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a butterfly with spread wings

Stewarding change in food systems in a time of the great transformation

By Prof Ioan Fazey, Lead for Transformation and 3 Horizons

As the world has watched COP26 with bated breath, wondering whether genuine and meaningful progress will have been made, it is helpful to remind ourselves that we are already in a major global period of change where transformations in our economy, food systems and ways of living are inevitable. This transformation will come as the growing impacts of climate change increase and affect our lives and livelihoods but also as humanity attempts to find ways to steward transitions to low carbon and more fair and just futures and economies.

In terms of food systems, failure to reduce carbon emissions globally over rapid time frames will result in catastrophic transformations. While estimates vary, Mark Lynas’ review of scientific research in his book Our Final Warning suggests that while climate change is already having significant impact on our food production, by the time global temperatures will have risen by 3 oC, the world will be running out of food, threatening millions with starvation (Lynas 2020). Failure to address the climate challenge will thus bring about transformations that will affect all of us whether we like it or not.

Transformations, however, can also emerge as we individually and collectively try to steward change to bring about new kinds of food systems better aligned to the realities of a warming world. These systems – including both how food is produced and consumed – need to go beyond reducing harm to sustainable levels and be regenerative, spiralling up human and environmental benefit so that they increase the ability of our planet to support human life.

Deforestation – which is largely driven by land clearing for agriculture – is a good example of the need to go beyond reducing harm. While the pledge to halt deforestation by 2030 at COP26 is a powerful and important ambition, its success will depend on whether it is accompanied by massive efforts to regenerate forests while simultaneously continuing to support the production of food and local economies. It will also need transformations in food systems elsewhere so they don’t continue to drive deforestation in places like the Amazon. A recent report highlights, for example, that Wales requires 40% of land beyond its own to provide cocoa, palm, beef, leather, natural rubber, soy, timber, pulp and paper, with a third of this land coming from areas of high deforestation (WWF et al. 2021). Transformational attempts to regenerate forests in the Amazon are therefore unlikely to be successful without transformational approaches to food systems in other parts of the world. Whether positive transformation arises – as opposed to catastrophic transformational change – will thus largely depend on the extent to which humanity can learn to steward change to create a very different relationship between people, food and our planet.

While many may agree transformation in our food systems is needed, stewarding such change is not easy. Part of the problem is a lack of appreciation that transformational change is qualitatively different from other kinds of change and that it then needs a different approach. For example, scholars of transformation working in the field of climate change, such as Professor Karen O’Brien in Norway, highlight that transformations require going beyond technological aspects to include addressing underlying systems, structures and the way things are governed (O’Brien 2018). Transformations also require questioning and changing the very assumptions upon which our economies, societies and ways of acting are based (O’Brien 2018). New notions of what constitutes ‘progress’ or ‘development’, for example, are needed if we are going to be able to bring about genuinely low carbon and equitable food futures. The transformation of our food system may even need new notions of food itself if we are to be able to truly transcend the many problems in our existing systems.

A useful analogy from nature highlighting how transformation is a distinct form of change is the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly. After a caterpillar has built its chrysalis, it undergoes a process of dissolution and re-allocation of the same resources through a process of transition to create something new (Lowe et al. 2013). This newly transformed butterfly is completely different in form, capability, and function to the grub it once was. Similarly, we urgently need to learn how to re-allocate existing resources through collaborations with diverse organisations, companies, public, and governments so that together we transition to radically different food system patterns. This needs to go beyond a focus on adjustments and reforms which are the kinds of change generally used to retain the status quo. In short, we cannot address the big challenges in our food systems – its contributions to climate change, biodiversity loss, growing obesity, and the major inequalities in access and provision of food – by focusing only on the kinds of changes that build fitter, fatter and faster caterpillars. Instead we need to quickly learn how to build something new and make transformations to butterflies a real possibility.


Lowe, T, Garwood, RJ, Simonsen, TJ, Bradley, RS, and Withers, PJ (2013) Metamorphosis revealed: Time-lapse three-dimensional imaging inside a living chrysalis. Journal of the Royal Society Interface 10.

Lynas, M (2020) Our final warning: Six degrees of Climate Emergency. 4th Estate London.

O’Brien, K (2018) Is the 1.5°C target possible? Exploring the three spheres of transformation. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 31:153-160.

WWF, Cymru, R, and Wales, So. 2021. Wales and global responsibility: Addressing Wales’ overseas land footprint. UK.