Aerial photo of land use near an Indonesian river and village. Source: Tom Fisk/Pexels

IPCC report on climate change and land: experts react

9 August 2019
Eat more plants, less meat – the solution is not that simple
Experts from across the University of Sydney have warned that significant changes to the way we produce and consume food are needed if we want to save the planet from catastrophic climate change.
Protein-rich legumes could become a bigger part of our diets.

Protein-rich legumes could become a bigger part of our diets.

Researchers from across University disciplines have reacted to the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Climate Change and Land report, which explores how the way we use our land contributes to climate change, and how climate change affects the land.

The experts have agreed that much needs to be done in agriculture and land use but warn that shifting to new forms of food production and distribution will be a difficult task.

According to Sydney Institute of Agriculture’s Professor Brent Kaiser, the IPCC’s report “highlights concerns that we in the scientific community have been raising for many years”, particularly the ways that “climate change will influence plant productivity and challenge our ability to deliver food for a growing global diet”.

Peas and beans to feed the future

Professor Richard Trethowan, expert in plant breeding and Director of the IA Watson Grain Research Centre within the Plant Breeding Institute, echoed Professor Kaiser’s sentiments and said that, with land available per capita expected to continue to fall up to 2050, a drastic shift in the food humans consume is needed.

“Continuing to focus on protein-poor cereals for human consumption, animal feed and biofuels will need to be reconsidered,” he said.

Professor Trethowan also said there must be an increase in production of leguminous crops, such as peas and beans. However, with a warming climate, this brings its own challenges as these crops are harder to grow in these conditions and more susceptible to disease.

“To compensate, there must be a dramatic increase in research funding into the genetic improvement of these crops,” he said.

Despite the difficulties, Professor Trethowan said this shouldn’t stop us from working towards these goals.

“There is much complexity around the notion that we can feed the world on plant-based proteins and many variables we cannot yet accurately predict. However, this should not stop use from trying to achieve this outcome in whole or in part,” he said.

Animal protein plays a role

Professor Sergio Garcia.

Professor Sergio Garcia.

While the IPCC’s report also encourages a move towards plant-based diets, Professor Sergio Garcia, Director of the Dairy Research Foundation and Professor of Dairy Science at the Sydney Institute of Agriculture, said that full replacing animal- with plant-based food was not a viable solution.

“Questions remain about how this could be implemented. How could increased emissions from non-complying countries or regions be prevented? How would the nutritional consequences of lower protein density in non-meat food be solved?” he said.

“The true impact of reducing livestock numbers on carbon emissions is arguable. A recent US study has shown only a 2.6 percent reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions would be achieved.

“There is a need for a more coordinated global action including on waste reduction; a move towards balanced animal-and-plant-based diets; more efficient production systems; a more efficient use of land and resources (our research has shown that water-use efficiency and milk production per unit of land could increase by three to five fold compared to industry averages); and for more research and development to find new and innovative solutions.”

A threat to beef production

Beyond what we eat, in Australia we also need to think about how climate change could impact on our role as a major agricultural producer and exporter, said Associate Professor Stephen Cattle, soil and agricultural scientist in the Sydney Institute of Agriculture.

“Australia is not immune from the bleak findings of the IPCC report. Although we are a net exporter of many agricultural goods, including wheat and beef, and can comfortably feed our own population, climate change and the concomitant issue of water availability for irrigated agriculture could lead to a gradual reshaping of Australia’s agricultural landscape, with some areas becoming less productive due to more erratic rainfall and land degradation,” he said.

“The issue of methane emissions from beef cattle production systems is also one for Australia to grapple with, as we sit seventh on the list of beef-producing countries. Beef production is also expensive from the standpoint of water usage, with the water footprint per calorie for beef being about 20 times greater than that for cereal crops such as wheat.”

Challenge also an opportunity

Professor Alex McBratney.

Professor Alex McBratney.

Despite the IPCC report’s bleak forecast, the outlook for Australia was not all doom and gloom – thanks, in large part, to our highly-adaptive agricultural sector and world-leading research in the area. 

While adapting to climate change may offer many challenges, it also offers some new opportunities, according to Professor Alex McBratney, Director of Sydney Institute of Agriculture and Professor of Digital Agriculture and Soil Science. 

“Climate change demands reorganisation of where and how food is grown. In Tasmania, for example, many new crops are being grown. In GRDC-funded research new crop varieties (developed by the University of Sydney) are resilient to warming temperatures and are more water-use efficient,” Professor McBratney said.

“Rational, sustainable and efficient restructuring of food production, and intelligent management of our soils will allow us to produce enough food and reduce our ‘foodprint’, which is the environmental footprint of food production. Digital reconstruction of agriculture and it supply chains is key to the future.”

Don’t forget people most affected

Dr Alana Mann.

Dr Alana Mann.

If we’re to secure a healthy future for the planet, we must recognise that climate change is a global public problem that requires a democratic approach, said Dr Alana Mann, an expert in food politics from the Sydney Environment Institute, Chair of the Department of Media and Communications and Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council-funded project FoodLab Sydney.

“In the market economy, many of the decisions about our food environments are left to profit-seeking companies and policy-makers who are out of touch with the lived experience of food insecurity. Those already marginalised will be most affected by the negative impacts of global warming on agriculture and food production,” Dr Mann said. 

“Decision-makers need to heed the IPCC's warnings and make some significant, transformative changes in governance of our food systems. These changes should incorporate the different knowledges required to address the complexity of the challenges facing food producers and eaters.” 

Dr Mann will be appearing at the Outside the Square event, The Rise of Veganism: The end of animal farming?, on 28 November 2019 at the Old Rum Store, Chippendale. Book tickets here.

Marcus Strom

Science Media Adviser

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Senior Manager, Strategic Communications and Engagement

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