UN demands more diverse food production methods as report warns climate change risks are greater than thought

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Climate change

Nearly a third of the world's crop fields will be unsuitable for food production by the end of this century unless carbon emissions are curbed, warns the latest instalment of the IPCC climate change report.

The UN report, signed off by 270 scientists from 67 countries, said a shift to more diverse farming practices and more support for adaptation from governments could help reduce the risk to the food system.

Food production contributes over a third (37%) of global greenhouse gas emissions with over half (57%) related to the production of animal-based foods, the report said. Industrial agriculture is also a key driver of biodiversity loss. It claimed an area of rainforest the size of a football pitch destroyed every six seconds as a result of the industrial scale production of beef and soy for livestock feed.

Shifting towards more diverse farming methods and producing less and better meat and dairy are the most effective way of cutting emissions from the sector and protecting nature, the IPCC claimed. One European study found that a transition to agroecology, where smaller herds of grass-fed livestock form part of a mixed farming system, could cut agricultural emissions by 47% compared to 2010, while maintaining export capacity, and supplying enough food for 530 million Europeans.

Despite this, governments have been reluctant to act, the IPCC complained. While most countries include agriculture in their climate plans, most countries do not include targets for cutting emissions from the wider food system by, for example, cutting food waste or shifting to more sustainable diets.

'Diversity, not uniformity'

The report took aim at industrial farming methods, arguing more diverse farming systems are more resilient to climate shocks. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 87% of the $540bn a year which governments spend subsidising food production harms nature and the climate by promoting the overuse of agrochemicals or monocultures. This approach to agriculture has also been shown to make food production more vulnerable to climate impacts, it said. It revealed studies have shown that monocultures both exacerbate water scarcity because they reduce the landscape's capacity to absorb rainwater and are more vulnerable to drought because they lack diversity in root length and draw water from just one level in the ground.

By comparison, agroecological farming – a more diverse climate and nature friendly approach which has been shown to be more resilient to climate shocks – accounts for just 1-1.5% of total public spending on agriculture and aid budgets. In addition to increasing resilience, agroecological approaches have also been shown to increase yields, reduce reduce climate emissions and improve farm incomes, the IPCC claimed.

Professor Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, said: “The science is clear - without a major turnaround in carbon emissions and the way we farm, we are likely to see mass crop failures and food system collapse - with people in poverty hit first and hardest by a crisis they did not cause. Transforming agriculture is now urgent - governments must act to support local communities’ efforts to feed themselves and encourage resilience through diversity, not uniformity.” 

Thomas Lingard, Global Sustainability Director – Climate & Environment, Unilever added: “The latest IPCC report underlines that our food system is very sensitive to the worsening impacts of climate change. The window is closing for governments, business, and investors to take real action. Without it, the world faces dramatic loss of yields and the collapse of already strained supply chains, with severe implications for people across the globe.

“Unilever knows resilient food systems are fundamental to the growth of our business, so we're supporting farmers in our value chain to protect and regenerate the natural resources on which we all rely. This approach helps farmers to adapt to climatic changes and protect their business, improving livelihoods.”

The IPCC also wants more support given to smallholder producers who it said are critical to global food security yet highly vulnerable to climate impacts.

More support for smallholder farmers

For example, 500 million smallholder farmers produce over a third (35%) of the world's food with their share. Yet smallholder farmers only receive 1.7% of total global climate finance – just $10 billion in 2018 compared to the $240bn per year they need to help them adapt.

Smallholder farmers are also at the back of the queue for other sources of funding and support, the IPCC protested. A study by the FAO found that agriculture subsidies often prioritise big agri-business at the expense of smallholder farmers. In many countries smallholder farmers also have unequal lack of access to land, infrastructure, credit, and markets.

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