Ask people to name the biggest dangers posed by climate breakdown, and most will start listing off extreme weather events. Destructive hurricanes, towering storm surges, deadly heat waves, flash floods, and wildfires. This is hardly surprising, given how our image-oriented media system has covered the climate crisis. Extreme weather events give us something concrete to point to. We can see them happening in real time, and anyone who’s paying any attention at all can tell that they’re getting worse.
But while extreme weather poses a real threat to human societies (consider what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico), some of the most worrying aspects of climate change are much less obvious and almost even invisible. A new 1,400-page report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a case in point. It explores the impacts of climate breakdown on the most fundamental, even intimate feature of human civilization—our food system.
Consider the mighty Himalayan glaciers. When we think about melting glaciers, we mourn the loss of a natural wonder and worry about sea level rise. We don’t think much about what glaciers have to do with food. But that’s where the real crunch is coming.
Half of Asia’s population depends on water that flows from Himalayan glaciers—not only for drinking and other household needs but, more importantly, for agriculture. For thousands of years, the runoff from those glaciers has been replenished each year by ice buildup in the mountains. But right now they’re melting at a much faster rate than they are being replaced. On our present trajectory, if our governments fail to accomplish radical emissions reductions, most of those glaciers will be gone within a single human lifetime. This will rip the heart out of the region’s food system, leaving 800 million people in crisis.
And that’s just Asia. In Iraq, Syria, and much of the rest of the Middle East, droughts and desertification will render whole regions inhospitable to agriculture. Southern Europe will wither into an extension of the Sahara. Major food-growing regions in China and the United States will also take a hit. According to warnings from NASA, intensive droughts could turn the American plains and the Southwest into a giant dust bowl. Today all of these regions are reliable sources of food. Without urgent climate action, that will change. As David Wallace-Wells reports in The Uninhabitable Earth, scientists estimate that for every degree we heat the planet, the yields of staple cereal crops will decline by an average of about 10 percent. If we carry on with business as usual, key staples are likely to collapse by some 40 percent as the century wears on.
Under normal circumstances, regional food shortages can be covered by surpluses from elsewhere on the planet. But models suggest there’s a real danger that climate breakdown could trigger shortages on multiple continents at once. According to the IPCC report, warming more than 2 degrees Celsius is likely to cause “sustained food supply disruptions globally.” As one of the lead authors of the report put it: “The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing.”
Climate change is projected to drive up hunger rates, malnutrition, and child stunting. But we’d be kidding ourselves if we think this is just a matter of not having enough food to eat. It also has serious implications for global political stability. Regions affected by food shortages will see mass displacement as people migrate to more arable parts of the planet or in search of stable food supplies. In fact, it’s happening already. Many of the people fleeing places like Guatemala and Somalia right now are doing so because their farms are no longer viable.
Political systems are already straining under the weight of a refugee crisis: Fascist movements are on the march, and international alliances are beginning to fray. Factor in a 40 percent loss of global agricultural yields and multi-breadbasket failure, and there’s no predicting what conflagrations might occur.
There is a troubling irony here. Climate change is undermining global food systems, but at the same time our food systems are a major cause of climate breakdown. According to the IPCC, agriculture contributes nearly a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, it’s not just any kind of agriculture that’s the problem here—it’s specifically the industrial model that has come to dominate farming over the past half-century or so. This approach relies not only on aggressive deforestation to make way for large-scale monoculture, which alone generates 10 percent of global greenhouse gases; it also depends on intensive plowing and heavy use of chemical fertilizers, which is rapidly degrading the planet’s soils and in the process releasing huge plumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
This might appear to be an insurmountable problem, on the face of it. After all, we need to feed the world’s population, and intensive farming seems like the most efficient way to do it. If anything, given that around a billion people don’t get enough food to eat as it is, we should probably be doing more of it. And if that’s the case, it seems virtually impossible to meet our climate goals while at the same time producing enough food to feed the world.
Fortunately, there’s an easy solution. It hinges on recognizing that a significant amount of industrial agriculture is in fact unnecessary for human needs.
Consider this: According to the IPCC, around 30 percent of global food production is wasted each year, mostly in high-income countries. By ending food waste and distributing food surpluses more fairly, we can put an end to hunger while actually reducing global agricultural output. Scientists estimate that this could liberate several million square miles of land and cut global emissions by 8–10 percent, taking significant pressure off the climate. This is not difficult to achieve. In South Korea, households are required to pay a fee for every kilogram of food they toss. France and Italy have banned food waste by supermarkets. The same thing could be done for farms, going further upstream to the point of production.
Dealing with food waste is a crucial first step toward making agricultural systems more climate-rational. But there’s another, perhaps even simpler intervention that needs to be on the table.
Nearly 60 percent of global agriculture land is used for a single food product: beef. Yet, far from being essential to human diets, beef accounts for only 2 percent of the calories that humans consume. Calorie for calorie, nutrient for nutrient, it’s one of the most inefficient and ecologically destructive foods on the planet, and the pressure to find new land for pasture and feed crops is the single greatest driver of deforestation. In terms of total climate impact, each kilogram of beef entails net emissions equivalent to a round-trip trans-Atlantic flight.
According to research published in the journal Climatic Change, cutting beef consumption in favor of nonruminant meats or plant proteins like beans and pulses could liberate almost 11 million square miles of land—the size of the United States, Canada, and China combined. This simple shift in diet would allow us to return vast swaths of the planet to forest and wildlife habitat, creating new carbon sinks and cutting net emissions by up to 8 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year, according to the IPCC. That’s around 20 percent of current annual emissions.
Over and over again, scientists find that cutting beef consumption—particular in high-income countries—is among the most transformative policies we could implement and is essential to avoiding dangerous climate change. In terms of our climate goals, it could well mean the difference between success and failure.
How could this be accomplished? A first step would be to end the considerable subsidies that most high-income countries give to beef farmers. Researchers are also testing proposals for a tax on red meat, which they find would not only curtail emissions but deliver a wide range of public health benefits while driving medical costs down. A more ambitious approach would be to phase out beef products altogether, just as we seek to phase out coal and other fossil fuels. There is precedent for such a move: Whale and shark fin are off the menu for environmental reasons. Most countries have tight regulations on dangerous products like drugs and guns—it stands to reason that we should extend this ethic to ecologically destructive products, too.
In addition to dietary changes and cutting food waste, the IPCC finds that a rapid shift away from conventional industrial farming methods toward regenerative techniques—agroforestry, polyculture, no-till farming, and organic approaches—would go a long way toward restoring soils, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, improving long-term yields, and making crops more resilient to climate change.
Many of these ideas have been put forward in the Green New Deal proposal. And U.S. presidential candidate Tim Ryan has made some of them central to his election platform. Of course, we need to throw everything we have at ending the use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But if we want to have a decent shot at averting catastrophic climate change, rethinking the food industry has to be part of the plan.
First published by Foreign Policy, 21 August 2019