IPCC report puts food at the heart of climate battle: ‘We have the potential to mitigate climate change’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

How can food system transformation help climate change mitigation? IPCC weighs in / Pic: GettyImages-Chris Strickland
How can food system transformation help climate change mitigation? IPCC weighs in / Pic: GettyImages-Chris Strickland

Related tags Climate change food system Sustainability IPCC

We are nowhere near on track to keep global warning below 2°C, was the stark conclusion of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. But hope was also on offer. FoodNavigator looks at how food system transformation can help mitigate global heating.

In 2015, signatories of the landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Change pledged to work towards a target of keeping global warming below 2°C, and ideally 1.5°C.

Six years down the road and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released yesterday (4 April), confirmed what climate scientists have been warning us for some time. We are not on the path of decarbonisation needed to achieve the Paris ambitions.

Investment levels to support the necessary transition have been insufficient. And the biggest investment gaps, the report found, lie in the agriculture and land sectors. Investment needs to increase by 3-6 times current levels if we are to stand a chance of limiting global warming.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Speaking during a press conference, IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee also offered a message of hope. “The IPCC report before us today is powerful evidence that we have the potential to mitigate climate change,”​ he stressed. “We are at a crossroads. This is the time for action. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming and secure a liveable future.”

Agriculture can play an important role in climate mitigation. "Agriculture, forests, nature can make important contributions to limit climate change. The new IPCC report shows that proper land-use management can even be one of the most cost-effective measures - that is, with a lot of impact for relatively little money,"​ Alexander Popp, lead author in the chapter on land use and head of the research group on land use management at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, elaborated. 

"Reducing livestock farming, protecting and reforesting forests, and preserving and rewetting peatlands, for example, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What's more, soils and plants can even take CO2 back out of the atmosphere. Of course, we must also develop and apply technologies that expand renewable energies. But only if we also ensure targeted and sustainable land management and protection of nature can we achieve the goal of net zero emissions by mid-century."

Food security faces climate threat

Food production and quality has already been hit by the impact of climate change. IPCC found productivity is 21% lower due to global heating, with high temperatures and extreme rainfall damaging soil health while increased levels of carbon dioxide reduce the nutritional quality of crops.

Yields from staples like soy, wheat and rice will decrease throughout the 21st century, IPCC predicted. This will vary by country and crop, but a 0.7-3.3% decrease is estimated every decade. And this figure could actually underestimate the risk because the forecast doesn’t take into account variables like pests and soil quality. Yields of rice, maize and wheat could fall by 10-25% per degree of warming, scientists warn.

“Our food system is very sensitive to the worsening impacts of climate change,”​ responded Thomas Lingard, Global Sustainability Director for Climate & Environment, Unilever. “The window is closing for governments, business, and investors to take real action. Without it, the world faces dramatic loss of yields and the collapse of already strained supply chains, with severe implications for people across the globe.”

Lingard stressed that there is a strong business case for action because ‘resilient food systems are fundamental to the growth of our business’.

Food and agriculture ‘given free pass’

While the window for action might be closing, to date regulators have shown little appetite to drive change at a food system level. This is despite the fact that, today, agriculture and land use account for nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and the sector’s GHG output keeps rising.

As Hans Herren – member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and President of the Millennium Institute – noted: “We are barrelling towards catastrophic levels of global heating - and our industrial food system is a major culprit. Without a rapid transformation toward sustainable and resilient food systems, it will be impossible to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C and prevent mass crop failures - entailing horrific consequences for marginalized people who did not cause this crisis.”

The agri-food industry, according to Herren, has been expected to take little responsibility for the carbon cost of its production methods.

Indeed, with the EU’s Emissions Directive up for review, leaked documents seen by journal Contexte​, suggest that it could – for the first time – cover industrial cattle, pig and poultry farms. And, while the ink is far from dry, what is striking is the exceptionalism that agri-industries currently enjoy.

“Right now, almost no government has plans in their national climate strategies to transform food systems - giving one of the world’s destructive industries a free pass,”​ Herren chided.

Protecting the status quo in agri-food priorities vested interests over vulnerable populations, the natural world and, ultimately, a liveable future, warned Lim Li Ching, a member of IPES-Food and Senior Researcher at the Third World Network. “Continuing with agribusiness as usual is enriching a small minority at the expense of the climate, biodiversity, and the world’s poorest people and farmers who did least to cause the problems.”

In a business-as-usual scenario, the number of people globally at risk of hunger will increase from eight million today to 80 million by 2050.

Food system transformation offers answers

The food system is both exposed to and contributes to climate change. But transforming farming and livestock production can actually reduce emissions and drawdown carbon into soils, the IPCC report suggested.

"Semi-natural pastures grazed by ruminants can support biodiversity... while grazing on marginal land and the use of crop residues and food waste can provide human-edible food with lower demands for cropland,”​ the report stated.

"Land-use practices such as agroforestry, intercropping, organic inputs, cover crops and rotational grazing, can provide mitigation and support adaption to climate change via food security, livelihoods, biodiversity and health co-benefits."

Diversifying food production systems, combining inputs from different crops, livestock and fisheries, offers benefits to both human and planetary health. The report rejects further intensification of food production which, it said, may improve short-term food security but at the expense of the environment and biodiversity.

Shaking up our approach to food production and agriculture could mitigate – and even help limit – climate change and slow the collapse of ecosystems, suggested Emile Frison, member of IPES-Food and former Director General of Bioversity International.

“Unlike for other polluting industries, sustainable solutions are readily available for food systems - such as reducing food waste, promoting agroforestry, and introducing sustainable diets - all while mitigating emissions, and delivering multiple benefits for food security, livelihoods and biodiversity."

However, Frison noted, supporting agro-ecological practices and farming methods that work hand-in-hand with nature will be critical. Alluding to the rapid rise of carbon markets, he noted: “Using land only to sequester carbon could risk displacing people and undermining food security, with dubious benefits.”

Animal agriculture: A meaty debate

What about demand-side mitigation efforts? Proponents of plant-based diets often target the high levels of meat and dairy consumption seen in western markets, insisting that a shift from animal proteins is needed to transition towards a more sustainable food system.

While IPCC supported a diverse food system that includes animal production and recognised the role ruminants play in promoting soil health, for example, the report also placed lifestyle changes that would see a shift towards ‘sustainable diets’ that are lower in animal proteins firmly on the agenda. It suggested this switch could result in a 30-70% GHG reduction by 2050 while also improving health and wellbeing.

"Reduction of excess meat consumption is amongst the most effective measures to mitigate GHG emissions, with a high potential for environment, health, food security, biodiversity, and animal welfare co-benefits,”​ the report stated.

Food awareness NGO ProVeg International, which campaigns to support a plant-based transition, welcomed the IPCC findings that, it said, ‘categorically state’ moderating meat and dairy consumption is needed to tackle climate change.

“It is good to hear that the IPCC has called for dietary changes, in particular eating less meat, to reduce methane emissions. The global scientific community recognising the huge impact that animal agriculture has on the climate is the right step in the right direction,”​ Raphael Podselver, Head of UN Advocacy at ProVeg, said.

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