5 Key Takeaways: Latest IPCC Report on Food Systems

Five key takeaways on food systems from the latest IPCC report 

Photo courtesy – Stefano Alemani

On 28th February, the world’s leading climate scientists released the most up-to-date and extensive assessment on the impacts of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group II report focuses on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. We took a deep dive into what the report says on food systems. The following are the key takeaways: 

  1. Current food system exacerbates climate change: Our current food system risks exceeding the planetary, regional, or local boundaries of long-term sustainable development even in the absence of climate change. While agricultural development helps maintain food security, unsustainable agrarian expansion, fueled by unbalanced diets, exacerbates ecological and human vulnerability and results in competition for land and/or water resources. While increasing agricultural productivity may provide some short-term benefits for food security, it will do so at the expense of damaging the environment, reducing biological diversity, and encouraging the use of low-wage farmworkers, worsening gender and income inequality and putting small-scale producers at a disadvantage.

  1. Livestock negatively contributes to climate change: Livestock emits CO2 and contributes disproportionately to total annual anthropogenic GHG emissions globally. Livestock production also influences climate through land-use change, processing, and transport. Methane emissions are increased by animal and feed production. Livestock production may account for up to 30% of all water used in agriculture (blue, green, and grey) and can harm water quality.

  1. Plant-rich related dietary changes can mitigate climate change: Food systems that promote healthy, plant-based diets reduce agricultural emissions while also helping in the fight against malnutrition. By 2050, dietary changes could free several million sq. km of land and provide a mitigation potential 41 of 0.7 to 8.0 GtCO2eq yr-1, relative to business-as-usual projections. Demand-side mitigation strategies, such as shifting to a more plant-based diet to avoid food waste, can also help to reduce water consumption. Dietary change in regions with excess consumption of calories and animal-sourced foods to a higher share of plant-based foods with greater dietary diversity and reduced consumption of animal-sourced foods and unhealthy foods has both mitigation and adaptation benefits and improved health, biodiversity, and other environmental co-benefits. Reducing food waste, particularly food that is costly to the environment and climate, would extend these benefits even further. Transitioning to more plant-based diets in line with WHO recommendations on healthy eating could lower global mortality by 61% and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2050.

  1. Financial mechanisms are crucial for shifting to sustainable food systems: Economic incentives for agroecological production and equitable access to and consumption of more fruits, vegetables, and pulses, the inclusion of sustainability criteria in dietary guidelines, labelling, and public education programmes, and promoting collaboration, good governance, and policy coherence are all part of transformative approaches to healthier, more sustainable, plant-based diets. De-risking agricultural production and food system investments for producers and input suppliers, for example, that address core market failures and compensate actors for extra short-term costs that can lead to longer-term benefits, particularly for small scale producers and businesses with comparatively low access to technologies and services, maybe a crucial enabler for different food system actors. Subsidies for staple foods and animal-sourced foods could be reallocated to diversified plant-based food production to modify the relative price of foods and influence dietary choice. Taxes on animal-sourced foods that are climate-costly and unhealthy could have a similar impact on relative price.

  1. IPCC report recognises the role of alternative proteins: Alternative protein sources for human consumption and livestock feed are gaining popularity. One potential contributor to future human protein consumption is Laboratory or “clean meat.” Although such technology may be disruptive to existing value chains, it can dramatically reduce land consumption for pastures, and crop-based animal feeds. Climate resilience development (CRD) will necessitate changes in livestock-centred lifestyles as demand for animal protein and products rises in tandem with global living standards. 

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