To save the food system, we need urgent climate action

March 9, 2022
Sydney protest for the climate. Photo: Peter Boyle

Many people think of extreme weather events, like floods and fires, as the markers of climate change. However, what makes climate change a “crisis” and a potential “catastrophe” is more than the higher risk of extreme weather events.

Climate change has the potential to bring about an overall break-down in important ecological and social systems: one of these is agriculture and food production.

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that climate change has already had “adverse impacts on human systems, including on water security and food production, health and well-being, and cities, settlements and infrastructure”.

Commenting on the report’s key insights, Professor Rachel Bezner Kerr told Carbon Brief that climate change is slowing the growth of agricultural productivity and there is now “considerably more evidence of projected risks from climate change — such as droughts, floods and heatwaves — causing sudden food production losses and limiting access to diverse and nutritious food”.

Bezner Kerr was the coordinating lead author of chapter 5 of the IPCC report which dealt with food and other “ecosystem products”.

Scientists have long warned that climate change has the potential to lead to dramatic decreases in crop yields and that billions of people could go hungry by 2100.

A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report last year found that the global food system “faced more hazards such as mega fires, extreme weather, unusually large desert locust swarms, and emerging biological threats” at a rate unmatched in history.

These “disasters happen three times more often today, than in the 1970s and 1980s”, the FAO report said. Further, “agriculture absorbs a disproportionate 63 per cent share of their impact, compared to other sectors, such as tourism, commerce and industry”.

The latest IPCC report underlines these findings.

“Increasing climate extreme events have exposed millions of people to acute food insecurity, particularly in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on small islands and in the Arctic,” Bezner Kerr said.

Some impacts are now “irreversible”, the report found, as “natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt”.

The task now is to limit the damage. One benchmark is to keep temperature rises to a global average of no more than a 1.5°C rise above pre-industrial levels. Already at 1.1°C, several major cereal crops are yielding less in climate-affected areas.

Eight per cent of global farmland would become unsuitable for agriculture if 1.5°C is reached and it would worsen at 2°C.

The biggest threats to croplands are in the poor countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Rich countries will not escape either.

A team of eight co-authors said in The Conversation on February 28 that “climate change is bringing hotter temperatures, more dangerous fire weather, more droughts and floods, higher sea levels, and drier winter and spring months to southern and eastern Australia”.

“These changes are increasing the pressure on our natural environment, settlements, infrastructure and economic sectors including agriculture, finance and tourism.”

In agriculture, “unwelcome stresses and disruptions” are making it “more challenging to produce food profitably and sustainably”. “Intensified heat and drought will place yet more stress on our rural communities, particularly in Australia’s south-west, south and east.”

It is clear the world needs to dramatically reduce its use of fossil fuels. In Australia, that means scrapping the recently announced $20 million subsidy to develop gas in the Beetaloo Basin, Northern Territory, along with the more than $10 billion in annual fossil fuel subsidies.

A turn towards regenerative agriculture is also needed. Bezner Kerr said the IPCC report highlighted “a significantly greater amount of evidence of effective adaptation options in food systems”.

She said food security and nutrition, health and wellbeing, livelihoods and biodiversity “can all be enhanced” using “agroecology, community-based adaptation and adopting stress-tolerant crops and livestock”. Involving marginalised and vulnerable groups in “inclusive planning processes” and “drawing on Indigenous and local knowledge” would also support effective adaptation.

Recent reports that global warming is not “baked in for decades” should give climate activists confidence to step up their efforts. If emissions can be brought down close to zero very quickly, global temperatures can begin to stabilise in only a few years (not decades).

The IPCC report emphasised that the timeframe to make the necessary changes is narrowing. Labor and the Coalition parties’ support for “net zero 2050” involve an “overshoot” — temporarily going over 1.5°C but coming down later.

Marie-Fanny Racault, a leading author of the IPCC report, said evidence shows an overshoot would “cause additional and more severe impacts on nature and human systems, some of which will be irreversible — including species extinctions and loss of coral reefs — even if global warming is reduced”.

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