The UN Climate Change Report: Transform Global Food Systems or Trigger a Crisis

Last week, a United Nations (UN) report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sounded the alarm that the world is moving toward irreversible damage by climate change that could place the future of food and the livelihood of millions in serious peril. The report comes amid growing public recognition of the frequency and severity of extreme weather phenomena such as droughts, floods, forest fires, heat waves, and stronger storms impacting communities across the globe. Based on research from over 100 scientists from 52 countries, the UN report highlights unsustainable land use and surging resource demands as key drivers behind a warming planet. Unless collective action is taken to dramatically reduce emissions, the global food system, including food prices, could face sweeping instability.
Q1: What is the main message of the report?
A1: The combination of climate change and unsustainable land use has put our global food supply at risk. Land temperature has already increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is precisely the heat level that activists are trying to prevent from happening globally. The IPCC report, which is over 1,200 pages, focuses on desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluctuations. It reminds us that land use for agricultural production is a large contributor to climate change (23 percent of global greenhouse emissions) and that shifts to more regenerative land practices could be a key solution to mitigate climate change. If current practices continue, food insecurity impacts could include reduced nutritional value of crops, mass crop failures, and severe water scarcity.
Q2: What is the connection between land use, agriculture, and climate change?
A2: Agriculture and land-use practices are a major part of the problem when it comes to climate change. The IPCC report reminds us that we are currently using 70 percent of arable land; that 25 percent of land is already degraded; and that, together, agriculture and other land uses are responsible for about 23 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. However, agriculture and land use change can also be a part of the solution. In addition to reducing deforestation, the report also points out the importance of soil in terms of storing carbon. From soil fertility management to maximum water efficiency, sustainable land-use could make a huge impact.
Q3: How does climate change affect food production?
A3: While extreme weather events have obvious impacts on farmers, fluctuating temperatures and unpredictable rainfall are the real threat. As temperatures rise, water scarcity increases, weather unpredictability worsens, and pests and diseases flourish. Farmers around the world don’t know when to plant because they can’t predict the rains. Droughts that used to last weeks now last months. Or there is too much rain, which comes as floods, landslides, and hurricanes, wiping out farmland. Climate change is not a future threat to agriculture; it is happening now from middle America to the Sahel.
Q4: Is the IPCC report new information?
A4: Perhaps about land, but not about the ominous effects of climate change. Last year the IPCC released the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, which outlined the benefits to limiting global average temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to 2 degrees Celsius. The report discusses the benefits in not only anticipated warming, but also the impact on human health from lower increases in sea level rise and less severe declines in crop productivity, among others. It details ways how each of the UN Sustainable Development Goals will be more difficult to achieve by even the half a degree difference on the planet. The UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report released in May this year stated that nature is declining at an unprecedented rate with one million species at risk of extinction. Reports this year from EAT-Lancet and World Resources Institute explain that we need to eat less meat and more plants to save our health and planet. The UN Food and Agriculture’s The State of Food and Agriculture report in 2016 warned that “unless action is taken now to make agriculture more sustainable, productive, and resilient, climate change impacts will seriously compromise food production in countries and regions that are already highly food-insecure.” Scientists around the world and across sectors have been publishing climate warnings for years, but this IPCC report was the first to comprehensively evaluate the land-climate system and also the first one to include more than half of the authors from developing countries.
Q5: How do climate impacts on food production impact the world today?
A5: Impacts from a changing climate are already being felt today and not just in the scientific or environmental community. This issue directly relates to one of the most prominent foreign policy issues in today’s political discourse: immigration. El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua make up the Central American Dry Corridor, one of the most susceptible regions in the world to climate change. Prolonged droughts and heavy rains destroyed more than half of the maize and bean crops this year, leaving 1.4 million in need of emergency food aid. Farmers have been abandoning their land, migrating first to cities in search of new economic opportunities and then migrating farther north in response to the violence, corruption, and lack of services they find in urban areas. While there may not be a sudden hunger crisis in Central America, years of meager harvests, repeated droughts, and crop diseases caused by climate change is a powerful factor in population movements.
Q6: What does the IPCC recommend we do differently?
A6: Reduce deforestation, move to more sustainable forest practices, improve soil health to capture carbon and increase productivity, more effectively manage wildfires, eat a more plant-based diet, cut food waste, drastically alter food production, and improve sustainable land management, to name a few. While the report provides a range of technical short- and long-term responses from mutually supportive climate and land policies to enhanced technology transfer, mainstream media has boiled it down to eat less meat, grow food differently, and manage land better. All of this must, however, rest in a more aggressive and comprehensive approach to drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet a net-zero carbon environment as quickly as possible while also organizing to adapt society to the unavoidable impacts of a changing global climate. 
Kimberly Flowers is director of the Humanitarian Agenda and the Global Food Security Project and Sarah Ladislaw is senior vice president and director and senior fellow of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kimberly Flowers
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Humanitarian Agenda and Global Food and Water Security Program
Sarah Ladislaw

Sarah Ladislaw

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program