Climate change will demand food systems overhaul, IPCC findings show

A farmland bordering an industrial area in South Africa. Photo: © John Hogg / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — An overhaul of food systems and land usage is necessary to help mitigate severe climate change risks, according to a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Food system instability is likely to increase within the next century with a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, according to the IPCC’s findings. Africa, South America, and other middle-latitude regions are most at risk, as well as women, children, elderly, and the world’s poorest people.

At present levels of warming — slightly under 1 degree Celsius — stresses to food systems are already “kicking in,” explained Pamela McElwee, a lead author of the “Climate Change and Land” report. More than 820 million people are food insecure, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

An additional 175 million to 220 million people will be impacted by water stress by 2050, placing them at risk for agricultural failure and food shortages, according to McElwee.

The risks will continue to rise as the planet gets warmer. Scientists have found that the threshold of risk for food insecurity is lower than the IPCC reported just last year, according to Margot Hurlbert, a coordinating lead author of the report.

“There is a very significant risk to food insecurity at 2 degrees Celsius warming. We are identifying there is more risk at a lower temperature, as well as related to permafrost degradation,” Hurlbert said. “It’s a burning platform for why the world needs to pay attention to this.”  

The IPCC, which commissioned 107 scientists from 52 countries to produce its latest findings, released the report in Geneva on Aug. 8. The report identifies the inextricable connection between land use and climate change, as land can be both a source and a sink of carbon dioxide emissions.

“Climate change is impacting our land and could, if we are not careful, reduce the ability for it to absorb greenhouse gases,” Hurlbert said.

Some climate and development experts have responded to the findings by stressing the urgency of the situation, with IFRC President Francesco Rocca tweeting that the report “confirms our worst fears.”

Via Twitter

The report calls for a need to transform industrialized agriculture practices and for regions such as North America to reduce meat consumption in order to help keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, a goal established under the Paris climate agreement.

An estimated 23% of total greenhouse gas emissions are the result of agriculture, forestry, and other land use, according to the report. And 25% to 30% of total food produced is lost or wasted.  

“When you look at the land sector, it is contributing to climate change, particularly through agriculture and deforestation. Land is a significant part of the problem,” Kelly Stone, a senior policy analyst with ActionAid, told Devex.

“But if we are going to meet the Paris goals, it is clear that we need land to be part of the solution. There is huge potential for it to do that,” Stone continued.

“If we are going to meet the Paris goals, it is clear that we need land to be part of the solution. There is huge potential for it to do that.”

— Kelly Stone, senior policy analyst, ActionAid

Industrialized agricultural systems are widespread in places such as the United States. But there are also farmers worldwide who are increasingly working within the confines of natural ecosystems. This includes using land management systems such as agroforestry, in which trees and shrubs are grown around crops and livestock, helping to protect them and prevent erosion.

“Considering how agriculture is so impacted by climate change, we really do not have a choice,” Stone said.

Climate change has already affected food security, as a result of warming, changing precipitation patterns, and a greater frequency of extreme weather, according to the report.

Increased atmospheric CO2 levels can lower the nutritional quality of crops, the findings show.

Higher food prices are also likely by 2050, with global crop and economic models projecting a median increase of 7.6% in cereal prices within the next three decades. This could place some foods further out of reach for people at risk of becoming food insecure.

People now use one-quarter to one-third of land’s potential net primary production for food, feed, fiber, timber, and energy, according to the report. Climate change’s impacts, such as drought frequency and flooding, can further exacerbate the land degradation processes, according to the report.

Wasted food means wasting time to meet SDGs, researchers say

Efforts to reduce food waste "are really back in the starting blocks still," Waste and Resources Action Program CEO Liz Goodwin tells Devex.

Solutions are already accessible, though, without a new technological innovation, McElwee said. Using land more productively and reducing food waste is critical.

“People sometimes get worried about the dire nature of the threats and can feel hopeless, like there is nothing we can do. There are a lot of things we can do now,” McElwee said.

“If we could tackle food losses and waste, we would reduce our demands for additional agricultural land to make up for these risks.”

About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.