Sustainable agriculture and food systems

Think tank: Chatham House

Author(s): Professor Tim Benton; Dr Helen Harwatt

May 24, 2022

This report from UK think tank Chatham House looks two distinct versions of sustainability in agriculture.

Modern methods of food production are increasingly recognized as a major contributor to global warming, air and water pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil degradation and the emergence of disease. In turn, climate change is compromising food security and supply-chain resilience, with related natural disasters driving up food prices. Under the free market system, increasing productivity has been emphasized as the way to meet rising global demand for food. How to move towards sustainability in agriculture, and in food systems more generally, has become an ever more urgent topic of debate at international level. There is little or no consensus among policymakers on how this can be done. Practices such as land conversion in some areas of the world, to create space for increased meat and dairy production, can cancel out environmental gains in other locations and lead to reduced sustainability of the overall food system. This paper seeks to clarify the debate around sustainability in agriculture by examining two distinct versions of sustainability. Each is discussed in terms of its clearly defined underpinning assumptions, including the key question of whether large-scale changes in demand towards healthier, less wasteful and more sustainable diets are possible.