Climate Change and Nutrition: The Reciprocal Impact


The SUN (Scaling Up Nutrition) Movement is made up of the most important and influential figures in the nutrition world. We are all focussed, dedicated, and driven by the idea of a world free from malnutrition in all its forms. The conversation about poverty and malnutrition has moved on since Bono and Bob Geldof wanted to ‘Feed the World’ and this is no longer a case of more food, fewer problems. We talk about healthy and nutritious food, eating the right food, buying the right food. We talk about creating sustainable and equitable food systems that will create fair and lasting change. And more recently we have talked about the intersections between nutrition about the climate crisis, and the damage caused to food systems by drought and flooding. It’s quite right that we should discuss climate change hand in hand with nutrition. The links are clear, and the effects of recent climate related disasters have posed a distinct threat to food security, particularly in the developing world. In 2019, we saw cyclones and flooding across East Africa and parts of Asia. Drought in the Horn of Africa left 11.7 million people severely food insecure1 last summer. And Australia and the US have seen crop destruction from brutal wildfires. All these phenomena are thought to be the result of rising temperatures and rising sea levels. 

But this impact does not go only one way. The exponential growth in the meat and dairy industry is a leading cause of climate change. According to the FAO, the meat industry’s emissions are roughly equivalent to all the driving and flying of every car, truck, and plane in the world.2 So why, as a global nutrition movement, are we not talking about this more?  

When we look at the amount of carbon human activity is emitting into the air, agriculture, alongside forestry, accounts for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.3 The meat and dairy industries by themselves cause huge amounts of carbon emissions, but animal agriculture is also responsible for 91% of the destruction of the rainforest.4 These industries are destroying essential parts of earth’s ecological balance to grow food, which is then transported across the world and fed to animals who become food for us to eat. This way of creating and consuming food is not only damaging but ineffective. We have done nothing to remove the discrepancy between those with the most and those with the least, and now we are causing more damage by consuming our food in this way.  

It is true that as a Movement we focus on countries and individuals who do not necessarily participate in these food systems. The big companies largely responsible for deforestation and emissions on a catastrophic scale are more often those sitting in rich and developed nations. A plant-based diet is often not an option for people struggling to incorporate more food groups into their diet and nor should it be. Small holdings and local, free-range farming are not the reason meat and dairy tops the list of industries contributing to climate change. But we can’t deny that a major cause of this climate crisis is our food system.  

No, I’m not suggesting everyone eat exclusively plant-based immediately. I’m not asking everyone to rush out tonight for a box of tofu and a carton of oat milk. But on World Vegan Day, I feel that we have a duty to talk about how we could change our nutrition for a more sustainable and equitable future. This is particularly the case for those of us who work in cities such as London, Geneva, and Washington DC, where our choices of food are bountiful, and we are privileged to choose.  

We are entering the third phase of SUN in 2021, and with the upcoming Climate and Food Systems Summits, now is the time for the Movement to think more deeply about the impact of nutrition on climate change, rather than just the other way around.