Sustainability Transformation in Food Systems: The Role of Citizens

 Kolade Victor Otokiti.

This blog has been written in the context of the course Engaging Society in Spatial Transformations, part of the Master Society, Sustainability and Planning, at the University of Groningen.

1. Introduction

The relationship between climate change and food systems may be viewed as a cycle in which food systems act as a trigger for climate change while simultaneously being a victim. On the one hand, food production, processing, and consumption patterns can impose significant implications on the environment, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, Crippa et al. (2021) argue that food systems account for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions generated by anthropogenic activity. On the other hand, climate change has the potential to damage crops and disrupt food production and distribution through extreme weather events, including drought and flooding. GCA (2019) contends that agricultural production growth may be reduced by up to 30% because of climate change, with approximately 500 million small-scale farms worldwide expected to bear the brunt of the impact. This may limit agricultural production systems’ potential to feed the world’s population of over 9 billion people by 2050 (Figure 1). vicious

Figure 1: Projected population growth (1950–2050). Source: US Census Bureau, 2011.

However, sustainability transformation in food systems may present an opportunity to break the cycle between food systems and climate change and create a more positive and sustainable future in which human needs may be addressed within global planetary limits.

According to Ziervogel et al. (2021), sustainability transformation involves addressing the underlying factors contributing to climate risks and sustainability issues, shifting society towards a more sustainable future in which human actions do not degrade the natural environment or deplete resources for future generations. Drimie and Pereira (2016) argue that citizen-induced, systemic changes in food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal are key prerequisites to sustainability transformation in the food system. This can involve reviving indigenous foods, supporting local and small-scale agriculture, investing in more sustainable agriculture practices, reducing food waste, creating urban food gardens, adopting plant-based diets and sourcing raw materials locally. These steps, when taken repeatedly and collectively, have the potential to significantly reduce the environmental impact of food systems, lessen the effects of climate change, and ultimately catalyse the food systems towards a more sustainable trajectory.
Given the dire need for sustainability transformation in food systems, particularly with respect to the role it plays in addressing climate change, it is critical to explore the various roles that citizens can play in expediting sustainable transformation in food systems in the face of climate change. Thus, the overarching focus of this essay is to provide further evidence that citizens are important in driving transformation in food systems.

2. The Role of Citizens in Sustainability Transformation
Citizens have the potential to play a significant role in helping to bring about sustainability transformation in food systems in the face of climate change (Figure 2). First, citizens may play a role in sustainability transformation by reducing food waste. According to Quested et al. (2013), households play a significant role in the annual generation of 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste globally (Gustavsson et al., 2011), which results in a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions (Oliveira et al., 2016). One may thus argue that decreasing food waste at the household level could help contribute to a more sustainable food system and potentially minimise climate change. Furthermore, citizen participation in sustainable place-shaping initiatives that support locally grown foods, which tend to have a smaller carbon footprint, can potentially decrease food waste and carbon emissions caused by the long global food supply chain.
Second, citizens can bring about sustainable transformation in food systems through collective climate action. Motivated by individuals’ biospheric (caring about the environment) values (Bouman et al., 2021), citizens can leverage their collective power to catalyse the transformation by influencing policies that promote sustainability in the food systems through voting, advocacy and protest (Jost et al., 2008). Citizens may demonstrate their opposition to intensive agricultural practices with severe environmental costs, including the use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. According to Tilman et al. (2002), the excessive use of fertilisers, whether derived from petrochemicals or manure, can lead to higher nitrate levels and eutrophication in rivers and oceans, imposing consequences on the climate. Furthermore, agricultural innovation is a collaborative process that involves various parties working together, building relationships, and generating new knowledge that can help to promote sustainable transformation (Bassi et al., 2014). By participating in collective action groups, citizens can support the co-creation and adoption of environmentally and ethically sound transformative farming practices, like agroecological, climate-smart, digital, vertical, and hydroponic farming.
Citizens can take on place-based leadership roles within their communities and facilitate collective learning and action that facilitate sustainability transformation in the food systems. According to Beer et al. (2019), place-based leaders can help to clarify the community’s vision and provide support for others to better understand complex issues through strategies such as persuasion, awareness raising, and volunteering to influence others and promote sustainability transformation. Raising awareness can help citizens who may not be aware of the full extent of the climate crisis make informed decisions about their food choices and actions they may take to make a difference. It may also build public support for collective action on sustainability issues and implementing sustainable agricultural policies and practices. Third, citizens may drive food systems sustainability transformation by compelling farmers to adopt pro-climate farming strategies through consumption choices (Yadav et al., 2017). Additionally, Machovina et al. (2015) suggest that reducing meat consumption can help to address climate change in areas where meat consumption is already very high (e.g., Europe and the USA) or is rapidly increasing (e.g., China and Brazil).

Figure 2: The Role of Citizens in Sustainability Transformation

3. Conclusion
Citizens can play in promoting sustainability transformation in the food systems. This essay reveals that citizens have the potential to bring about transformative changes in the food systems, particularly in the context of the ongoing climate crisis. This may be achieved by reducing food waste, participating in collective climate action, and taking on place-based leadership roles. It further reveals that citizens can drive the adoption of pro-climate farming practices by making informed consumption choices. By raising awareness about sustainability issues, place-based leaders can also build public support for collective climate action and generate support for implementing sustainable policies and practices.
While this essay does not provide an exhaustive account of citizens’ role in promoting sustainability transformation in the food systems, the evidence presented is believed to be strong in supporting this conclusion.


Bassi, I., Zaccarin, S. and De Stefano, D., 2014. Rural inter-firm networks as basis for multifunctional local system development: Evidence from an Italian alpine area. Land Use Policy38, pp.70-79.

Beer, A., Ayres, S., Clower, T., Faller, F., Sancino, A. and Sotarauta, M., 2019. Place leadership and regional economic development: a framework for cross-regional analysis. Regional studies53(2), pp.171-182.

Bouman, T., van der Werff, E., Perlaviciute, G. and Steg, L., 2021. Environmental values and identities at the personal and group level. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences42, pp.47-53.

Crippa, M., Solazzo, E., Guizzardi, D., Monforti-Ferrario, F., Tubiello, F.N. and Leip, A.J.N.F., 2021. Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions. Nature Food2(3), pp.198-209.

Drimie, S. and Pereira, L., 2016. Advances in food security and sustainability in South Africa. In Advances in food security and sustainability, 1, pp. 1-31.

Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA), 2019. Adapt now: a global call for leadership on climate resilience. Global Commission on Adaptation: Washington DC and Rotterdam.

Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C., Sonesson, U., Van Otterdijk, R. and Meybeck, A., 2011. Global Food Losses and Food Waste-FAO Report. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations: Rome, Italy, pp.1-37.

Jost, J.T., Nosek, B.A. and Gosling, S.D., 2008. Ideology: Its resurgence in social, personality, and political psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science3(2), pp.126-136.

Machovina, B., Feeley, K.J. and Ripple, W.J., 2015. Biodiversity conservation: The key is reducing meat consumption. Science of the Total Environment536, pp.419-431.

Oliveira, B., de Moura, A.P. and Cunha, L.M., 2016. Reducing food waste in the food service sector as a way to promote public health and environmental sustainability. In: Leal Filho, W., Azeiteiro, U., Alves, F. (eds). Climate Change and Health: Improving Resilience and Reducing Risks. Switzerland: Springer, pp. 117-132).

Quested, T.E., Marsh, E., Stunell, D. and Parry, A.D., 2013. Spaghetti soup: The complex world of food waste behaviours. Resources, Conservation and Recycling79, pp.43-51.

Tilman, D., Cassman, K.G., Matson, P.A., Naylor, R. and Polasky, S., 2002. Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature418(6898), pp.671-677.

United States Census Bureau, 2011. World Population: 1950-2050.–1950-2050.html

Yadav, P.L., Han, S.H. and Kim, H., 2017. Manager’s dilemma: Stockholders’ and consumers’ responses to corporate environmental efforts. Sustainability9(7), p.1108.

Ziervogel, G., Enqvist, J., Metelerkamp, L. and van Breda, J., 2021. Supporting transformative climate adaptation: community-level capacity building and knowledge co-creation in South Africa. Climate Policy, pp.1-16.

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