Food can play a role in climate justice

| 9th March 2020
First know the land. Countryside near Welwyn, England. Photo: Greg Knapp via Flickr (CC BY)
First know the land. Countryside near Welwyn, England. Photo: Greg Knapp via Flickr (CC BY)
Changing our food system is more urgent than ever if we are to support climate justice.

When we think of the climate crisis, the immediate assumption is to think about the devastating environmental impact on our planet. What tends to get lost within the discourse however, is the effect on people – including the devastation that a changing environment will have on the less fortunate.  

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that sustainable development can be achieved if we address the challenges and widen opportunities between and within countries, without making the poor worse off.

And yet, a notable challenge - which is often overlooked – is the role of our current food system.

At the heart of it, our food system presents a serious ethical issue. As climate shocks contribute to acute food insecurity, it’s high time we admit that the system is in need of a radical change.


Our existing system accounts from a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions, with animal agriculture currently accounting for 14.5 percent of global emissions.

This makes the potential effects of the climate crisis all the more harrowing - the IPCC predicts that if we continue at our current rate, then rising temperatures will increase the risk of droughts and flooding.

Research from the FAO emphasizes that droughts would present the highest form of climate-change related damage and lead to a significant loss in agriculture by type of hazard. In short, this means that the heaviest impact will fall upon rural and vulnerable communities.

Despite the science however, the impact of our dietary choices continues to remain markedly absent from the climate debate.

Undoubtedly, achieving sustainable development - in a way that can reduce inequalities, whilst also limiting the effects of the climate crisis – would require a set of institutional conditions to be met, which can only be brought forward by a change in policy across all sectors.


In regards to food and farming, a transition to plant protein agriculture could be part of the solution. Pulses have the potential to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis – introducing pulses into crop rotations can have benefits to soil health by fixing atmospheric nitrogen, improving yields and reducing fertilizer use, whilst also being a water efficient source of protein.

It’s also an economically sustainable form of production, as many pulses - such as chickpeas and fava beans – are more climate resistant and could therefore benefit rural economies.

Pulses are also known to be nutrient-dense forms of protein and encouraging greater production can help specifically to address malnutrition and other public health concerns in developing nations, providing adequate access and education are provided.

Admittedly, the solution isn’t quite as simple as presented though - there’s still a lot of research and development that needs to be done to ensure that equity is achieved and the system benefits all. Building demand for plant protein agricuture however, is a start.

Innovation is ultimately driven by supply and demand – by choosing to consume plant proteins instead of animal products, what we assert is a demand for further sustainable production. If nothing else, this individual action alone can have a significant effect.


Research from Oxford University has found that avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact, with changes to consumer behaviour not only benefitting the environment but also possessing the power to influence policy. Here in the UK, making that switch is easier than ever.

We must collectively agree that issues of food production and climate change mitigation can no longer be considered in isolation, but rather in relation to one another.

It’s now imperative for policy to transition production away from what we know is inherently unsustainable, but also harmful to global society.

This Author

Sabrina Ahmed is a campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society. Interested in veganism and the environment? Take part in our 7-day challenge here.


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