AGCI Insight

Understanding global change challenges: Sustainable food systems

March 4, 2024
Person's arms in field holding bowl of freshly harvested produce

This blog post is part of an occasional series of interviews with AGCI workshop participants and lecturers engaging key global change challenges.

Food systems encompass the entire journey of foods from farm to table, from growing, harvesting, processing, and packaging through distribution, sales, consumption, and waste management. Within this system, sustainability hinges on environmental stewardship, such as reducing emissions and promoting biodiversity; economic viability that supports fair wages and local economies; equitable access to nutritious food for all; and a focus on healthful, safe food for individuals and communities. By addressing these aspects, a sustainable food system aims to support the nutritional needs of both current and future generations with minimal negative impact on the planet and society.

AGCI recently spoke with Dr. Michelle Tigchelaar, a climate scientist and the Impact Area Lead on Climate & Environmental Sustainability at WorldFish in Malaysia, about sustainable food systems as a global change challenge.

AGCI: What are sustainable food systems and how are they related to global change?

Dr. Michelle Tigchelaar

Michelle Tigchelaar: Historically, thinking about sustainable food systems focused on how our food relates to the natural environment. The way that we produce food today, especially in more industrial food production settings, really has negative impacts locally — in terms of pollution, or biodiversity reduction, or big land use changes — as well as globally. Industrial food production comes with large greenhouse gas emissions as well as large water use. So, in the environmental sense, sustainable food production wouldn’t necessarily have no impact on the environment, but it would interact with the natural environment in such a way that it can continue to do so long into the future. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve also seen a push to expand our definition of sustainability to not only focus on what’s happening in the natural realm, but also on what’s happening on the social and economic side of things. In that sense, sustainable food production wouldn’t have a negative impact on the lives of the people participating in the food system, and would support them economically through decent work, social protection schemes, or good living incomes, things like that.

AGCI: How do sustainable food systems impact people’s lives and communities?

MT: Ideally, sustainable food systems will contribute positively to people’s lives by providing nutritious food. There is evidence to suggest that more diverse food production systems also provide more healthy and diverse foods. Sustainable food systems will also contribute positively to people’s lives by safeguarding the local environment as well as our global environment. So, reducing the impacts on climate change, but also providing good local environmental conditions in terms of air quality or green space or biodiversity. And then sustainable food systems will contribute positively to people’s lives by supporting economically sustainable livelihoods and safe and healthy working environments.

AGCI: How does your work relate to understanding and addressing sustainable food systems in a global change context?

MT: My background is originally on the climate science side of things. I did climate modeling of oceans and ice sheets and atmospheres. Over the years, I have veered more towards climate impacts on food systems, and now, more broadly, I’m thinking about the relationship between climate change and food systems.

I’m not just looking at what the climate is doing and what that means for food production, but also what it means for the benefits that food systems deliver. What does it mean for the supply of nutrients or for the economics of food systems? And more recently, I’ve been involved in a couple projects that begin to look at the impacts that food production has on the environment. So really starting to think about pathways for climate mitigation and adaptation in food systems, and the tradeoffs that some of these interventions might have against other dimensions of sustainability or around equity or nutrition.

Until now, my career has mostly been in academic environments. I’ve worked with other researchers from many different fields and around the world — marine ecologists and plant scientists and economists and occupational health scientists, the broad spectrum of scientific expertise. And now, in my new role at WorldFish, which is part of CGIAR, a global umbrella organization of research organizations that focus on food, mostly in development contexts, I’ll be working a lot more with governments, with in-country partners, with bilateral donors, to really think about climate and environmental sustainability on the ground, mostly in fisheries and aquaculture.

 If we continue to produce food the way we do, it will continue to have a big impact on our changing climate.

Dr. Michelle Tigchelaar

AGCI: What do you see as the most important part of your work, and why?

MT: My background is in climate modeling, and I’m still very grateful for all my excellent colleagues who try to understand the climate dynamics side of things. Without that work, I wouldn’t be able to do my work. But I think what is most important and interesting about my work today is making the connections between what’s happening on the climate and environmental side of things and the social implications of that. So, within the scientific realm, connecting between all the disciplines, but then also connecting between science and other types of actors, talking to policymakers or donors or members of the public, industry, etc.

AGCI: What do you see as some of the biggest global challenges with regard to sustainable food systems today?

MT: There are two. First of all, I think the economics of food systems are incredibly challenging. If economics didn’t play a role, it would definitely be possible to have food that was nutritious and sustainable. But there is a big push within food systems and our economies to make a profit and produce things as cheaply as possible – and that disincentivizes a lot of what might be sensible solutions. I think changing the economics is going to be very, very difficult. The second big challenge is the invisibility of a lot of the challenges we face in our food system. Many people don’t really know where their food comes from anymore and really have no idea about what happens all the way from production to when the food arrives. And this is especially true, I think, for the human challenges along the way — those are even more difficult to capture than the environmental outputs. For instance, working conditions in remote areas and things like that. Value chains have become incredibly complex, and it’s really difficult to trace what is happening along them.

AGCI: On the flip side, what do you see as some of the most exciting opportunities to address these challenges in the coming decade?

MT: On the one hand, there are really exciting advances on the data side that can help make some of these things more visible. For example, in fisheries, we’re starting to see data products, like those created by Global Fishing Watch, that are allowing us to see where vessels are on the ocean, are they fishing illegally, how might they be connected to labor abuses at sea? Remote sensing technologies are really helping to make visible the invisible. There’s also a really exciting push for co-production in research, having the people who benefit from the research or the end users of the information as well as the knowledge holders of the information deeply involved in asking the research questions. Especially in social sciences, we see, for instance, a push for worker-driven action in food systems. So I think combining that movement building or empowerment side of things with the research process will really help propel us towards, if not entirely sustainable food systems, at least good research for sustainable food systems.

AGCI: Finally, why should all people care about the sustainability of food systems?

MT: I think on the environmental side of things, it’s a very basic issue: if things go on as they do, our food systems as well as our personal well-being are really at risk. Looking at the climate, food systems contribute about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. If we continue to produce food the way we do, it will continue to have a big impact on our changing climate. And as we see today, everybody is starting to notice the impacts of climate change. Similarly, biodiversity losses and lack of pollinators and overfishing are also threatening the long-term viability of how we produce food. On the social and economic side of things, the question of why should you care is more tricky. If you don’t care, maybe you just don’t care. But especially in this globalized world we live in, I think the inequities faced by people along the value chains will ultimately come back to all of us in negative ways, as we see conflicts on the rise, people on the move. People are pushing back against the growing inequalities that we see today. I personally feel motivated by a broader desire for fairness and equity.

Dr. Michelle Tigchelaar is a climate scientist with more than a decade of experience in interdisciplinary research for impact, spanning the aquatic and terrestrial and the ecological and human. Michelle conducts research on the impacts of climate change on the sustainable development outcomes of food systems. As a Scientist and Impact Area Lead in Climate and Environmental Sustainability at WorldFish, she is particularly interested in avenues for integrating aquatic foods in (national) climate and biodiversity strategies, scaling climate adaptation solutions, and developing tools for assessing blue-green climate risk to food system benefits. Before joining WorldFish, Michelle was a Research Scientist with the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University, where she played a lead role in research, communications, and policy engagement for the Blue Food Assessment, an integrative assessment of the role of aquatic foods in transformations towards healthy, sustainable, just, and resilient food systems. She currently advises the Aquatic Blue Food Coalition, a multi-stakeholder initiative that emerged from the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. Michelle holds a MSc in Climate Dynamics from Utrecht University, and a PhD in Oceanography from the University of Hawaii.