A major new report on land use and climate change says that switching to more sustainable farming systems and diets will be vital in the fight against climate change.
The Climate Change and Land Report – prepared by an international group of 107 leading scientists for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) – calls for a large-scale switch to more plant-based diets, along with the adoption of farming and land management systems that protect natural forest, build soil fertility and reverse soil degradation.
The report’s authors also stress that coordinated action to address climate change has the potential to strengthen food security and nutrition, and ensure equitable access to to food.
“Land plays an important role in the climate system,” said Jim Skea, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III. “Agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry,” he said.
Commenting on the importance of dietary choices, Debra Roberts, also co-chair of the group, said: “Some dietary choices require more land and water, and cause more emissions of heat-trapping gases than others.
“Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change,” she said.
“The choices we make about sustainable land management can help reduce and in some cases reverse these adverse impacts,” said Kiyoto Tanabe, co-chair of the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.
“In a future with more intensive rainfall the risk of soil erosion on croplands increases, and sustainable land management is a way to protect communities from the detrimental impacts of this soil erosion and landslides. However there are limits to what can be done, so in other cases degradation might be irreversible,” he said.
But the scientists behind the report stopped short of explicitly calling on everyone to become vegetarian or vegan. “We’re met telling people to stop eating meat. In some places people have no other choice. But it’s obvious that in the West we’re eating too much,” professor Pete Smith, an environmental scientist from Aberdeen University, told the BBC.
Reaction to the IPCC report
“Calls for a shift to mainly plant-based diets are misguided”
The UK-based Sustainable Food Trust says that much of media coverage of the IPCC report has misinterpreted its recommendations. In a new release, the organisation says: “Contrary to some of today’s headlines that are calling for a shift to exclusively plant-based diets, the conclusions of the report actually find that balanced diets should include animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-greenhouse gas emission systems, and that these present major opportunities for climate adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.
“We therefore believe that calls for a shift to mainly plant-based diets are misguided and can do more harm than good. It is crucial that in transitioning towards more sustainable farming systems we must consider the sustainability of all foods, not only of livestock products.
SFT chief executive, Patrick Holden (pictured), said: “We think many of the headlines about this report are not accurate and we instead need a much more nuanced public discussion about which foods, both livestock and plant-based, are part of the solution and which are part of the problem.”
“The IPPC irresponsibly understates the true carbon costs of our meat and dairy habits”
Writing in The Guardian, the environment journalist and author George Monbiot, called the report as a “tragic missed opportunity”, and said the IPCC “irresponsibly understates the true carbon costs of our meat and dairy habits” and “shies away from the big issues”.
Monbiot argues that the IPCC report fails because it “concentrates on just one of the two ways of counting the carbon cost farming”. The IPCC report, says Monbiot, uses an approach he describes as “farming’s current account”. Here, you ask how much greenhouse gas does driving tractors, spreading fertiliser and raising livestock produce every year – and it produces the answer that farming produces around 23% of the planet-heating gases we currently produce”. Monbiot argues the second accounting method – the “capital account”, which looks at “how farming compares to the natural ecosystems that would otherwise have occupied the land” – must be built into the final calculations to give a true picture of the overall impact of food production”.
Monbiot is clear that the current IPCC calculation understates the importance of switching to plant-based diets.