Skip navigation

Eating in the Anthropocene: Can we mitigate climate change through food systems?

October 7, 2021

Speaker: Jessica Fanzo, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Food Ethics and Policy Director of the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS
Chair: Arntraud Hartmann, Steven Muller Professor at SAIS Europe

Professor Arntraud Hartmann begins the seminar with a brief introduction of Professor Jessica Fanzo and her work across the Johns Hopkins network, from SAIS Europe, SAIS D.C., and the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Professor Fanzo divides her seminar into five parts: 1) defining the Anthropocene and climate change; 2) a description of food systems as both victims and instigators of climate change; 3) the impacts of climate change and food systems on diets and food security; 4) ethical challenges to consider when dealing with food systems, and 5) transforming our food systems to positively affect nutritional and climate outcomes.

The Anthropocene describes our current ecological time period, one undoubtedly and profoundly impacted by human activity. How we live our lives today drives increasing surface temperatures, precipitation fluctuations, and declining global crop yields. Fanzo describes climate change as an "everything change": all aspects of society are liable to be altered dramatically without climate action.

After briefly discussing the nature of contemporary food systems, being sure to note their complexities and range of possible outcomes for the environment and society depending on their makeup, Fanzo describes first food systems as victims of climate change, and then food systems as instigators thereof. Climate change, shown to have a net adverse impact on crop yields, threatens what is known as multiple breadbasket failures — a serious decline in the availability of commodities like wheat, maize, rice, and soybeans that could affect two billion people.

Food systems also contribute to a warming world. Fanzo notes that 30% of greenhouse gas emissions stem from food systems, the majority of which coming from animal products, but also from land change and deforestation, food transportation, and the use of fuel in fisheries.

Moving to her main area of expertise, Fanzo notes that a business-as-usual climate change scenario will increase the risk of hunger across the globe but particularly in already malnourished populations. Suboptimal diets are now the leading risk factor in disease and death, as currently 3.8 billion people worldwide cannot afford a healthy diet. Fanzo also describes how our contemporary food systems also contribute to a rise in zoonotic diseases, social unrest due to increasing prices, and climate migration.

Fanzo then challenges the audience to several ethical questions surrounding our food systems, including: Do we have the right to eat wrongly? What are the implications of raising meat for consumption when people are hungry? How do we shift the balance of power around who shapes and governs our food systems?

To answer these, Fanzo turns to her list of recommended solutions, noting that time is of the essence and bold, transformational changes are required rather than tinkering incrementalism. We must, according to Fanzo, increase crop yields, halve our food waste, decrease meat consumption, and innovate our food systems to be much more efficient than before. We must consider consumer demand and incentivize change while also developing the political and individual capacity to institute that change. As Fanzo reminds us, it is only through a thorough transformation in our food systems that we will be able to keep global average temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius.