We need clean air and water for a sustainable future. We also need healthy land. Climate change doesn’t just alter the health of our land but is also affected by how we use it. The bad news is that the way we currently manage our land is contributing to the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The good news is there are solutions and, central to them, is how we produce and consume food.
The IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land, which is due to be approved in Geneva next week, will explore the relationship between climate and land. It is expected to set out the contribution of our food systems to the climate crisis, as well as the transition we need to see in how we produce and consume food if we are to meet the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement.
We already know that our land surfaces are warming faster than the global average. This puts them in are at severe risk, and their deterioration will lead to decreases in crop yields, increases in droughts and wildfires, and even more carbon pollution which will accelerate further warming. At the same time, rapid warming is largely driven by our land-use — agriculture, forestry and other uses contribute between a fifth and a quarter of net global greenhouse gas emissions. We are using more land than ever before, and population growth will only fuel demand unless we tackle our consumption, including for food.
There are two ways we can use our lands to both improve their health and productivity, and to limit their impact on global warming. We can reduce the amount of emissions from land and we can use land to draw down carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.
With regards to reducing emissions, we can only do so if we transform our food system.
Firstly, it’s necessary to decrease deforestation and natural habitat conversion. Agriculture has caused nearly three quarters of all deforestation but, alongside forests, it also affects other types of landscapes — in fact more than 50 per cent of habitat destruction from food production happens in grasslands and savannas. Businesses have begun to show commitment to eliminating deforestation and conversion from their supply chains, but they must act with more urgency and at a much larger scale, following the principles, definitions and guidance of the Accountability Framework Initiative (AFI). Governments meanwhile must implement stronger policies to protect nature and halt conversion.
Secondly, we need to change our diets. Too much of what we eat, from red meat to rice, is contributing to the increased amount of emissions released. Worse, in many places we eat more of these foods than needed for nutrition. To enable change, alongside nutritional needs and improved health, official guidance needs to account for the environmental impacts of different diets. As more countries evolve their guidance, there needs to be a concerted effort to drive implementation, with assertive promotion of standards and the integration of multiple sectors of society. We need to jointly enhance human and planetary health.
Thirdly, we need to cut food loss and waste. Approximately one third of all food produced is never eaten. The emissions created in the production of wasted food are entirely unnecessary but even more are released when food decomposes in landfills. Diverting uneaten food to compost or animal feed is beneficial but the real win comes further up the chain by preventing consumer waste in the first place. Consumer-facing businesses need to transparently measure and reduce their waste, while governments will be well-placed to consider legislation that penalises wasteful practices.
In terms of using land to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the carbon sequestering capabilities of agricultural soils must be improved. Implementing agrobiodiverse production systems and agroecological practices in existing farms and ranches is one option. We can also rehabilitate degraded soils and protect grasslands and then use them for conversion-free food production, with ecosystem services preserved. For instance, sustainable livestock ranching on grasslands not only maintains the landscape and contributes to food security but also protects soil health, allowing for efficient and long-term carbon sequestration below ground. Businesses and consumers alike must demand conversion-free, sustainably produced foods which support healthy soils. Governments must disincentivize farming methods which deplete soil quality and thus encourage additional conversion.
To stop climate change we must both cut emissions from land uses, and better use land to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Clearly the food system has a massive role to play. It does not mean that we can forget about energy, urban and industrial systems, but we must place land use transformation on equal footing at the top of our agenda with energy use. By doing so, we can strengthen climate resilience, improve food security and protect biodiversity for generations to come.