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Climate Change, Land, and Food Production

August 26, 2019

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in August 2019 warning that the overexploitation of farm land and water resources threatens the world’s food supply. The report estimated that 500 million people currently live in places that are turning into desert, and that soil is being lost at a rate 10 to 100 times faster than it is forming.

The IPCC identified four pillars of food security: availability or yield and production, access or prices and incomes that affect the ability of people to obtain food, utilization or nutrition and cooking, and stability, the risk of disruptions that affect food availability. Climate change can affect all four pillars, reducing crop yields in the tropics, raising food prices, reducing the nutritive value of some foods, and disrupting food availability.

Climate change threatens to make desertification, flooding, and soil loss problems worse, and could increase migration pressures. Rising levels of carbon dioxide and higher temperatures increase food production in some areas that are currently too cold to produce crops, but bringing new land into production in northern Canada and Russia will not yield enough additional food to offset the loss of food production in other areas due to erosion, desertification and rising seas.

The IPCC report urges more research to increase the productivity of farm land and policies to reduce food waste and persuade people to shift their diets from meat to plant-based foods. A third of the food currently produced is believed to be lost or wasted.

The IPCC estimates that farming and other land uses account for nearly a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions, while half of the world’s methane emissions are from cattle and rice fields. The report criticizes the conversion of rain forest and the draining of wet lands to create more farm land, asserting that deforestation and drainage increase carbon emissions by five gigatons a year (the fossil fuel industry emitted 37 gigatons in 2018).

Climate Change and Land. 2019. IPCC.

Temperatures are rising fastest on land, where most food is grown

Higher temperatures can lead to water scarcity, yield declines in the tropics, and disruptions to food supplies