Staying close to food is key to tackling climate change

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A few years ago, my grandparents came to visit my husband and me in London. It was a Sunday, so we welcomed them with a lovely, organic roast chicken. Unfortunately, it didn’t go down too well, particularly with my (now late) grandmother. And this is why.

My grandmother comes from a beautiful part of Kenya, on the foot of Mount Kenya, close to the area where the late Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winning environmental activist, was born. As a child, taken by my parents to see my grandparents, I don’t think I quite appreciated the beauty of their home. Back then, there were deep, dark forests, where elephants and other wild animals roamed, and a roaring river in the valley. Even though much of those forests are now gone (due to commercial logging), and the river is not quite so roaring anymore, it’s still beautiful. And the backdrop of the snow-tipped Mount Kenya is unforgettable.

As a child, I also didn’t appreciate how close to nature we were. There’s still no electricity or running water there, and my family mostly eats what they farm and sells the rest. They tend vegetables such as corn, potatoes and carrots, and rear chickens, rabbits, sheep and cows. They are close to and depend on nature – it is their life and livelihood.

Farming on the foot of Mount Kenya. Credit: CIAT International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, Oct 2010

It’s because she was so close to nature that my grandmother wasn’t too enthusiastic about our roast chicken. Here in the UK, it’s often hard to understand the differences between the foods we eat. Different meats are in similar packaging, and if we go for a nice Sunday lunch, the price for chicken, beef or lamb roasts tend to differ by only a few pounds, if at all. We only get big discounts if we go for vegetarian options. But for my grandmother, a plate of chicken definitely had less value than a plate of beef. Because she was close to nature, she knew that it would take a great deal more effort to look after and feed a cow than it would a chicken. She instinctively knew the effort (and energy) required to produce food. An effort that those of us working on climate change grapple with every day.

This effort is reflected in how much carbon dioxide and natural resources are associated with different foods. Back in 2006, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation – who set up World Food Day – released a report saying that nearly a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock – that’s more than from all forms of transport. Just the dairy cattle sector accounts for 4% of global emissions. The average water footprint of a kilogram of beef has been calculated at 15,000 litres, versus 4,300 for a kilo of chicken and 250 litres for a kilo of potatoes. This infographic, put together last month by a US institute, calculates the carbon footprint of 20 different foods, and compares that to car miles. It suggests that eating just one less burger per week (in the US) is the equivalent to not driving 320 miles.

That’s why people like Lord Stern in 2009 and Al Gore more recently have respectively advocated becoming vegetarian or cutting down on meat consumption, in order to help avoid climate change and other natural resource scarcities. The UK’s Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures Report, an authoritative report published earlier this year, includes a chapter called “Challenge A” devoted to these issues – it’s really worth a read, as it also explains other complex effects of food consumption choices on developing countries – such as impacts on trade.

While these issues are very complex, the simple point for my grandmother was that visiting my home was a special occasion. A special occasion that happened less than every five years that she thought should be associated with a high value meal like beef or lamb. For her, chicken didn’t quite hit the spot. Being close to nature, she could make that judgement.

In a time where food prices across the board seem to be rising, threatening livelihoods across the world, understanding the implications of the food choices we make is crucial. It’s often hard to do so, particularly if we live in cities and don’t get to the countryside or farms that often. Given that over half of the world’s population live in cities, we must find a way to connect us all with the way food is produced. Clearer packaging and pricing could be one crucial indicator. Of course, staple foods like corn, grains and beans, of the sort my grandmother used to eat every day rather than on special occasions, must remain affordable and accessible. But it may not be so bad a thing for some food prices to slowly begin to more closely reflect their carbon and natural resource content. That may well help us – particularly in countries such as the UK – to make better choices. It might help us choose vegetables on most days and meat only on special occasions. By doing so, we will not only stay healthier, but we might also just help slow climate change, and preserve the snow on the tip of Mount Kenya, close to where my discerning grandmother now rests in peace.

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Research Analyst

Edmond is a research analyst who is passionate about sustainable development, innovation, and the environment. Passionate about climate financing, he firmly believe there is a more reliable system to promote equality, growth, and welfare in societies without affecting the ecosystem. Through his skills, knowledge and experienced gained over 7 years, he wants to make an impact in the world of development. Edmond holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Korea Development Institute and a BA Degree (Honors) in Business from University of Derby.


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Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


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Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.


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Judith is a Research and Policy Analyst, where she specialises in Africa-China relations, international development, and diplomacy. During her time at Development Reimagined, Judith has co-authored several articles published in The Diplomat on debt and China-Barbados relations and was quoted by China Daily in a piece on Women Rights in China. Previously, Judith worked as a research analyst for an Advocate and Commissioner and Oats office in Kenya.


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Jing leads China-African health and agriculture cooperation research at Development Reimagined, having managed our FOCAC Policy Analysis and Advocacy project. She is also the co-author of “China-Africa Health Cooperation under FOCAC Umbrella”, in which she analysed China’s commitments around health cooperation since the first FOCAC summit and deepdived into four African countries’ health overview, challenges and cooperation with China as cases studies. Before DR, Jing worked at GIZ Cambodia on M&E of a disability advocacy project. She also worked as a translator with Chinese medical team in Benin.


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Jade is a Project Manager for Development Reimagined’s flagship project Africa Unconstrained, which focuses on financing needs and debt vulnerabilities of African countries. Her research focuses on China-Africa development finance alongside debt vulnerabilities, infrastructure needs and South-South cooperation. She has worked with a breadth of stakeholders from China, Africa and the wider international community, including governments, private sector, NGOs and civil society. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Africa Report, The China-Africa Project, The Diplomat and more. Jade holds a Master’s in China and Globalisation studies from King’s College London.


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Lauren has lived in six countries from the Americas to Europe and Asia and speaks both French and Spanish proficiently. At Development Reimagined, Lauren’s research focuses on climate action both in the Asia-Pacific and in Africa, and how countries are using tools such as SDGs and Covid-19 action to build a more climate-resilient future. She holds a Masters in International Relations from Leiden University.



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Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.