In Conversation With … Sir Charles Godfray

2021 is a big year for sustainability policy, with several major climate conferences on the horizon. In the run-up to this autumn’s COP26 and UN Food Systems Summit meetings, we’re sitting down with some of the world’s leading sustainability scholars to get their perspective on what these conferences can achieve and how the public can push for better sustainability outcomes. 

In our first interview, we spoke with Professor Sir Charles Godfray, director of the Oxford Martin School and of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food. A Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), Professor Godfray was knighted in 2017 for services to scientific research and scientific advice to the government. His research focuses on how global food systems should adapt to address current and future challenges. 

*This interview has been copy edited and edited for length, and links to further reading have been added by the editor


Would you mind putting these conferences in context for our readers? What are their potential impacts? 

Let’s consider the COP at Glasgow first, because that is a bit more straightforward. There are two particular reasons why it is important: First, in the cycle of COPs, this is the one at which many decisions have to be made – so not all COPs are the same. Secondly, it comes after a period of climate stasis, largely due to the politics of the United States. With the new Biden administration – given the fact that they are going to have a climate conference [this week], before the Glasgow COP – we’ll hopefully see the reemergence of the biggest economy in the world as a player in climate change. So it’s clear that COP26 is going to be important.

It is less clear how important the UN Food Summit is going to be, because it’s a new thing. As you are aware there has been concern by some stakeholders about the way that it has been framed, and some stakeholders are saying that they won’t engage with it. I think that is a great pity and I hope they change their minds.

So it’s less clear what the Summit will achieve. Personally, I hope it will achieve a lot, and I am very pleased the UN system has set it up.


We have to go beyond saying we need to think of [food] as a system to actually trying to operationalize what that means.   


What specific and realistic outcomes are you advocating? What do you hope to see achieved by the end of this year? 

So, the Glasgow COP: It’s not yet clear what the ambition of that meeting will be, and the UK government is currently working on that as its chair. I would certainly hope to see some quite substantial movement both in commitments and in the mechanisms that will deliver those commitments.

I think this is particularly important in the high-income countries – the OECD countries – which are responsible for the majority of emissions and which have to act first, before the rest of the world can be encouraged to follow up.

If I were to say something very specific, I would hope that we would see a realistic price of carbon and improvements in cap-and-trade schemes. We’ve seen that happening in Europe over the last couple years. I’d like to see that go further. I’m not a particular expert in cap-and-trade systems, but certainly what’s happening in China is a baby step, and I’d like to see that go substantially further towards a real emissions trading system in China.

I would also like to see more movement on exactly how some of the costs of emissions reductions in the developing world will be shared by the rich world. And there needs to be more movement on adaptation. Some of the poorest countries have low resilience to some of the changes that we expect due to climate change. This is obviously the island states, but also many countries with large amounts of population in low-lying areas.

What impact will these conferences have on food systems specifically? 

I think one of the areas that we need to move on is to integrate food systems within the broader discussions about moving to net zero. This is much harder to do with food systems, because they’re more distributed. If you look at energy and the big industrial sectors,  a relatively small number of agents are responsible for the emissions. When it comes to food systems, it’s large numbers of farmers and the different actors in the food chain. So it is harder, but we need to move in that direction.

People have been discussing the importance of talking about food as part of a food system for ten, if not twenty, years and I think that message has largely been taken on board. So people do realise one has to think more holistically about the food system and the nexus of food with energy and water. But we have to go beyond saying we need to think of it as a system to actually trying to operationalize what that means.

When one is thinking about agriculture, which is a land-based system, emissions there are complex. Very often the commitments countries have made as to their land-based emissions don’t add up. We need to be more realistic about the capacity of land to store carbon, for example. We need to be more realistic about the fact that if you use land for one thing, you cannot use it for another thing. So I hope what will come out of both conferences is actually a little bit more realism about the trade-offs that we face in using land.

Could you go into a little more detail about what you mean by operationalizing food systems? How might that be done more effectively?

What I mean is that reducing emissions involves thinking right across the whole system from changes in consumption patterns to changes in production. So, if one takes a particular food type that is particularly heavy in producing emissions, then one has to look at the demand for that food type, the way that it has been produced and the trade in that food type globally. Looking at just one component without the others, one can get perverse incentives.

To what degree do you think food systems will figure in COP26 discussions?

I think food systems will be a relatively small player in COP26, because the energy, transport and industrial sectors are the major emitters. If you go all the way back to the Kyoto process, then agriculture has been left out of many of the international climate change discussions – not completely, but as too difficult a box. What I would hope to see at COP26 – but I’m not hugely optimistic about it – is that agriculture will loom larger.

If one looks at the COP process, it is trying to bring in every country in the world. Because agriculture is so important for the livelihoods of many people in developing countries, it becomes complex. And it probably needs greater attention in the rich world first, so that we get our house in order.

If you look at my own country, the United Kingdom, things are going in the right direction. We have a commitment to net zero, and that commitment includes all sectors, including agriculture. It is very interesting that our national farmers union, the NFU, have produced a paper on how the agricultural sector can move to net zero. Now, you can quibble with what’s actually in the paper and argue about whether certain emissions are in the agricultural sector as opposed to other sectors. Nevertheless, it’s a brave statement to put out there and something to build upon. So I’d like to see more of that in other OECD countries.

What’s the best way for the public and our readers specifically get involved? 

We as individuals obviously make decisions about what we do in our personal life, what we eat, how we travel and things like that. But almost as important is, I think, how we contribute to the political debate, the political discussion.

It is often the case, though not always, that politicians know the right thing to do. I think this is a quote from Jean-Claude Juncker, who I don’t normally quote, but he says ‘We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get reelected once we’ve done it.’ So I think there’s a really important role for us as individual citizens to provide the political environment in which politicians can make the right decisions. That’s where young people in particular can have a major effect as well.

And what are some specific ways to do that?

Everything, from just joining local societies, engaging in debate, discussing on social media. There are also more formal ways of doing it: so, if you look at the website of the UN Food Systems Summit, they encourage participation in their various dialogues. It is encouraging that the UN system is trying to do that. There are other ways of interacting with the COP in Glasgow.

It’s almost the old left-wing slogan, ‘Organise! Organise! Organise!’ So, if you believe that this is important, if you believe that we have to fight for a sustainable future, then just get involved in local and national political organisations and discussions, talk on social media about it, just get involved.

The other thing I’d say is get involved in a questioning way. There is misinformation out there, and there is also opinion out there – and there is nothing wrong with opinion, and in fact one wants opinion – but make up your own mind as well. Don’t take things that appear to be absolute certainty as necessarily certain. Go and investigate.


One idea is that the consumer can bring about change simply through his or her choice of food or products.  I think that’s placing a huge burden on the consumer – that is just unrealistic.   


You’ve been talking about engaging with the government specifically, but the food system summit also brings in business leaders. How can the public engage with businesses or push businesses in the right direction in the limited time before the conferences?

The conferences are almost upon us, so I suspect that there’s limited opportunity beforehand. But this is an interesting time, if one is looking at the relationship between business and the private sector, and the sustainable development goals in general and the ones concerning food in particular. Industry has talked about ESG [environmental, social and governance] for some time now. In my view, it is becoming more mainstream, it is beginning to matter to investors, and green funds and ethical investment are coming out of the margins and becoming more central. It is unclear to me whether that will result in really substantial change to the degree that is necessary for sustainability, but it is going in the right direction.

What I would like to see is greater inspection of the private sector by civil society in a more granular way. What I mean by that is that I have little time for people who say food is too important to be left to the market. The food sector is a really important part of the market. The real challenge is how to get the market to provide not only what it does really effectively, which is cheap food throughout most of the world – though not all of the world – but to do it in a way that also produces the public good of sustainability.

In particular, it is very helpful to look at which companies do better and which do worse, and call them out. To give an example from outside the food sector, a programme here at Oxford at the Oxford Martin School has been looking at investment in the energy sector. We will need fossil fuels for the next couple of decades, even with the most optimistic scenarios for the transfer to non-polluting forms of energy. The principle that the people at Oxford came up with was to invest in companies that have a realistic policy for transitioning to net zero over a realistic time frame. And I think pushing companies to be realistic in what they can do but challenging them is a way to get real change and avoid greenwashing.

I think part of the challenge for the public is being able to evaluate what’s actually realistic and being able to see through a lot of the marketing around green programmes. 

First of all, I think that we in the research community need to do a better job of actually providing metrics that can then be used by civil society.

One idea is that the consumer can bring about change simply through his or her choice of food or products.  I think that’s placing a huge burden on the consumer – that is just unrealistic.

So, choosing to shop at those companies that have policies improve the sustainability of their food, electing governments that will put in regulations and other rules to help the market deliver better solutions – that is the way to effect change at scale.

Portrait courtesy of Sir Charles Godfray/Oxford Martin School. Photos by Steven Van Elk and Karsten Würth on Unsplash

Peer review declaration: This article is an interview. We do not put interviews through peer review, as they are by nature statements of opinion.

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