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IPCC report: We need a radical change to feed everyone

Irene Banos Ruiz
August 8, 2019

The UN's scientific body on climate change highlights in a new report the strong connection between land use and climate change. A radical change in the food system is key to people's livelihoods and health worldwide.

Eritrea Landwirtschaft und Klimawandel Vieh
Image: DW/M. Belloni

The earth's population is growing and, with it, consumption. This trend will only increase in the near future, but the planet's resources are limited, and land isn't an exception.

The stark connection between how land is used and its effect on climate change is the focus of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published on August 8. At the center of the report is how, in a sort of vicious circle, unhealthy soils and forests exacerbate climate change, while climate change, in turn, negatively impacts the forests and soils' health.

The IPCC's findings are the result of two years of work by 103 experts from 52 countries who were involved on a voluntary basis. Before its release, the report was discussed with governments in Geneva, Switzerland, and approved by consensus by all participating IPCC member countries.

The report doesn't paint a promising future: If global warming goes beyond the 2 degrees Celsius limit set forth in the Paris Agreement, what will likely happen is that fruitful land will turn to desert, infrastructure will crumble as permafrost thaws, and drought and extreme weather events will put the food system at risk.

It's a grim picture, but IPCC authors stress that the report's recommendations could help governments prevent the worst damage by reducing pressure on land and making food systems more sustainable, while meeting the needs of a growing population.

"My hope is that this report will have some impact on how we regard land in the context of climate change and it will have an impact on policies that will promote sustainable land management and sustainable food systems," Alisher Mirzabaev told DW, a co-author of the IPCC report who spoke on his own behalf. 

Infografik Auswirkung Lebensmittel-Industrie an Klima EN

Key findings of the report:

  • Land use accounts for around 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The CO2 emissions primarily come from clearing forests for new agricultural land and methane emissions from cattle and rice fields
  • If emissions continue to increase at the current rate, food security will be severely at risk from factors including the disruption of food chains resulting from extreme weather events, a decrease in crop yield and poorer nutrient content in the food we grow
  • In a 1.5 degree warming scenario, 178 million people are projected to suffer from lack of water and desertification by 2050. In a 2 degree warming scenario, that number increases to 220 million people worldwide over the same period of time  
  • If global efforts achieve a shift to more sustainable land use, soils and trees could play a determining role in reducing the consequences of climate change
Spanien, Algeciras: Wasserreservoir
The report predicts falling water levels and an increasing incidence of desertification as the world continues to heat upImage: Getty Images/D. Ramos

Carbon sinks or CO2 emitters 

Soils and forests are perfect allies against climate change. They act as carbon sinks, natural reservoirs that prevent CO2 from reaching the atmosphere.

As Barron Joseph Orr, lead scientist for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification points out, unsustainable management turns them into the opposite: major contributors to climate change. 

Of the world's land area that isn't covered by ice, roughly 70% is already being used for food production, textiles and fuel.

Ecosystems such as grasslands are pivotal for a stable climate, although often ignored. These vast landscapes, which are largely devoid of trees and shrubs, act as huge carbon sinks. They also allow cattle to graze without cutting down trees. But the trend toward developing this land for crops means a larger release of CO2 into the atmosphere.

"While much attention goes towards forests, savannahs and grasslands are a landscape that we must urgently address," Joao Campari, global food practice leader at WWF International, told DW. "More than 50% of the conversion for fruitful production happens in grasslands and savannahs."

Peatlands, for instance, a sort of wetland that covers only 3% of the Earth's surface, are also another important carbon sink, yet make up to 5% of annual global CO2 emissions. About 15% of known peatlands are already either destroyed or degraded. 

Infografik Torfmoore CO2 ENG

Dire consequences 

The report goes on to outline how our food system greatly contributes to climate change, but is also heavily affected by its consequences.

Crop yields are predicted to decrease due to climate change and food prices are expected to increase accordingly. Global cereal prices could rise by as much as 23% by 2050, the IPCC report says. 

In the US, climate change could lower corn and soybean production by up to 80% in the next 60 years if emissions continue to rise, Campari told DW, citing a previous report by the United States Department of Agriculture.

A report by the Asian Development Bank has also warned of a decline in staple crops. In southern India, for example, rice yields may decline by 5% in 2030 and by more than 14% over the next three decades.

'We need to be optimizing'

The rise in extreme weather events threatens to disrupt food chains, with food loss driving up prices. One-third of food produced every year is already lost or wasted. Food waste and loss – from the energy that goes into producing food to the food that rots in landfills – incidentally accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

In addition, higher CO2 concentrations affect food quality and reduce its nutritional value, researchers have found, warning this may also contribute to global food insecurity. An estimated 821 million people suffer from hunger and 1.5 billion lack key micronutrients, such as iron or zinc, in their diet.

Time for action

The IPCC's latest report is not only a warning, it's also a call for action. And a reminder that there's still hope.

"Solutions are available. In many cases it is a matter of a larger scale application," IPCC's author Mirzabaev said.

Although solutions vary from region to region, they largely overlap. This begins by optimizing existing areas for food production and rehabilitating the world's 2 billion hectares of already degraded land.

"We need to stop deforestation and converting new land to grow food, period," Campari said.

Could soil save our climate?

The report also outlines measures to help soils absorb more carbon and prevent soil erosion, such as replacing monocultures – a single crop such as soybeans or corn, grown over a large land area – with a variety of crops. Healthier soils produce more, are less vulnerable to extreme weather and lead to a more stable food supply and income.

But experts say such a change cannot happen without policymakers onboard. They must move past the stage of saying they're committed to actually implementing concrete measures based on the report's recommendations. They must also work in an integrated manner involving all sectors, from finance to health.

"There is a perceived competition between generating revenues for a country and keeping a healthy environment, but there is no room for these dilemmas anymore in the 21st century," Campari said.

Infografik Lebensmittelabfälle EN

Orr points out that planning has traditionally been based on immediate goals. If economic development was the goal, biodiversity protection wouldn't be in the plans. However, the challenges posed by climate change require a more holistic approach.

"And that changes the whole equation," Orr said. "Where do we put the habitat corridor that will maximize biodiversity but not impact that economic development zone? Do we let new urban growth go into prime agricultural land – which is where it goes almost always everywhere in the world  – or do we try to orient it towards already degraded land?

The IPCC report also calls on policymakers to create adequate space for people to take risks, for example, by securing land tenure rights or by incentivizing sustainable land management.

"Many of the benefits produced by reforestation programs are in the form of intangible ecosystem services, like carbon sequestration, which are not sold in the market," Mirzabaev said. Measures like payments for ecosystem services could encourage those actions, he added.

A common effort

Meanwhile, citizens should not just sit and wait, experts say. It isn't always easy to choose the right path, though. If one eats meat, it has an impact. If one stops eating meat but buys avocados, it has an impact as well. 

World in Progress: Avocados are sucking Chile dry

"There is no silver bullet," Campari said. Even so, reducing the amount of food that ends up in the bin would be a first good step. A greater awareness of what we consume and how we consume it, not to mention a more diverse diet, would also make a difference: 75% of the world's food comes from only 12 plants and five animal species.

"Consumers need to be made aware that what they choose to eat is not born on a plate. There is labor involved; there are natural resources involved," Campari added.  

According to Orr, a little push to empower consumers wouldn't hurt. Easy ways to track the food impact on land and advice at consumer level would encourage more conscientious behavior and, in the long run, healthier soil and a healthier climate.

In any case, the IPCC's latest report shouldn't be a reason to give up, but rather to look ahead, he added. "We can talk as long as we want about what's wrong with the world. But right now we need to move, we need to act." 

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