Recipe for a Livable Future: Grow More Food on Less Land

Two major reports underscore the challenge of feeding nearly 10 billion people in the era of climate change

Delores Broten

Photo by James Watkins, CC, cropped from original

In August, two major global reports were released on land and food, one from the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the other from the World Resources Institute. Although both try to paint an optimistic picture of possible changes, they are, quite frankly, some of the gloomiest documents ever to cross this editor’s desk.

The IPCC summarized its findings for “policy makers” in a dense and obscure 43-page report, every statement qualified, as is UN wont, by its likelihood. If the bureaucrats and politicians managed to read Climate Change and Land: An IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems, they would have unearthed chilling statements like:

  • Asia and Africa are projected to have the highest number of people vulnerable to increased desertification. North America, South America, Mediterranean, southern Africa and central Asia may be increasingly affected by wildfire. The tropics and subtropics are projected to be most vulnerable to crop yield decline. Land degradation resulting from the combination of sea level rise and more intense cyclones is projected to jeopardize lives and livelihoods in cyclone prone areas (very high confidence).
  • Within populations, women, the very young, elderly and poor are most at risk (high confidence).
  • The stability of food supply is projected to decrease as the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events that disrupt food chains increases (high confidence).
  • Increased atmospheric CO2 levels can also lower the nutritional quality of crops (high confidence).

Basically, constrained by an increasing need for food, and with large areas of growing deserts, coupled with deforestation and land degradation, changes in land use are difficult: “Land must remain productive to maintain food security as the population increases and the negative impacts of climate change on vegetation increase…. This means there are limits to the contribution of land to addressing climate change, for instance through the cultivation of energy crops and afforestation. It also takes time for trees and soils to store carbon effectively.” The IPCC does give a shout out to peatlands as an effective long term carbon storage; that is, if they don’t burn.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the report is that the scientists essentially say that land use and agriculture are contributing massively to climate change, and being affected by that change: “Land is already under growing human pressure and climate change is adding to these pressures. At the same time, keeping global warming to well below 2ºC can be achieved only by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors including land and food.”

In other words, aside from using a focus on sustainability for land use decisions, they wind up finding hope in the possibility of action on climate change on other fronts. They do not apply a confidence level to that possibility.

World Resources Institute’s Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050 is, by comparison, positively cheerful.

True, the report examines three major “gaps” from a 2010 baseline:

The food gap: 56% more calories from crops will be needed by 2050 to feed almost 10 billion people.

The land gap: the additional agricultural land needed, even if yields continue to increase, will be 593 million hectares, pretty well twice the area of India.

The Greenhouse Gas mitigation gap: the difference between the annual GHG emissions, mostly methane and nitrous oxide, projected at 9 billions tons from agriculture and land-use change in 2050, and the target for agriculture’s proportional contribution to stalling global warming. “Holding warming below a 1.5°C increase would require meeting the four-billion-ton emissions target plus reforesting hundreds of millions of hectares of liberated agricultural land.”

But then this report goes on to outline five lines of action, and many individual steps, which seem very doable, and many of which we have written about in the Watershed Sentinel, and which our readers are already engaging in various ways, such as reducing food waste, educating women so they can lower population growth, buying local, and carbon-storage agriculture.

  • Reduce growth in demand for food and agricultural products.
  • Increase food production without expanding agricultural land.
  • Exploit reduced demand on agricultural land to protect and restore forests, savannas, and peatlands.
  • Increase fish supply through improved wild fisheries management and aquaculture.
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production.

It’s still a heavy agenda, but almost all of us, and every level of government, can achieve some of these actions, in the faith that they will all add up.

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