System Solutions: sustainable agriculture is about ecological interactions

The latest IPCC report was released last week, with very similar findings to the IPBES report released earlier this year. Both reports analyse published research and provide evidence-based recommendations to guide policy-making. They corroborate what ecologists and environmental scientists have been showing for the last few decades via hundreds of thousands of studies across multiple disciplines.

In a nutshell, we need to change how we, as a species, interact with our environment. Most importantly, we need to change the way we manage and use land and natural resources. And there are many ways we can do this.

Some popular media are claiming the IPCC report is evidence that one particular diet is the answer to all these problems. It’s not, and the report doesn’t say that. What it does say, is that healthy, balanced diets are an important part of the solution, along with many other critical actions.

Diversification in the food system (e.g., implementation of integrated production systems, broad-based genetic resources, and diets) can reduce risks from climate change (medium confidence). Balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health (high confidence).

~ Recommendation B6.2, Summary for Policymakers

The authors of this report highlight how demand for meat-rich processed-food diets, especially in westernised countries, are contributing to the world’s environmental problems; this is true. But this is not evidence that all livestock systems are ‘bad’.

There is no ‘universal’ diet that suits all people and environments. Human diets are driven by numerous cultural, environmental, and social factors. We can all eat less meat by making ethical choices and supporting farmers and animal producers that operate responsibly and sustainably. Any animal enterprise that supports biodiversity and ecosystem services, treats livestock and farm workers ethically, reduces waste, and relies on minimal chemical inputs is a good start.

But promoting ‘one diet to rule them all’ is short-sighted and misleading. It’s based on the flawed assumption that everyone has access to choice. Many people don’t have the privilege to choose their next meal. Many people, particularly indigenous peoples, survive on the seasonal food resources their land offers them.

The IPCC report highlights more effective solutions. It discusses how livestock industries can be managed better to reduce emissions*, like manure management, feed quality, and genetic diversity. Decisions about livestock production need to thoughtfully address other cogs in the system, including the ecosystems that support the livestock and the human livelihoods that depend on production.


Food systems are complex social-ecological systems and require complex systems approaches to manage them. Every dietary lifestyle comes with its own balance of health and environmental impacts. What are the global implications of promoting meat-free lifestyles as the universal ideal? We have no knowledge of these effects, particularly the potential increases in land clearing, water consumption, and use of pesticides and fertiliser. Land conversion in response to market shifts like this can create huge emissions debts, e.g. the conversion of forests and grasslands to biofuel crop fields.

Individual action is important, but governments and industries must lead the way.

Both IPCC and IPBES reports show that transformative change to our social, political and economic systems is the most effective path to a sustainable future. This is what we need to focus on. Reducing GHG emissions is the most urgent and immediate solution, and this can only be addressed by corporations, industries and governments*.

Consumers can drive change in some situations. But sustainable choices for daily living are not affordable, or important, for many individuals. Many of our environmental waste problems, like ubiquitous disposable plastics and planned obsolescence, are driven by supply, not demand. We need synergies between top-down and bottom-up action. ‘Individuals doing their bit’ is not the most reliable or immediate way to achieve the change we need.

False dichotomies and closed communities are barriers to solutions.

The world is a network of complex interactions. Ecosystems and communities are now more connected than ever. These days, what happens in one location can affect the neighbours just as much as people on the other side of the world. Many of our current environmental problems are driven by our tendency to separate knowledge and values based on false dichotomies that are not representative of the real world: pests vs. beneficials, organic vs. conventional, agriculture vs. environment, nature vs. humans.

But environmental problems are everyone’s problems, and we need systemic solutions. This means solutions that involve communities working together to address interactions between them and challenging the parts of the system that profit at the expense of nature and people.


*Livestock contribute to GHG emissions. But in many countries, like Australia, emissions from mining, gas and electricity supply, and land clearing exceed the emissions produced from agriculture.

N.B. this post is based on a tweet thread


© Manu Saunders 2019

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