U.N. Reports Climate Change and Land Use Threatens Future of Food Worldwide

Oil palm plantations in Indonesia.Photo Credit: HOTLI SIMANJUNTAK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
August 8, 2019

A new United Nations report is warning that the effects of climate change will increasingly endanger the global food supply.

That analysis, released on Thursday by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, pointed to increased desertification, the degradation of land, and a lack of sustainable farming practices as leading threats, with land-use accounting for almost a quarter of the world's overall greenhouse gas emissions.

"It turns out that we humans use an enormous amount of land, and most of it for growing food," Jonathan Foley, the executive director of the climate change solutions research organization Project Drawdown.

Foley also told Cheddar, "A lot of that land was formerly forested. So we're clearing forest in places like Brazil and Indonesia," explaining that those forests' rich number of trees are necessary for absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

"Not only is it impacting our communities — we've seen droughts and floods happening, extreme heat waves just in this last year — but it's impacting all of our ecosystems. It's impacting wildlife and species upon which we also depend. It's impacting our food systems," Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the chief program officer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Cheddar.

The U.N. report, which represented the work of 103 experts, found that increased demand for land use, for both agriculture and raw materials like timber, have increased greenhouse gas emissions, reduced biodiversity, and led to the loss of natural ecosystems. The analysis also highlighted soil erosion, rising temperatures, and increased desertification caused by climate change as areas of concern.

"The demands of food will probably increase as populations grow, and especially as some parts of the world get richer and start to eat things like more meat and more rich diets like we do in the West," explained Foley.

"The solutions are very ample, it turns out, because there are a lot of simple things we can try to do," he added. "Farmers can find different ways to raise crops and animals that release less greenhouse gases, for example, better use of fertilizers, maybe growing cattle on grass-fed operations that can store carbon in the soils, offsetting the emissions through the atmosphere."

Foley also pointed to the need to combat deforestation.

The U.N. report also noted that changing dietary habits could offset the demands on the environment, reporting that the supply of meat has more than doubled since 1961.

"When we look at meat production, especially beef, we see that methane — which is one of the worst of the greenhouse gases — is a big pollutant that comes from producing beef. So if everyone just reduced their beef consumption, even by a little bit, this could make a huge difference," explains Casey-Lefkowitz.

"There's a lot of food waste and poor diet choices when it comes to the environment," Foley said. "We can all try to cut back on red meat and dairy products, just a little bit maybe."

Foley advocated for reducing food waste, noting that 30 percent of food that's produced ultimately goes unused.

"That means 30 percent of the land, and the water, and pollution caused by growing food wasn't even necessary," he says.