Nations must change the way they use land to avoid a food crisis and prevent further global warming, new report concludes.

The latest scientific report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sends a stark warning: change the way we use land for food production or risk global food shortages and unpredictable climate change.

The report, compiled by over 100 scientists from around the world, says that humans, currently exploit more than 70% of the Earth’s ice-free surface, and more than a quarter of land globally is suffering degradation as a result of human activities. Soil is being lost up to 100 times faster than it is formed, and desertification is growing year on year.

Competition for land is also growing. Food production to feed the world is competing with biofuels, plant-based plastics and fibres, timber, paper and pulp. Wildlife and many of the pollinators that are essential to food production are being marginalised or forced into extinction.

Professor Jim Skea, chair of Environment Policy IPC and co-chair of IPCC Working Group said: “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.”

The report shows the per capita supply of vegetable oils and meat has more than doubled in recent years. Meat and dairy production are rising globally raising particular problems partly because of the enteric release of methane and, increasing, through the loss of valuable carbon-capturing forests that are being cleared for raising cattle.

Changes in consumption patterns have contributed to about 2 billion adults now being overweight or obese. Around 30% of total food produced is lost or wasted, while at the same time an estimated 821 million people do not have enough food to eat.

Land use disruption on a global scale is already causing climate change and food insecurity and will get worse without international efforts to change the way we exploit land and grow food.

According to the IPCC, climate change exacerbates land degradation processes including through increases in rainfall intensity, flooding, drought frequency and severity, heat stress, dry spells, wind, sea-level rise and wave action.

Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group said things can change: “There is real potential here through more sustainable land use, reducing over-consumption and waste of food, eliminating the clearing and burning of forests, preventing over-harvesting of fuelwood, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thus helping to address land related climate change issues,” he said.

The IPCC report is available here.

Last reviewed 9 August 2019