Mitigating climate change entails a radical transformation in the food and land use system. Responding to questions raised in a Climateworks webinar, Liam Walsh – System Lead for Food, Land and Oceans – explores the role that citizens, diets and sustainable food production might play in this complex transformation.

The impact of what we eat and grow in Australia

The production and consumption of food has major impacts on the environment, economy and social conditions of Australia’s population, with agriculture responsible for about 15 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse emissions. 

How we use our land and what we eat aren’t only important when considering climate change. Land use and diet also impact biodiversity and health. As land is converted to crop production or cleared for animals to graze, we lose habitat for wild species. The food system is now the principal driver of biodiversity loss around the world. Additionally, the ‘western’ diet, with its high proportion of meat and highly refined, processed foods, contributes to a long list of environmental and health problems including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Mounting environmental and social pressures demand a fundamental restructuring of the way we produce and consume food if we are to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees. 

As our recent webinar reflected, some stakeholders expressed the view that consumers play a powerful role in farmers’ choices and that accordingly, we should capitalise on a growing concern for product provenance and demand for sustainably produced food. At the same time, others are concerned that, despite the rapid growth of ‘sustainable products’, these alternatives make up only a small portion of the food consumed in Australia. The question then is, what role can shifting demand play in driving the systemic change we need?

The role of changing demand

Moving to a system that supports better environmental outcomes requires changing consumption habits and redesigning how food production systems utilise land and natural resources. There is increasing recognition that even radically different modes of farming such as regenerative agriculture could drive rising demand for land if they are not accompanied by a significant change in demand. There are deeper shifts, such as changing what we eat, that might be needed to truly transform the system. 

Recent studies have sought to describe the dietary shifts that would meet human health and nutritional needs, while also contributing to keeping within environmental limits. These include increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts and a reduction in over-consumption of animal protein and ultra-processed foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fats. 

Consuming a greater proportion of plant-based foods relative to animal-sourced foods could have significant benefits both for our own health and the environment. However, changes in one aspect of the system may benefit or negatively impact other parts of the system, so it’s important to consider how these decisions should be managed. 

Reducing demand for meat in Australia has the potential to release existing agricultural land and allow natural vegetation and ecosystems to return. This could provide large benefits for biodiversity and carbon sequestration. However, any changes that move us away from meat and dairy production to lower-carbon alternatives will have consequences for producers. Some farmers are likely to be more vulnerable to scenarios that reduce the demand for meat, as they may have relatively low comparative economic advantage and limited farming alternatives. In addition, most Australian meat is exported, and hence, demand from citizens abroad may well be the main factor affecting Australian production decisions. 

There are also meat and dairy products whose production methods are not only less damaging, they also have a vital role to play in cycling nutrients and sequestering carbon in our soils. Whether citizens choose to eat animals or plants, whole food or discretionary items, there is no one ingredient that is universally sustainable or unsustainable. It largely depends on how it has been produced. 

Understanding the relationship between supply and demand is critical to understanding how the current system drives climate change, and to identifying effective solutions for moving towards a system that supports planetary health. Doing so can promote a just transition that ensures the social and environmental costs and benefits are equitably shared across society. 

Decision-makers must address key barriers to enable system level change

There is a need to be realistic about the prospect of consumer demand delivering sustainable food. What we eat is shaped by a range of physical, economic, political and socio-cultural contexts. The actions of most people are constrained and conditioned by the system in which they live. Price, quality, convenience, and brand familiarity are often still the most important factors affecting buying decisions, rather than how food is produced and who’s producing it. Barriers to purchasing or eating sustainable food, including structural, financial and psychological factors also need to be addressed, in order to support systems change. 

Businesses hold tremendous sway over citizens’ habits, and because of their direct links with farmers and processors, they can influence every facet of the supply chain. Governments too must reconcile conflicting public attitudes and face critical decisions about the allocation and use of public and private lands as they strive to help regional economies grow while also meeting climate and other sustainability goals. 

There is no one fix that will shift Australia to a more sustainable food, agriculture and land use system. It won’t happen through technology alone, nor are deeper cultural changes enough to transform a system of this scale. Rather, it will take a combination of many changes, including transforming supply chains and introducing policies that support changing what we eat and how we currently use our land. 

The Land Use Futures program has been designed to provide key decision-makers in Australia with the information they need to grapple with and act on some of these key questions. The program will help build connections and coherence around what’s needed to shift to a more sustainable food, agriculture and land use system. We look forward to sharing the result of our work in the coming months.

Stay in touch: the next Food and Land Use systems article in this series will be published in two weeks. We hope you find it informative and useful – please share, discuss and offer your feedback. Visit our Food, Land and Oceans page to read the latest articles