August 26, 2019

Balancing Food Security and Sustainability

UN report highlights challenges and opportunities in balancing food security and sustainability

On Aug. 8, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report focused on how to meet food security challenges while addressing global climate change.

“Governments challenged the IPCC to take the first ever comprehensive look at the whole land-climate system. We did this through many contributions from experts and governments worldwide. This is the first time in IPCC report history that a majority of authors – 53 percent – are from developing countries,” said Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC, in a press release.

In the report, titled “Climate Change and Land,” the IPCC recommends that countries support land management projects such as reforestation and sustainable food production. The IPCC found that the pledges that many countries have made to combat climate change don’t do enough to protect and restore valuable resources such as soil and forests. This land serves as an important carbon “sink” and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet.

The agriculture and forestry sectors actually play a huge role in supporting carbon sequestration, the IPCC reports. Between 2007 and 2016, these sectors were responsible for producing 5.7 billion tons of greenhouse gases. At the same time, their land use practices captured 12.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases, reducing pressure on the environment.

More can be done to reduce emissions and feed the growing population. One major change the IPCC recommends is a better effort to reduce food waste. The IPCC found that about one-third of food produced is wasted. The authors also caution against over-harvesting of wood for fuel.

The IPCC also investigated the role of animal production in climate change. They highlighted the pressure put on land when forests are cleared for animal feed production.

This is another area where producers are stepping in to help. It is well documented that agricultural production is responsible for a small fraction of greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers have shown that agriculture is responsible for 9 percent of emissions, compared with 28 percent for transportation, 28 percent for electricity production and 22 percent for industrial uses.

Agricultural producers are working to reduce emissions and land use even further. Thanks to better animal research and management, beef, dairy, and pork production today requires significantly fewer animals than in 1970. Animal scientists are working with farmers to further improve yields and bring advances in animal management and breeding to developing countries.

The IPCC report acknowledges the importance of these efforts. “Animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable, and low-GHG emission systems present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health,” writes the IPCC.

The IPCC also acknowledges that animal production is threatened by climate change. “Livestock are projected to be adversely affected with rising temperatures, depending on the extent of changes in feed quality, spread of diseases, and water resource availability,” the IPCC reports in its Summary for Policymakers.

Meanwhile, media coverage on the report has shifted the focus to the role of meat in the diet. While animal protein was not a main focus of the IPCC report, it appears to have caught reporters’ attention due to a recent report from the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The WRI claims that agriculture is responsible for an estimated 25 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. This number includes emissions generated through soil management and the clearing of land. Interestingly, the WRI does place value on animal protein. One of its main recommendations is that producers “increase fish supply through improved wild fisheries management and aquaculture.”