WASHINGTON – The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on Aug. 8 approved and issued a special report asserting the world’s nations must urgently address the current and potential impacts of climate change on the land and food that sustains us.
The IPCC is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. The report, short-titled “Climate Change and Land,” provides a science-based and comprehensive view of problems and risks associated with climate change but also indicates how better land and livestock management and food production practices and technologies may contribute to tackling it. Of direct relevance to the food industry itself were the report’s discussions on diet and food waste.
“Although population growth is one of the drivers of global food demand and the resulting environmental burden, demand-side management of the food system could be one of the solutions to curb climate change,” the report stated. “Avoiding food waste during consumption, reducing over-consumption, and changing dietary preferences can contribute significantly to provide healthy diets for all, as well as reduce the environmental footprint of the food system.”
The report affirmed that combined food loss and waste amount to a third of global food production. Additionally, during 2010-16, global food loss and waste were responsible for 8 percent to 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, the report asserted.
“A large share of produced food is lost in developing countries due to poor infrastructure, while a large share of produced food is wasted in developed countries,” the report noted.
Overconsumption, or consuming food in excess of nutrient requirements, a problem associated mostly with persons living in developed or affluent countries, also leads to needless greenhouse gas emissions.
“In Australia, for example, overconsumption accounts for about 33 percent of greenhouse emissions associated with food,” the report stated.
“Avoiding food loss and waste will contribute to reducing emissions from the agriculture sector,” the report asserted. “When land use change for agriculture expansion is also considered, halving food loss and waste reduces the global need for cropland area by around 14 percent and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use change by 22 percent to 28 percent compared with some baseline scenarios by 2050.”
The report pointed to technologies that if spread would reduce food loss and waste, including improved harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure and packaging.
Shortening supply chains by encouraging people to consume locally grown foods may reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if the food is grown efficiently, the report said. But consuming local foods is not a panacea.
“The emissions reduction potential varies by region and season,” the authors noted. “Whether food with shorter supply chains has a lower carbon footprint depends on both the on-farm emissions intensity as well as the transport emissions. In some cases, imported food may have a lower carbon footprint because some distant agricultural regions can produce food at lower emission intensities.”
Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II, said in addressing the report’s findings on diet and climate change, “Some dietary choices require more land and water, and cause more emissions of heat-trapping gases than others. Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change.”
The report stated, “A systematic review found that higher consumption of animal-based foods was associated with higher estimated environmental impact, whereas increased consumption of plant-based foods was associated with an estimated lower environmental impact. Assessment of individual foods within these broad categories showed that meat — especially ruminant meat (beef and lamb) — was consistently identified as the single food with the greatest impact on the environment, on a global basis, most often in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and/or land use.”
The report indicated there also was a significant potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions if consumers abided by dietary recommendations based on health priorities already established by many national governments.
“These are broadly similar across most countries,” the report said. “These are typically capped by the number of calories and higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lower in animal-source foods, fats and sugar. Such diets have the potential to be both more sustainable and healthy than alternative diets.
“The extent to which the mitigation potential of dietary choices can be realized requires both climate change and health being considered together. Socio-economic (prices, rebound effects), political, and cultural contexts would require significant consideration to enable this mitigation potential to be realized.”
Climate Change and Land is the second in a series of special reports to be produced in the IPCC during its Sixth Assessment Cycle. The report will be a key scientific resource for forthcoming climate and environment negotiations such as the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in New Delhi, India, in September, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference in Santiago, Chile, in December.
The aim of this and other reports that will be part of the Sixth Assessment Cycle will be to document the impact and risk of climate change and provide recommendations on how the world’s goal of limiting the average rise in global temperature to no more than 1.5⁰ C above pre-industrial levels, as specified in the Paris Agreement, might be achieved.