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We have 7 years left to halve food emissions

As 2023 descends, it's time to get serious about plans to combat greenhouse gas emissions from our food system. How can we approach more transformative change?

Veggies at a farmers market.

We are running out of time to change our food system and eating culture. Image via Shutterstock/praditkhorn somboonsa

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

Staying on track with the Paris Agreement’s climate goals means reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030. When talking about this goal, we still often refer to it as the work we need to accomplish in the next decade. But at this point, we are well into this "decisive decade." 2023 starts in two weeks. 

"Looking ahead to 2030, as every year passes, the choices for feeding a growing population in a sustainable way get less and less," Sheila Voss, vice president of communications at the Good Food Institute, reminded me this week when we caught up on COP27’s impact.

Does your work really enable the food system to halve its emissions in the next seven years?I’m afraid we’re running out of time for incremental approaches. So how can you enable deeper, more transformative change? 

 Here are three examples of how you might think about transformative potential  — through direct and indirect strategies. 

Products with radically lower emissions

Voss’ work is a good model on the more tangible side of things. Switching from conventional meat, dairy and eggs to proteins made from plants radically reduces greenhouse gas emissions while also lowering the usage of increasingly scarce resources such as water. But as the alternative protein industry has learned over the past years, providing consumers with carbon footprint information isn’t enough to convince them to change their diets. 

For these lower-carbon products to land in everybody’s shopping basket and unleash their climate potential, Voss believes they need to "cost the same or less, taste the same or better and be as accessible as conventional products." 

In response, the Good Food Institute works with companies, governments, scientists, investors and other stakeholders to make headway on these three attributes. Of course, nobody can say for sure that this strategy will lead to significant decarbonization in the next seven years. But to me, the climate mitigation potential of alternative proteins stands on solid enough ground for it to fall into the transformative change category, justifying continued work on it. 

A glowing north star

The second example of transformative work I want to highlight stems from a conversation I had at COP27 with Gunhild Stordalen, founder and executive chair of EAT. Her work is less direct than Voss’ approach but bears essential fruits. We discussed what is needed to move from the food system’s degenerative status quo to a more sustainable one. 

Stordalen correlates a lack of progress with a lack of consensus on what a good food system looks like, and how to get there. That’s why EAT focuses on providing and refining a north star based on scientific evidence and building coalitions around it. 

We are truly running out of time for incremental and uncertain approaches. So how can you enable deeper, more transformative change?

The EAT-Lancet Report published in 2019 is EAT’s best-known effort to date. It defined what constitutes a healthy diet from sustainable food systems and had a "massive impact," according to Stordalen. Her list of things the report influenced includes the EU Farm to Fork Policy, the U.K. National Food Strategy, food policies of 15 big cities around the world, business strategy and consumer preferences.

In the coming years, EAT plans to refine that vision and shed light on places implementing the work to give people a better sense of "what good looks and feels like" alongside funding and other mechanisms. Like Voss, Stordalen can’t prove that all of this will work out. Still, EAT’s approach has already demonstrated tremendous success, alongside an understanding of systems change and current roadblocks, making it a pillar of work worth pursuing in the critical seven years leading to 2030. 

Courage to unlearn and course correct 

My last example addresses the need to abandon carbon tunnel vision. Headway on climate mitigation needs to be made in conjunction with social justice, biodiversity and other goals. Companies should follow in the footsteps of the Rockefeller Foundation, which has gone through a remarkable evolution on this matter since the Green Revolution. 

Starting in the 1940s, the foundation was a key funder and proponent of expanding high-yielding industrial agriculture to low-income countries to ensure the food security of growing populations. But with an $11 million grant announcement for indigenous and regenerative agriculture practices in November, the foundation has embarked on a new journey. 

Sara Farley, vice president of Rockefeller’s global food portfolio, told me that moving beyond profit maximization as the leading food systems goal toward multifold benefits underpins the new direction. They include "clean water, a livable future for our children, the ability for our community to practice its spiritual traditions, the ability for biodiversity to flourish, the production potential in terms of yield, and so forth."

It’s no easy feat for a person or organization to change their mind about a contentious topic, especially when in the public eye. Feeding the world certainly falls under that category. But to Farley, revisiting mindsets and beliefs lies at the heart of systems change. I’ll catalog that as another avenue of transformative work, despite it being even harder to track and evaluate than the first two examples. 

Making it personal 

So what does this boil down to for you? 

Can you be part of transformative change even if you’re not commissioning leading scientific reports or managing a global grant portfolio? Absolutely. I’m sure your company is latching onto beliefs and simplified metrics that someone needs to start questioning. Are you that person? 

Or you might lack clarity regarding the barriers holding back your climate solution from broader adoption — along the lines of taste, price and accessibility in the alternative protein example. Can you help sharpen the focus?

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