UN panel calls for changes to farming, diets to stave off climate change

UN panel calls for changes to farming, diets to stave off climate change
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Agricultural practices and people's diets will need to change as rising temperatures diminish the earth's ability to absorb dangerous emissions, according to a new United Nations climate report.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released early Thursday lays out the stark choices world leaders will face in balancing their food supply with the need for more carbon-absorbing plant life to combat worsening climate change.

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“We are currently getting a free subsidy from nature,” Louis Verchot, one of the report authors, said of the earth’s ability to absorb carbon emissions in plants and soil. “But that subsidy could very easily be lost if we continue on current trajectories.”

A summary of the 1,300 page report, which calls for a change in how land is used across the globe, highlights the heavy-handed role farming and forestry play in contributing to climate change. Both industries contribute a combined 23 percent of all human-linked greenhouse gas emissions globally.

The IPCC report was compiled by 107 experts from 52 countries and written cumulatively by 96 contributing authors.

The report says changing land use to reduce emissions will be key in keeping global temperatures from increasing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius — something the IPCC has previously identified as a turning point in the battle against climate change.

“Prompt action on climate mitigation and adaptation aligned with sustainable land management and sustainable development depending on the region could reduce the risk to millions of people from climate extremes, desertification, land degradation and food and livelihood insecurity,” the report states, suggesting that if changes occur now, much could be helped.

But if changes in the agriculture sector are deferred, scientists said it could lead “to significantly higher costs.”

A major cause of emissions, and one the authors say individuals could lend a hand in changing, is meat-heavy diets. According to the report, meat contributes to climate change, along with deforestation, transportation of agricultural products and even food waste.  

“Diets present a major opportunity for reducing greenhouse gasses as well, because diets that are rich in plant-based foods emit lower greenhouse gas emissions than diets that are very heavy in red meat consumption,” Cynthia Rosenzweig, one of the report’s authors, said in a call with reporters. 

She said diets that include more plants, nuts and seeds present a “double benefit” as they are healthier for humans and the environment. The report found that balanced diets such as those that incorporate coarse grains, fruits, and vegetables in addition to animal-sourced foods are more globally sustaining.

Land management is already a contentious issue for leaders who balance development of resources with preserving natural landscapes, but climate change is likely to increase such tensions.

The report warns that as the global climate gets warmer, food scarcity will also grow.

“The stability of food supply is projected to decrease as the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events that disrupt food chains increases,” the report said, leading to an increase in the price of food.

The report also notes that rising temperatures are depleting the nutrition in food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently buried a report from one of its scientists that found carbon was responsible for reducing the nutritional value of rice. 

Rosenzweig said those factors could lead to a “multi-breadbasket failure.”

The report’s authors said changes to the agricultural industry need to be accompanied by other efforts to better manage land such as planting trees, utilizing more cover crops that capturing carbon and focusing on carbon rich soils, as well as restoring natural habitat.

“We have sustainable forest management, we have sustainable water resources management, sustainable soil management. But the general idea is that we are protecting the productive capacity and the quality and the integrity of landscapes,” Verchot said.

Conservation groups hailed the report.

“This new report makes clear that our Earth’s natural systems are key, along with getting off fossil fuels, to reducing dangerous climate pollution. We must move quickly to transform the way we produce and consume food and to protect and restore natural ecosystems like forests,” Susan Casey-Lefkowitz with the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement.

Agriculture is increasingly becoming a focus of the climate debate in the U.S. The economic sector contributes 9 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

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In September, the IPCC is scheduled to release its third report this year focused on the links between the ocean, cryosphere and changing climate.