Reforming food systems contributes to just climate action

Key messages

  • There has been insufficient consideration of historical and persistent injustices, socio-economic conditions, regional disparities in geography, culture and technological readiness, and power imbalances in food systems governance.
  • Acknowledging and addressing injustices and how they are reinforced in contemporary food systems is a prerequisite for realising the mitigation potential of food systems transformations.
  • Policies must be co-designed with all key actors, with a plurality of solutions across different scales that reflect diverse regional contexts.

Insight explained

On their own, food systems are responsible for 31% of global GHG emissions and are capable of pushing global warming towards 2°C by 2100 barring significant changes to the status quo. At the same time, over 700 million people face hunger, and marginalised groups such as women and girls, racial, ethnic and caste minority groups, Indigenous peoples, and small-scale farmers are disproportionately affected by food insecurity and climate change.

Though agreement across scientific disciplines is widespread that food systems transformation for climate mitigation is urgently needed, current dialogues and decision-making processes on food systems governance remain siloed, polarised (for example, on the debate of local vs. global solutions) and exclusive (often the most vulnerable stakeholders are not actively engaged or are overpowered by dominating actors). As a result, current governance systems are ill-equipped to recognise or wilfully neglect social vulnerabilities, regional disparities in geography, culture and socio-economic conditions, technological readiness, vested interests and power imbalances. The agrifood industry constitutes a set of structures that contributes to and reinforces unsustainability and injustices worldwide. Scholars fear that acting urgently in pursuit of low-carbon food futures, without the governance infrastructure and capacity to acknowledge and address these injustices in contemporary food systems, will hamper transformations towards secure, just and sustainable food systems.

Broader participatory platforms to integrate marginalised communities and diverse cultures, designed for safe, inclusive and candid dialogue, must be established for moving towards just transitions for sustainable and equitable food systems. Continuous transdisciplinary engagement with stakeholders starting from the stage of problem defining, evidence gathering, impact monitoring, all the way to solution implementation, creates co-ownership of policy processes, minimises the potential for negative externalities, and yields unique solutions appropriate for the particularities of the context. A food systems governance regime characterised by justice and sustainability is built to manage trade-offs equitably, aligning incentives with action and compensating for losses, and produces diverse solutions across scales. Strategies for low-emission diets and production practices and for food waste elimination, among others, cannot be one-size fits all and must account for regional, social and ecological heterogeneity, dietary preferences, the needs of small-scale producers, inequalities in food access and waste, land tenure and technological readiness. Hence, a plurality of solutions should be explored to address the diverse narratives and needs.

Strategies to curb corporate influence, such as competition policies that account for the impacts of excessive market concentration, and measures to strengthen transparency and deprioritise profit- making over the right to food, are also important. Scholars also argue for the importance of regrounding food systems in regional circuits of production and consumption. Others call for recognising social innovations such as informal community gardening, as well as food system precarity and trade dependencies, to ensure food security.

Sustainability transformations research shows that fundamental food systems change might take decades, so action cannot be delayed any further. Sufficiency, regeneration, distribution, commons and care are guiding principles to steer the restructuring of food systems.


A checklist towards policymaking for just food systems

  1. Analyse current food system governance mechanisms in the region to identify existing injustices, including institutional mechanisms that perpetuate them.
  2. Reform entrenched power dynamics that serve to reinforce endemic injustices, and create spaces for previously unheard voices to engage in policymaking and dialogues.
  3. Establish and utilise decision-making regimes to foster the co-design of policies and solutions, beginning with the initial steps of problem definition and information gathering, together with smallholder farmers, marginalised communities, diverse cultures, and public and private sectors.
  4. Reflect regional dietary preferences, socio-ecological context, technological readiness, small-scale producer needs and societal challenges.
  5. Design diverse policy mixes with multiple solutions at different scales.
  6. Acknowledge trade-offs and compensate for losses.

This list is not exhaustive, but is a starting point to help move towards more just food systems transformations.

Implications & Recommendations

  • International platforms should centre justice in approaches to and governance of food systems transformation by facilitating global dialogues and providing guidelines and recommendations for policy [see In Focus box: A, E].
    • For example, a working group on just transitions has been proposed for the Sharm el-Sheikh joint work on implementation of climate action on agriculture and food security. Such emphasis can be made at other platforms and dialogues such as the Food, Agriculture and Water theme day at COP28, the United Nations Food Systems Coordination Hub and the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate.
    • Global platforms should also highlight lessons learnt from agro-ecological farming practices that prioritise both land health and farmer well-being. For example, the Andhra Pradesh Community-Managed Natural Farming initiative, which engages over 6 million farmers who practise organic farming and traditional methods of cultivation across 8 million hectares.
  • International negotiators and decision-makers should include food systems and agriculture within the Loss and Damage fund. For instance, the fund can support stakeholders affected by climate change and food systems policy change through anticipatory mechanisms by acting as a financial safety net [In Focus: F].
    • For example, farmers who received financial support in anticipation of a flood event in Bangladesh in 2020 from the Central Emergency Response Fund were more inclined to move their livestock and have more financial stability following the disaster.
  • National-level policymakers must prioritise the engagement of marginalised populations and incorporate a justice lens into food systems and agricultural commitments within national policies such as the NDCs, NAPs and National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans [In Focus: C, D].
    • Although there was an increase in food systems measures across the updated NDCs, fewer than 50% of them mention smallholder farmers, Indigenous peoples and local communities in these measures.
    • An example of an updated NDC referring to these actors is Egypt. The nation’s updated NDC includes topography-specific risk assessments and participatory approaches engaging farmers, civil society groups and cooperatives to advise on climate-resilient farming practices across the country.
  • Local and regional policymakers should pursue alternative approaches to food systems governance, such as food policy councils that can act as convening spaces for stakeholders across different sectors and disciplines for open dialogues and consultations [In Focus: A, B, C].
Figure 10. Just climate solutions for food systems transformations. Current food systems transformations for climate action are constrained due to siloed decision-making, insufficient consideration of regional disparities in geographies, innovation, socio-economic factors and power asymmetries across key actors, all of which act as barriers to effective climate action and result in unjust and unsustainable food systems. Integrating more just and inclusive approaches that engage and empower all stakeholders, particularly those most vulnerable to climate change, including co-designing a plurality of solutions with fair distribution of costs and benefits, can help transition towards a governance system more capable of contributing to climate action in a more effective manner across the food sector.

Where do we stand?

Earth system


Why care?


What to do?

Solutions and Barriers




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