to Protecting Forests. Available at: https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Forests_Food_Systems_and_Livelihoods_2021.pdf [Accessed: 04.02.2022]