Overview of change

Global indicators tracking the UN FAO Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to end hunger and achieve food security by 2030 are deteriorating, with the goal unlikely to be achieved.1 The UN defines food security as “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. It identifies four dimensions of food security: food availability, economic and physical access to food, food utilisation, and stability over time.2 A food system has been described as the interconnected system of everything and everybody that influences, and is influenced by, the activities involved in bringing food from farm to fork and beyond.3 Sustainability is usually described as encompassing three dimensions of human-natural systems—social, environmental and economic.4 Transforming the food system, to achieve all the UN SDG long-term goals, is challenging as the system comprises multiple smaller complex systems that feed back into the whole system, and requires a comprehensive, longer term approach to outcomes.5,6,7,8,9,10,11 The English National Food Strategy (Part Two) will be published in 2021 setting out a future vision for the food system and analysing the system’s potential benefits and harms across interwoven themes. These include health, climate change, biodiversity, pollution, antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic diseases and sustainable use of resources.12

Challenges and opportunities

The UK Health Expert Advisory Group convened by the Climate Change Committee has recommended that building a sustainable, resilient and healthy food system is a key lever for delivering health and climate change outcomes.12 Research has suggested that adopting more stringent UK guidelines could reduce food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.13,14 The global food system is responsible for about 21–37% of total emissions; arising from agriculture and land use, storage, transport, packaging, processing, retail, and consumption.15 The majority (71%) come from agriculture and land use or land use change activities.16 Technological innovation in crop production, livestock rearing, food processing, packaging and distribution, and waste elimination could reduce emissions and contribute to a more productive, secure and sustainable food system.17,18,19

However, technological options for the food system are just one factor to consider for transformative change.18 If trust and acceptance of new food systems are to be achieved, changes will need to be transparent and responsive,20 highlighting social, governance and institutional factors. For example, the Institute of Food Science and Technology has called for an alignment of interests across supply chains, from plant breeders through to consumers, if safe and acceptable novel ingredients are to be adopted.21 A widely debated option is the large-scale production of meat alternatives, including plant-based and artificial or lab-grown meat, which may reduce emissions. The consequences of these have yet to be fully assessed, including the extent of environmental, health and food security benefits or impacts compared with other potential solutions. These include implications for farming; the nutritional value of these products, particularly for micronutrients such as iron; and public acceptance.21,22,23,24,25

Legislation to ban UK firms from selling commodities, such as soya and palm oil, from illegally deforested land was included in the Environment Bill in 2020,26 although NGOs have called to extend measures to legal deforestation.27,28 Deforestation trends vary significantly across the world, but forests are lost at a rate of about 10 million hectares (Mha) per year across the tropics and subtropics.29 Research has attributed 62% (5.5 Mha/yr) of forest loss in these areas from 2005–2013 to expanding commercial cropland, pastures and tree plantations, which were associated with cattle meat, forestry products, oil palm, cereals and soybeans. International demand for these commodities was associated with 26% of this deforestation.30 Limitations remain in attributing forest loss to specific commodities accurately,30 but an assessment of 100 palm oil producers, processors and traders has demonstrated that, while 71% (56 out of 79) have made a clear and robust commitment to zero deforestation, just 42% (33 out of 79) provide detailed information on how they are actually monitoring deforestation in their operations.31

Key unknowns

The UN Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition recommend the promotion of investment in responsible agriculture.32 There has been a global increase in sustainability-linked loans to food and agriculture firms ($135.3bn in 2019) but the effect of this on food system sustainability is unclear.33

Defining and empirically measuring food systems’ sustainability remains a challenge, and a combination of multiple environmental, economic, social, food security and nutritional factors need to be considered.34

The complexity and interconnectedness of the current food trade has reduced reliance of a third of the global population on the local production of staple foods,35 but trade restrictions by a few key actors could create global food price spikes.36,37,38

Key questions for Parliament

  • Whether public investment in innovations to store, process and manufacture safe, nutritious and affordable food products more efficiently, including circular economy opportunities, is needed.39,40 The current UKRI Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Transforming Food Production (TFP) only funds pre-farm gate initiatives.41,42
  • What are the appropriate measures and targets for reducing emissions from the UK food system?33 Given the four nations of the UK will have separate food strategies, how can collaboration and alignment be achieved?43,44,45
  • What are the appropriate strategies for delivering more sustainable and resilient food systems,46,47,48 such as how to incentivise use of more sustainable ingredients,49 or how to facilitate voluntary and community-based enterprise solutions that deliver economic, social and environmental value?50

Likelihood and impact

Without major changes to the food system, it is unlikely that the 2050 1.5°C target can be achieved.51

Research for Parliament 2021

Experts have helped us identify 30 areas of change to help the UK Parliament prepare for the future.


  1. FAO (2020). Tracking progress on food and agriculture-related SDG indicators 2020 /
  2. FAO (2019). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World
  3. Parsons, K et al. (2019). Rethinking Food Policy: A Fresh Approach to Policy and Practice, Brief 2: Understanding the food system: Why it matters for food policy, Centre for Food Policy.
  4. Purvis, B, et al. (2019). Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins. Sustainability Science, vol 14, pgs 681–695
  5. Oliver, T, et al. (2018). Overcoming undesirable resilience in the global food system. Global Sustainability, vol 1
  6. Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment. (2020). Hungry for Change: Fixing the Failures in Food.
  7. Steiner A, et al. (2020). Actions to Transform Food Systems under Climate Change. CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)
  8. World Economic Forum. (2020). Incentivizing Food Systems Transformation. Geneva: World Economic Forum. f
  9. UNEP. (2021). UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021
  10. The Global Food Security programme (GFS). (2019). Horizon Scanning Report. Game-changing developments in the context of food security and future research priorities.
  11. Hasnain, S, et al. (2020). Mapping the UK Food System – a report for the UKRI Transforming UK Food Systems Programme. Environmental Change Institute
  12. National Food Strategy. (2020). Our Approach and Principle
  13. Climate Change Committee. (2020). Sustainable Health Equity: Achieving a Net Zero UK (UCL)
  14. Springmann, M, et al. (2020). The healthiness and sustainability of national and global food based dietary guidelines: modelling study. BMJ
  15. Willett, W, et al. (2019). Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet, vol 393(10170), pgs 447–492.
  16. IPCC (2019). Technical Summary. Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems
  17. Crippa, M, et al. (2021). Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions. Nature Food, vol 2, pgs198–209
  18. Herrero, M, et al. (2020). Innovation can accelerate the transition towards a sustainable food system. Nature Food, vol 1, pgs 266–272
  19. The Global Food Security programme (GFS). (2019). Transformative innovation across food supply chains to improve decision-making
  20. EIT Food. (2020). The EIT Food Trust Report
  21. Martindale, W, et al. (2020). Protein diversification. Food Science and Technology, vol 34 (1), pgs 18-21
  22. Nuffield Council on Bioethics. (2020). Meat alternatives. Bioethics Briefing Note.
  23. The Royal Society. 2019. Future food: health and sustainability. Conference report.
  24. Hashempour-Baltork, F, et al. (2020). Mycoproteins as safe meat substitutes. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol 253, 119958
  25. The Global Food Security programme (GFS). (2021). Is the UK ready for plant-based diets? Policy Lab Report.
  26. Environment Bill 2019-21
  27. Global Canopy. (2020). Addressing the UK’s deforestation footprint
  28. Pacheco, P, et al. (2021). Deforestation fronts: Drivers and responses in a changing world. WWF
  29. Hansen, M, et al. (2013). High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science, vol 342, pgs 850–853
  30. Pendrill, F, et al. (2019). Deforestation displaced: trade in forest-risk commodities and the prospects for a global forest transition. Environ. Res. Lett., vol 14 (5), 055003
  31. SPOTT. (2020). Palm oil: ESG policy transparency assessments
  32. Committee on World Food Security. (2021). The CFS Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition (VGFSyN)
  33. UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. (2020). All-Consuming: Building a Healthier Food System for People and Planet
  34. Béné, C, et al. (2020). Global map and indicators of food system sustainability. Scientific Data, vol 6, Article number: 279
  35. Kinnunen, P, et al. (2020). Local food crop production can fulfil demand for less than one-third of the population. Nature Food, vol 1, pgs 229–237
  36. Falkendal, T, et al. (2021). Grain export restrictions during COVID-19 risk food insecurity in many low- and middle-income countries. Nature Food, vol 2, pgs 11–14
  37. Manning, L. (2021). Safeguard global supply chains during a pandemic. Nature Food, vol 2, pg 10
  38. Lloyd’s. (2019). Evolving risks in global food supply. Insurance opportunities in the complex journey from field to fork.
  39. Verni, M, et al. (2020). Wasted Bread as Substrate for the Cultivation of Starters for the Food Industry. Front. Microbiol.
  40. IFST (2020). Food Waste. Food Science Fact Sheet, Sheet Number 8.
  41. Farming UK. (2020). UK agri-tech projects receive £24m government boost.
  42. Business Green. (2020). Fruit-picking robots and carbon-saving animal feeds: Government confirms £24m agri-tech funding boost.
  43. The Scottish Government. (2020). Good Food Nation Policy.
  44. Welsh Assembly Government. (2010). Food for Wales, Food from Wales 2010-2020: Food Strategy for Wales.
  45. Northern Ireland Government, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, (2017). Going for Growth: A Strategic Action Plan in Support of the NI Agri-food Industry.
  46. Sysrisk. (2021). Systemic environmental risk analysis for threats to UK recovery from COVID-19 /
  47. The Global Food Security programme (GFS). (2019). Exploring the resilience of the UK food system in a global context
  48. The Global Food Security programme (GFS). (2020).Workshop report – building back better for increased resilience of the UK food system to future shocks
  49. The Behavioural Insights Team. (2020). A Menu for Change. Using behavioural science to promote sustainable diets around the world
  50. The Long Table [online]. What is Community Resilience? /
  51. Clark, M, et al. (2021). Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets. Science, vol. 370, Issue 6517, pgs 705-708

Photo by Nazarizal Mohammad on Unsplash

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