Our food system is in crisis: the way we feed ourselves contributes to global heating and biodiversity loss while leaving billions malnourished and impoverished. At TABLE, we believe that progress on these problems will only be possible if we can talk openly about our hopes and fears, our values, and the scientific evidence underlying our proposed solutions.
TABLE is not an advocacy organisation; rather, we act as an honest broker in food system debates. Our mission is twofold: to provide clarity on the substance and parameters of disagreements by exploring the data, biases and beliefs behind food system debates; and to offer space for nuanced, self-reflective discussions within the food systems community.
To find out more:
The global web of interconnected processes and actors involved in the production, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal or further transformation of food. It includes agricultural, economic, social, climatic, ecological, and other systems and their constituent actors - everything food influences and is influenced by.
Figure 1: a representation of the food system showing its composition of interacting sub-systems that create feedback loops (Nourish Initiative, 2020). Note that this is just one way to illustrate the food systems with many different visuals being available to represent different aspects (see the discussion from the International Institute for Sustainable Development here).
Food security describes the goal to ensure all people, always, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food.
Food sovereignty also looks to achieve this goal but places additional emphasis on redistributing power within the food system such that it is less concentrated within the hands of dominant global corporations and markets. Food sovereignty envisions a more agroecological, movement-based, democratic, and local food system that shifts away from the status quo of the ‘corporate food regime’.
4) What is the difference between efficiency and resilience when thinking about goals for the food system?
A resilient food system is one which can cope with and recover from socio-economic or environmental shocks and pressures, such as those presented by climate change, and return to its pre-existing state.
In the narrowest sense, an efficient food system is one which maximises food output for a given level of inputs (seed, feed, fertiliser, labour, etc). In contrast, when talking about sustainability, the term ‘efficiency’ is contested but a mainstream definition is that an efficient system is one which maximises food output for a given amount of environmental harms produced (e.g., unit of greenhouse gas emissions, or hectares of land used).
Debates over these concepts focus on:
- Definitions over what we mean by ‘efficiency’ and the metrics that should be used to measure it - i.e. what are we being efficient with, for what output and outcomes?
- Whether efficiency or resilience are sustainable or desirable (particularly if they maintain the status quo and its associated issues).
- If and how an efficient or resilient food system can be achieved.
- Whether to prioritise efficiency or resilience.
- How best to allocate resources, particularly in relation to the feed-food competition debate.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines food loss and waste as “the decrease in quantity or quality of food along the food supply chain”.
Food losses occur within production, post-harvest and processing stages of the food supply chain, whilst food waste occurs at the retail and consumption stages (FAO, 2019). Globally, 931 million tonnes of food (17% of the 5.3 billion tonnes available) are wasted each year (UNEP, 2021).
According to a 2021 paper in Nature , the food system is estimated to contribute to 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions:
- Agriculture contributes around 25% (11% from land-use change, 14% from production).
- Subsequent processing, distribution, and waste contribute roughly 10%.
The main sources of greenhouse gases in the food system are:
- Carbon dioxide both directly from fossil fuel usage and indirectly from agriculturally induced land-use change (e.g. deforestation).
- Methane, mainly from enteric fermentation within the stomach of ruminants and from rice cultivation.
- Nitrous oxide from manure and fertilisers.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) can be used to quantify the suite of broader environmental impacts and the resource use associated with specific food system outputs. When focusing on climate change an adapted version of LCA can be used to assess the greenhouse gas emissions (primarily carbon dioxide) associated with a food system output - this is known as carbon footprinting.
Whilst it is unclear exactly how climate change will affect different areas of the world, it is clear that it will have major implications for the future of food systems.
On the whole, studies suggest that, whilst climate change may have some minor positive effects (at least in the short term), it will have primarily negative impacts on the global food system. For example, whilst a warming climate may improve production in some areas of the Northern Hemisphere, average crop yield decreases of more than 5% are more likely than not after 2050. Climate change will also impact distribution and consumption post-harvest by increasing risks of spoilage, waste and food-borne diseases.
The negative impacts of climate change are likely to have the most profound impact on areas of the world, particularly those in the Global South, already suffering additional massive pressures like poverty, population growth, and conflict. This links to direct (e.g., crop failure due to drought) and indirect (triggering/exacerbating conflict and migration) impacts of climate change. Moreover, the severity of these impacts is strongly dependent on the capacity of peoples and countries to adapt to the impacts (for example poorer countries with unstable governments will respond less effectively leading to more severe impacts).
Agriculture takes up 46% of the habitable land on Earth (Ritchie and Roser, 2013) and as such is the main cause of habitat destruction and associated biodiversity loss. The application of pesticides and herbicides, along with pollution due to fertiliser run-off, also contribute to biodiversity loss. Moreover, the reliance of intensive agriculture on the monoculture of a handful of crop and animal species (and of a limited number of commercially successful varieties within those species) has led to a reduction in agricultural diversity (agrobiodiversity) and has reduced diversity in some aspects of our diets, food cultures and traditions. The wider food system is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change which is itself a cause of habitat and biodiversity loss.
9) What is the difference between land-sharing and land-sparing and how do they link to the food system?
Land can be used for many purposes, including for agriculture, non-agricultural infrastructure, and for nature conservation. Agricultural landscapes now span 46% of the habitable land on Earth. Around 35% is used for meat and dairy production (including grazing land and arable land for growing animal feed) and 11% for crops (grown for direct human consumption) (Ritchie and Roser, 2013).
The implication of these statistics is that agriculture is an important cause of habitat loss, and that a large variety of wildlife is forced to share land with food production. In response to this, the concepts of land sparing and land sharing have emerged from debates between ecologists about how best to integrate agricultural production within a landscape, at the least possible cost to biodiversity…
- A land-sparing approach focuses on higher-yield farmland with lower biodiversity, with more of the remaining land being “spared” solely for conservation.
- A land-sharing approach focuses on lower-yielding farmland with higher biodiversity but less land available for the sole purpose of conservation.
The two concepts are stylised endpoints of a continuum of possible land use strategies. There is much debate both as to which is preferable but also as regards the overall utility of these concepts as a tool for decision-making in a complex and often messy food system. Ultimately however, land-sparing and land-sharing debates link to the wider discussion of how best to use limited resources in the food system.
The livestock sector is associated with a wide range of social, ethical and environmental concerns and these include…
- Land-use: livestock production is linked to a huge amount of land-use (both to keep and/or graze the animals, and to grow their feed). This on the whole (and with exceptions for certain systems in certain parts of the world) is detrimental to biodiversity, making it a key focus of land sharing vs land sparing debates (see FAQ 9 and our explainer on What is the land sparing-sharing continuum?).
- Land-use change: deforestation to make room for growing feed-crops and grazing livestock is linked to widespread greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss.
- Greenhouse gas emissions: the livestock industry is estimated to contribute around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, particularly due to the release of methane from ruminants (see FAQ 11).
- Feed-food competition: the main argument in this debate is that if edible crops were eaten directly by humans rather than being fed to livestock more people would be fed. Here, some argue livestock production is inefficient and undermines food security. See our explainer on What is feed-food competition? for detail.
- Inequality and disease: many state that current consumption patterns lead to inequality and disease. Overconsumption of processed, and to a lesser extent red, meat, in rich countries (Australia, US, and Europe) is associated with a range of non-communicable diseases. Meanwhile, a lack of access to meat in the Global South contributes to malnutrition (see FAQ 12).
- Animal rights and suffering: vast numbers of animals are reared for slaughter each year. Many argue that the conditions in which livestock are reared (particularly during intensive production) causes unnecessary suffering and call for better welfare. A smaller number argue that rearing animals for slaughter and subsequent meat consumption is fundamentally unethical even when welfare conditions are good.
- Corporate control: the livestock industry currently concentrates power in the agrifood sector with a few global multinationals. Some claim these corporations do not support farmers’ and consumers’ best interests and profit from a harmful status quo.
Depending on which issues people focus on they suggest alternative ways to improve meat and livestock production. Our Meat the Four Futures podcast, based on our Gut feelings report, covers four possible futures for meat and livestock - 1) Efficient meat 2.0, 2) Alternative "meat", 3) Less meat, and 4) Plant-based no meat.
11) What role does methane play in livestock debates and how does it differ from carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas?
Methane is a simple molecule composed of one carbon and four hydrogen atoms (CH4). It is an important greenhouse gas - second only to carbon dioxide (CO2) in terms of its overall contribution to human-driven climate change. Methane is about 26 times stronger than CO2 in terms of its direct impact on global warming per molecule or tonne of gas emitted. However, unlike CO2 which may persist for centuries, methane emissions rapidly break down (in around 10 years) in the atmosphere. Debates about the differences between CO2 and methane focus on what the best metrics are to describe the effect of methane emissions, given its higher potency but shorter lifetime, compared to equivalent levels of CO2. A commonly used measure is 100-year Global Warming Potential (GWP100); however GWP* was recently introduced to better reflect the effect of changing rates of methane emissions on global temperature.
There are several sources of anthropogenic methane emissions. Roughly 36% comes from the extraction, storage, and distribution of fossil-fuel methane (natural gas) and around 20% comes from microbial digestion of organic matter in the waste sector. The biggest source however, is agriculture, which contributes 44% of the overall share of anthropogenic methane emissions. Around 4% of this is emitted from burning of agricultural wastes and losses of organic matter in manures (from both ruminants and non-ruminants), and 11% is released by anaerobic bacteria in flooded rice paddies. However, the primary emitter of agricultural methane is enteric fermentation within the stomach of ruminants (which allows digestion of tough plant matter with methane produced as a by-product). This contributes to around 30% of total anthropogenic methane emissions.
Figure 2. Main anthropogenic methane emissions by sector in 2012, and main sources within agriculture. Energy = emissions associated with fossil fuel methane gas, Waste = emissions from microbial digestion of organic waste. Data: https://www.earth-syst-sci-data-discuss.net/essd-2017-79/
Overall, debates around livestock production often focus on methane emissions (particularly from ruminants) and the extent to which warming contributions of those emissions have been over or under-stated.
12) How do animal-source and plant-source foods differ in terms of nutrition and do we need them in our diet?
Debates around animal-source foods centre on whether they are healthy and/or essential in the human diet, particularly in comparison to plant-source foods. A key comparison between animal-source foods (meat, fish, dairy and eggs) and plant-source foods (fruit, veg, grains, etc) is their respective densities of bioavailable vitamins and minerals. Animal-source foods are the only food source of vitamin B12 and possess vitamins A and D, iron, zinc, and essential amino acids in forms that are more bioavailable than in plant-source foods. Seafood is also a key source of long-chain n–3 fatty acids essential for foetal development and healthy ageing (note these are also found in sea vegetables) (Beal et al., 2023).
However, it is important to note peoples’ overall dietary pattern when considering the role and importance of meat in healthy and nutritious diets. In lower income countries people tend to obtain more of their calories from plant-source foods high in carbohydrates (cereals, roots and tubers) and less from animal-source foods compared to richer countries. In this context, the concern is malnutrition - that is inadequate calorie, macronutrient (protein, amino acids, fibre) and micronutrient (e.g. iron) intake - and having access to more animal-source foods can be an important way to combat this.
Meanwhile, people in richer countries are often (albeit with exceptions) able to access and afford diets with a greater diversity and abundance of nutrient-rich foods, from both plant and animal sources. In these contexts, with greater nutrient availability, the role of animal products in combating malnutrition is relatively less important. Here, overconsumption of processed, and to a lesser extent red, meat, is associated with a range of non-communicable diseases. For example, processed meat consumption has been widely linked to increased occurrence of colorectal cancer. More broadly, Western-style, high meat diets tend to be low in fruits, vegetables and fibre, and this dietary package is associated with increased prevalence of obesity and a range of non-communicable diseases (heart disease, stroke, some cancers). However, with these findings, one must note the difficulties in separating out the health effects of animal-source foods from the many other ‘confounding factors’ (such as wider dietary context, smoking, socioeconomic status and body weight) which may contribute to or reduce health risks.
Intensive agriculture denotes an approach to agriculture, promoted during the Green Revolution, which uses modern technologies (machinery, fertilisers, irrigation, pesticides, etc) to maximise yields relative to land use.
Intensive agriculture has enabled massive increases in global food productivity, thereby helping achieve absolute reductions in global undernutrition. However, many commentators point out that it has also caused many social and environmental harms. For example:
- Some question whether agricultural intensification has really been effective in tackling hunger and malnutrition. Here, they state that at least at the global level, these issues do not result from a lack of available food but from inequitable and unsustainable patterns of distribution and consumption.
- It has given rise to high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
- It is responsible for global biodiversity loss through land-use change (e.g., deforestation to make room for crops or livestock), monoculture, and the use of harmful pesticides.
- It leads to pollution from fertiliser run-off and other agrochemicals.
- It leads to poor soil health through issues like soil compaction, soil erosion, and acidification.
- Some argue that intensive livestock farming is unethical as it causes excessive or unnecessary harm and suffering for animals.
The key debate is whether the benefits (namely increased yields and efficiency) outweigh these harms. For those that believe this is the case, depending on exactly which issues they focus on, they propose various alternatives including…
Some propose that the only way to overcome the challenges faced by the food system is to focus on technological progress, to allow humans to flourish while minimising our impacts on the environment. This contested philosophy is commonly referred to as ecomodernism. In relation to food systems it emphasises intensifying food production (increasing yields per ha) to free-up as much land as possible for conservation whilst meeting increased demand.
Ecomodernism is also linked to the concept of decoupling, which is the idea that we can break the link between increases in GDP and increases in environmental impacts - so that we have the former, without the latter.
The principles underlying this thinking are most clearly articulated in the 2015 Ecomodernist Manifesto. See also the TABLE explainer What is ecomodernism? for a detailed discussion of the movement, its ideas, and the critiques.
TABLE produces a variety of outputs that provide the background to food systems debates and facilitate self-reflective discussion within the food systems community.
- Read our explainers and other publications to find information on the debates surrounding a wide range of food systems topics.
- Subscribe to the Fodder newsletter to receive summaries of recent journal articles, reports and media (which are also stored in our Research Library), and updates on jobs, opportunities, and events.
- Listen to the Feed podcast to explore the evidence, worldviews, and values that people bring to global food system debates. You can also check out our recent Meat the four futures podcast to follow four possible futures for meat and livestock.
- TABLE hosts regular events on key food systems topics; to view recordings of past events click here.
- Letterbox showcases different viewpoints surrounding contentious food system topics through an exchange of short letters between people on different sides of the debate.
- TABLE’s blog posts provide a place for people to share personal perspectives on the food system.
If you have any suggestions for or would like to contribute to any of the outputs above, please send us an email at email@example.com
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The majority of the information in these FAQs comes from associated TABLE explainers/publications (where relevant references can be found). In text citations within FAQs indicate where this is not the case; the full references for which are given below:
Beal, T., Gardner, C.D., Herrero, M., Iannotti, L.L., Merbold, L., Nordhagen, S. and Mottet, A., 2023. Friend or Foe? The Role of Animal-Source Foods in Healthy and Environmentally Sustainable Diets. The Journal of Nutrition, In Press, Corrected Proof.
FAO - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2019). In Brief: The State of Food and Agriculture 2019. Moving forward on food loss and waste reduction. Available at: https://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/ca6122en (Accessed: 27th June 2023)
Nourish Initiative. (2020). Nourish Food System Map. [image] Retrieved from: https://www.nourishlife.org/teach/food-system-tools/ [16th June 2023]
Ritchie, H., and Roser , M. (2013) - "Land Use". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/land-use [Accessed 27th June 2023]
UNEP - United Nations Environment Programme (2021). Food Waste Index Report 2021. Available at: https://www.unep.org/resources/report/unep-food-waste-index-report-2021 (Accessed: 27th June 2023)
Cover image by Leeloo Thefirst via Pixels.