4.6 How far could socio-economic change reduce GHG emissions?

4.6.1 What is the rationale behind system change?

Rationale for system change

  • There is general consensus that measures to improve food access and address system inequity are needed.
  • But there are different views on how to do this.
  • Some interest groups focus on reforming current institutions and processes (e.g. trade agreements, pricing strategies).
  • Others advocate more radical alternative approaches based on the principles of food sovereignty and food justice and may oppose global trade.
  • They may argue for a shift towards agroecological practices and a greater role for smallholder production and traditional agriculture, and be critical of sustainable intensification.
  • We focus here on these ‘alternative’ perspectives.

Snapshot of mitigation through system rebalance: an ‘alternative’ approach

Focus of the argument: This is an socio-economic and ethical problem, not a supply problem.

How: Change the governance of food.

Example stakeholders: alternative food movement groups.

Example activities:

  • Address inequities in access, price volatilities, and terms of trade.
  • Limit waste & losses at all stages.
  • Empower smallholder farmers, encourage and support local. production, processing and marketing.
  • Often advocate organic farming and agroecological practices.

Whilst there is general consensus that global food security and environmental sustainability are challenges we need to address, there is less agreement about how this can be achieved.

Various groups point out that major drivers of unsustainable food systems are inequities within the system, such as unfair terms of trade, lack of access to food and volatile global food prices. Some groups posit that these can be resolved by a shift to locally-owned smallholder agriculture, that relies more on low-input traditional and/or organic farming approaches and a more self-sufficient “food sovereignty” approach.

This approach is often in conflict with the shift towards more globalised food systems and large-scale agriculture. Advocates of agro ecology at times oppose sustainable intensification on the basis that SI is really a by-word for industrial agriculture (see previously in this chapter for discussions on sustainable intensification).

4.6.2 What are the questions to consider?

Advocates of system changes focus on the problems caused by unfair markets that create food insecurity. They argue that globalised supply chains are unnecessarily energy-intensive, and industrial agriculture is a root cause of food-related environmental impacts – of which GHGs are just one.

Preferences within these approaches are for locally owned food systems, smaller-scale agriculture more oriented towards organic farming techniques, and a strong emphasis on positive environmental impacts as a central outcome of equitable food systems.

Understanding what this looks like in reality, and how distinct it is from topics discussed earlier in this chapter is in fact quite difficult.

The system change perspective focuses on rebalancing the system. But there are important questions to consider.

A more equitable food system might have much in common with the “contraction and convergence” demand-side approach discussed earlier in this chapter, in the sense that high income countries overconsume, and poorer countries do not have access to or cannot afford food security.

Similarly, there are overlaps between “sustainable intensification” described earlier in this chapter and elements of agroecology and organic farming.

A key differential can be the ownership of production and supply – locally produced and owned vs. non-locally owned and globally traded.

Different perspectives, few conclusions

Family farming is important.
FAO (2014) 

But there is a lack of evidence that smaller, family owned farms cause less environmental damage than larger, more intensive farms.
van Vliet, et al. (2015)

Could organic farming yields match conventional yields with sufficient funding?
Holt-Giménez, et al. (2012) 

But will this result in less environmental impact for the required production levels?
Gabriel, et al. (2013).

The goal should be to assist transition to sustainable farming practices in all shapes and forms.

It is often claimed that small, traditional and family owned farms are more sustainable than large industrial farms, although evidence for this in reality can be thin on the ground.

Most of the world’s farms are still family owned, and there is no strong evidence that the ownership model affects food-related GHGs and other environmental impacts.

However, some groups stress the social benefits of smallholder farms in poorer countries, and there are strong arguments for investment in assisting them to produce food in more sustainable ways. Which systems of production (from conventional through to organic) should be promoted, is the topic of much debate.

As regards the localness of food systems, food transport makes an important but not dominant contribution to food-related GHG emissions – see Chapter 3 for more on this. However localism is often advocated for a range of social, economic and ethical reasons and not just in relation to GHG mitigation.