Solving the Great Food Puzzle

Translating Global Goals Into National Level Action

A detailed analysis of the similarities, differences, opportunities and trade-offs across different food system types – outlining the transformation levers that other countries can implement for a healthy and sustainable food future.


There is plenty of evidence that collective action to transform global food systems will allow us to feed at least 10 billion people, keep global warming to 1.5°C and restore biodiversity. Because food systems vary between countries, global targets need to be translated into local contexts, with tailor-made solutions that account for social, political and environmental dimensions of national food systems. There will be solutions that work across countries and countries with similar food systems can and should learn from each. Both when it comes to advancing biodiversity and climate goals, and when considering health and social needs.



countries analysed in depth


food system types identified


transformation levers


global agendas addressed

Roadmaps for transforming national food systems will differ, but they are critical for achieving biodiversity, climate and health goals


Read the report for detailed analysis and recommendations


Grouping countries based on similar food system characteristics

The fact that each country is unique and food system transformations may play out very differently in different countries creates a complexity that can hinder action at the national level. Identifying similarities and differences among food systems is a useful way to reduce complexity to accelerate national level action.


To assess the similarities and differences between actions needed in each type of food system, we conducted a local context analysis of four countries that represent a range of geographies, cultures and food systems.





We identify three food system types informed by six variables including their importance to meeting global climate and biodiversity goals. The inclusion of these two environmental variables is key to identifying ecological food system hotspots, which are food system types that are uniquely important for achieving global climate and biodiversity goals yet continue to face increasing rates of land conversion for food production.


Brazil and Colombia


Production System Mostly industrial food production Mostly smallholder and artisanal food production Mostly industrial food production
Self Sufficiency Sufficient natural resources to produce enough food domestically Sufficient natural resources to produce enough food domestically Insufficient natural resources to produce enough food domestically
Food Security Although enough food can be produced domestically, many remain food insecure Although enough food can be produced domestically, many remain food insecure Most individuals are food secure
Consumption Patterns Although a high level of food insecurity exists, the per capita impacts from food consumption are above planetary boundaries The per capita impacts from food consumption are below planetary boundaries The per capita impacts from food consumption are above planetary boundaries
Biodiversity Hotspot High levels of biodiversity richness and large areas considered biodiversity hotspots High levels of biodiversity richness and large areas considered biodiversity hotspots Low to moderate levels of biodiversity richness with no areas considered biodiversity hotspots
Irrecoverable Carbon High levels of carbon reserves Moderate levels of carbon reserves Low levels of carbon reserves

Transformation levers to achieve biodiversity, climate and health goals

We have identified 20 transformation levers which will likely need to be applied across all types of food systems to achieve climate, biodiversity, and health goals. These levers span the three action areas of food systems transformation - shifting to healthier and more sustainable diets, reducing food loss and waste, and adopting nature-positive production practices at scale.

Only with a food systems approach can we halt and reverse nature loss

The main driver of biodiversity loss is conversion of natural habitat for food production. Nature-positive food production practices are needed to prevent land conversion and limit degradation. But dietary change and reductions in food loss and waste are necessary global enablers to allow widespread adoption of nature-positive farming practices without increasing pressure to convert more land.

Only with a food systems approach can we achieve a 1.5°C future


Global food systems generate about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions

Even if we managed to rapidly decarbonise all other sectors, business-as-usual food-based emissions would use nearly the whole carbon budget for a 2°C future.

There are opportunities to gradually adopt actions across consumption, loss and waste, and production between 2020 and 2050, and significantly reduce food-based emissions. Shifting diets has the greatest potential.

But only a combination of actions can keep global warming within 1.5°C.


20 Transformation Levers

Actions to be applied across all food system types to achieve climate, biodiversity, and health goals


A wide range of actions could help achieve national-level food system transformations. However, to effectively analyse similarities and differences between food system types, we have identified 20 transformation levers which can be applied across all types of food systems to achieve climate, biodiversity, and health goals.


Assessing the potential of levers to transform a food system

The table below shows the potential of levers to transform a particular food system type. All 20 levers are important for achieving climate, biodiversity, and health goals but some levers may have higher potential for transformation in some food system types than others.

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Considering the indirect impacts of applying transformation levers

Some levers can enable and accelerate the implementation of others, while some could create trade-offs that need to be carefully managed to achieve environmental, health and social goals. As such, it is important for countries to consider this when implementing the transformation levers.

All countries have a high opportunity to apply the transformation lever of Increasing Diversity. There is a clear reciprocal relationship between this lever, from a production perspective, and Promoting Traditional Foods from a diet’s perspective. Providing Financial Incentives And Taxes to support healthy and sustainable eating, can also lead to Increased Diversity.

Strengthening Research And Development around food loss and waste and healthy and sustainable diets in TYPE I (Brazil and Colombia) countries can help accelerate the transformation levers ofOptimising Land Use, Restoring Biodiversity, Increasing Carbon Storage and Developing Nature-positive Supply Chains

There are also many human health and social co-benefits that can be delivered in all food system types by implementing certain transformation levers.

Shifting to healthier and more sustainable diets, which ensure no overconsumption of animal-source foods, can be win-win for people and planet. With that in mind any combination of the levers, perhaps most particularly Increased Public Awareness, Providing Financial Incentives And Taxes and Improving National Dietary Guidelines, can help deliver benefits for health and social goals, both in terms of reducing premature mortality and reduced incidence of diet-related disease. 

Many actions to improve production practices would also provide social benefits, such as increasing farmer profits and reducing food insecurity. For example, Increasing Carbon Storage can reduce emissions and land use, and increase profitability. Applying levers to reduce food loss and waste, like Strengthening Research And Development and Improving Data Collection And Measurement can also help deliver health and social goals.

Increased emissions

Some transformation levers could negatively impact biodiversity and climate goals if not carefully managed. For instance, application of certain High-tech Methods intended to reduce agricultural land use could increase emissions in other ways. 

Likewise, Developing Infrastructure to tackle food loss and waste, specifically scaling up critical cold storage technologies, could increase greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of the energy needed to run cold storage infrastructure is derived from fossil fuels. 

Adopting High-tech Methods and Developing Infrastructure should be accompanied by a transition to clean, renewable or low emission energy sources. This could mitigate the trade-off in terms of increased emissions.

Increased food loss and waste

Although Promoting Traditional Foods, Financing School Food And Public Procurement Programs and Providing Financial Incentives And Taxes To Improve Consumption can help improve health and reduce agricultural land use, the levers could lead to an increase in food loss and waste. A higher proportion of fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, roots and tubers go uneaten than meat and other animal products. Though often less healthy, heavily processed goods are also less prone to damage or decay in the supply chain than fresh foods. 

Levers to improve consumption should be accompanied by actions to reduce food loss and waste to mitigate potential negative impacts.

Even if some transformation levers advance climate, biodiversity, and health goals, there could be trade-offs, if not carefully managed, in certain dimensions including culture, traditions, food security, jobs, livelihoods, equity, and wellbeing.

Job losses

Applying a combination of levers can reduce the overconsumption of animal-source foods, in particular meat, but the livestock sector plays a significant role in food systems worldwide. Such a change, if not carefully managed, could lead to a loss of jobs, livelihoods, income, and community wellbeing, especially for livestock farmers and rural communities in low- and middle-income economies.

Increased consumption leading to increased emissions

In food system types where a large number of people under consume calories (e.g. TYPE II - Kenya), achieving a healthier diet may require a slight increase in consumption of resource and emissions-intensive foods - specifically meat and dairy. 

Decreases in food availability and affordability

Where producers are shifting production practices and making changes on their farms and in their supply chains, for instance to Restore Biodiversity or Increase Diversity or are receiving Redirected Subsidies to produce different foods, there could be adverse impacts on short-term food availability if not carefully managed. Yields could be reduced and the quantity, affordability and accessibility of food could be affected, with supplies being concentrated in wealthier countries or communities who can afford to pay more. Over the long-term, the implementation of nature-positive production practices could lead to certain nutrient-dense foods becoming more expensive. 


Actions are required from all stakeholders across food systems

A full range of stakeholders will be required to implement national level food systems transformation - including scientists, policymakers, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and individuals. Explicitly, smallholder farmers, women, youth, indigenous people, local communities and other historically-marginalized and vulnerable people need to be involved in any food systems transformation. Specific actions different stakeholders can take are below.

  1. Feature food system transformation prominently in national climate, biodiversity, and health plans. This includes embracing a food systems approach that incorporates all parts of the food system in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans (NBSAPs) and any other national relevant climate and biodiversity policies.
  2. Develop country-specific roadmaps to inform the design and implementation of effective policies and initiatives. These roadmaps can be informed by the key levers outlined in this study and others and build upon the existing work done by the FABLE consortium, UNFSS Food Systems Dialogues and UNFSS Coalitions.
  3. Mobilize and coordinate expertise and stakeholders to align action on food systems at the country-level, which to date is often siloed and fragmented. This aligned action should also seek to facilitate peer to peer learning within and between countries that share similar food system types. The UNFSS Coordination Hub can help to facilitate this process. 
  1. Ensure that investments are made on the levers that will have the most impact in countries where they work. This will ensure that investments are strategically targeted to deliver the most impact in the shortest time possible.
  2. Commit to including all food-based emissions into science-based targets (SBTs). To date, many companies are setting SBTs and reporting their emissions publicly, however, few account for AFOLU emissions or removals in their targets or disclosures. The newly released Forest, Land and Agriculture (FLAG) targets from the Science Based Targets Initiative will help companies to develop more robust SBTs using a food systems approach.
  3. Commit to including biodiversity targets into SBTs. Most SBTs focus on GHG emissions and few include biodiversity goals. More research on setting biodiversity targets needs to be done but companies can begin by working with organizations, such as WWF, to set initial targets. 
  1. Help build a robust body of scientific work to better understand food system transformation at the national level. This includes helping to build and refine a global typology of food systems and continue testing this concept through additional research and local context analysis.
  2. Scale research on the cultural, political and social elements of food system transformation. In addition, research on how systems thinking can be applied in the national context is needed to ensure feasibility of implementation of actions.
  3. Develop research agendas to better understand food system impacts on biodiversity and how this can be measured. This will also assist countries in the setting of national level biodiversity targets and companies in setting science-based targets (SBTs) that include biodiversity. 
  1. Integrate food systems into all climate and biodiversity conservation targets and goals in countries where the NGO is present. This includes more alignment on how conservation goals (e.g. tiger conservation) are connected to action on food systems.
  2. Participate in the UNFSS Coalitions of Action and help to integrate conservation and environmental goals with and across the existing coalitions.
  3. Adopt and help refine the concept of ecological food system hotspots and scale action and commitments on food system transformation in those areas.
  1. Depending on availability and affordability, consider their own food choices and act upon those choices. The food that one chooses to eat may be the single most important and impactful action that can be taken by an individual. Tools, such as WWF’s Impact Action Calculator, can help individuals to assess the impact of their diets based on the country where they live.
  2. Advocate for policies that have the most impact in their country. This report can serve as a guide for identifying key transformation levers depending on your country's food system type. This will help to ensure that mobilized action will have the most impact depending on local context.
  3. Buy from farmers, retailers, restaurants, and businesses who are actively working to reduce the impact of food systems on climate and biodiversity. When identified, spread the word and mobilize others to support organizations that are committed to making choices that are good for people and planet. 


Read the report for detailed analysis and recommendations