A giant leap in the way the world produces and consumes food will be critical to bringing greenhouse gas emissions down in agriculture and to meet the targets set out in the 2015 Paris agreement to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has cast a renewed spotlight on sustainable agriculture and food systems. This sector alone could jeopardise the targets agreed to by parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
It is said to be a significantly deeper dive into the role of food, land use and agriculture in the fight against climate destruction. While the latest report credits consumer behaviour changes through vegetarian or other diets as a tool to bringing emissions down in the sector, it also highlights a move to cellular agriculture and cultured meat as promising levers to reduce GHG emissions from food production.
The IPCC report III coincides with South Africa becoming home to Africa’s first ever lab grown beef burger, created from tissue cells of free-roaming cattle. Agricultural systems across the globe are being tasked to transform using high-tech methods to produce proteins, fats and other nutrients –without livestock.
Carbon dioxide emissions
Agriculture, forestry and other land-use sectors generate nearly half of total greenhouse gas emissions in Africa while global food production is responsible for 26% of CO₂ emissions. The rise in biotech crops has also shown to have benefits for environmental, animal and human health while mitigating climate change through reduced emissions.
These crops also help conserve biodiversity and provide a better environment by “saving on pesticide use and reducing CO₂ emissions in 2018 by 23 billion kg, equivalent to taking 15.3 million cars off the road for one year,” according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
Working Group III, which is the latest and final of the three-part report, was compiled by a group of the IPCC scientists who assessed the available data and modelling on mitigation over the last eight years. The report shows that agriculture could help reduce emissions up to 4.1 billion metric tonnes per year. The previous two reports, released in August 2021 and February 2022 respectively, show harsh stresses on agricultural productivity in a 1.5 degree Celsius warmer world.
Campaigns director at the Changing Markets Foundation, Nusa Urbancic, said, “The IPCC makes it clear that cutting methane emissions is one of the most important actions we can take in this decade to avoid a runaway climate disaster. But we are running out of time, and we urgently need to move from words to actions.
“Agriculture is the biggest source of methane emissions. Promoting healthier diets and more resilient food production systems is the most effective way of reducing emissions from agriculture and should be a central part of the methane reduction plans – not an afterthought. This will also lead to significant health benefits and could increase land areas devoted to nature.”
South Africa’s agriculture sector contributes 10% to the country’s greenhouse gas emissions per sector, but accounts for nearly all 9% of methane emissions.
The bulk of emissions are in electricity production at 42%.
A change in consumer behaviour
Meanwhile, lead author of the chapter on land use and agriculture in the latest report on mitigation, Wageningen University scientist in the Netherlands Gert-Jan Nabuurs, believes the best solutions would be in consumer behaviour.
“A rigorous reduction of livestock in the Netherlands is not a solution. The so-called spill-over effect will merely shift the problem to a global level. If you move Dutch livestock farming to countries such as India and China, you will have made absolutely no improvements at a global level,” Nabuurs told Wageningen in an interview.
“If you consider that you can fly to the Mediterranean for ten Euros, it’s really ridiculous that we call on farmers to make million-euro investments to reduce emissions. But there is not a single government willing to address air travel. Still, we can change our own behaviour,” he said following the release.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) said since the last assessment in 2014, the steady increase in the number of undernourished people in the world has been attributed to countries affected by conflict, economic downturns and climate extremes.
“Agri-food systems need to become greener and more climate resilient so that people have access to affordable and healthy diets that are also sustainable, now and in the future,” said Eduardo Mansur, director of the FAO office of climate change, biodiversity and environment.
The FAO said rapid action for agriculture also means avoiding risk.
“Agriculture is the sector most affected by weather-related shocks and FAO is working to reduce uncertainty by improving the information base, and devising innovative schemes to insure against climate change hazards.”
While the latest IPCC report acknowledges the large-scale emissions reductions possible in agriculture and other land use, scientists said that “land cannot compensate for delayed emissions reductions in other sectors”.
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