Sowing and reaping: It’s at the core of human society. Agriculture helped make the first great civilizations possible. Now, with the help of modern machinery and fertilizers, farm yields are so high that we produce more than enough food to feed everyone.
Yet the planet’s land and water resources are so poorly used, the U.N. said, that, as climate change applies greater pressure, the ability of humanity to feed itself is in peril.
The U.N. report magnifies a dual challenge: how to nourish a growing population but minimize agriculture’s carbon footprint. The way forward, researchers said, requires reducing emissions, removing carbon from the atmosphere, and changing diets, especially among the wealthy.
Better land management
Small farmers, particularly in the tropics, are among those who feel climate change most acutely. The Food and Agriculture Organization said hunger in much of sub-Saharan Africa is rising, with rates of malnutrition at nearly 20%. A hotter planet is lowering some crop yields while farmland elsewhere is turning into desert or being eaten by a rising sea.
However, research suggests that it is possible to grow food that’s better for us and better for the land. Better land management techniques include limiting the use of fertilizers that contribute to emissions and planting crops that add carbon to the soil.
Better forest management
The World Resources Institute said that when it comes to land use, better forest management has the “largest potential for reducing emissions.” But forests are under threat, cleared for things we consume, including soy, palm oil and beef cattle.
Eat more plants
Compared with plant based foods, meat and dairy have a bigger emissions footprint — accounting for 14.5% of all greenhouse gases. Beef and lamb have the greatest impact: 50 grams of beef protein generate more than 37 pounds of carbon dioxide. The same quantity of farmed fish produces about 7 pounds of carbon dioxide.
That’s not to say the world should impose a moratorium on meat and dairy. Livestock can be raised on lands that are too arid to grow crops and they can be fed so they produce lower methane emissions. Perhaps most importantly, animal protein is vital nourishment.
But if the heaviest meat eaters in places like the United States and Australia cut back on meat, especially red meat, it would make a big difference.
More than a quarter of food produced rots in the fields, gets thrown away because it’s misshapen, or spoils in overstuffed refrigerators. Taken together, the amount of food that is wasted and unused accounts for close to one-tenth of global emissions. Curbing food waste is arguably the single most effective thing that can be done at an individual or household level to slow climate change.