The just-released synthesis report on global warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has prompted some to start name-dropping Thomas Malthus. Malthus, you may remember, was the 19th Century British economist and demographer who warned that population growth would inevitably lead to global food shortages. In a New York Times article just days after the long-awaited report was released, reporter Eduardo Porter wrote that the IPCC “rolled straight into Malthus’s territory, providing its starkest warning yet about the challenge imposed by global warming on the world’s food supply.”
So should we be stockpiling Chef Boyardee and plowing down forests for farms to forestall famine? Not so fast. The climate crisis will indeed have colossal consequences to agricultural yields, as the IPCC documents in the report. Continuing on the current path, we could see an average of two percent productivity declines over each of the coming decades, with some developing countries experiencing much steeper declines.
But these stark predictions need not result in more hunger. In fact, they can also be the wake-up call we need to make “climate-smart” food decisions. And for once there is some good news in the story of global warming: We already have a solution. We know how to grow food in ways that cuts emissions, creates more resilient landscapes, and ensures ample yields, all while reducing the use of non-renewable resources, fossil fuels, and land. And we know how to get more nutrition from what we’re already producing. Does this sound too good to be true? It’s not.
Here are four climate-smart food strategies:
1. Reduce food waste. Globally, we’re wasting as much as 30 percent of all food that could be eaten. In the United States, Dana Gunders at the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates the figure is as high as 40 percent. Food waste is often the single largest component of municipal solid waste, making it a major source of methane emissions methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) with 21 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide. Indeed, if food waste were a country, it would rank as the world’s third worst GHG emitter, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Just think about all the energy and resources wasted in producing food that doesn’t even make it to our bellies! When we hear dire predictions about agricultural yield declines, consider the calories we could unleash, if only we didn’t waste so much food.
2. Guard the soil. Across the planet, ecosystems on the land—soils, forests, prairies—absorb about one third of the greenhouse gases humans emit each year. Though protecting forests is often presented as a frontline strategy to reduce emissions, soil stores even more carbon than our forests. Healthy soils, therefore, are essential in absorbing already emitted carbon dioxide. What’s more, industrial agriculture practices now going global—including synthetic fertilizer, monocropping, chemical use, and tillage—destroy soil carbon, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Much of the farmland across our Midwest that had levels of 20 percent carbon as recently as the 1950s, now contain only one or two percent, according to the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute.
Prairies in the United States are also being lost and once those acres—carbon-rich homes for grasses, forbs, and sedges—are destroyed “they are virtually impossible to bring back,” writes Jocelyn Zuckerman in The American Prospect. So what can be done? The Environmental Working Group estimates that 97 percent of soil loss is preventable with the most basic conservation measures. We also know that organic farming works: In the longest-running side-by-side trial of organic and chemical farming systems, the Rodale Institute found that over more than two decades organic practices increased soil carbon 30 percent, while the “petroleum-based system showed no significant increase in soil carbon in the same time period.”
3. Protect the oceans. Keeping oceans healthy is key to food security. After all, the majority of people in developing countries rely on fish for at least one third of their daily protein. But the IPCC reports that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide will exacerbate ocean acidification, as carbon dioxide is increasingly absorbed in oceans, increasing acidity and disrupting aquatic ecosystems. While climate change jeopardizes this key source of human nutrition, we can tackle the other main stress for aquatic ecosystems: Dead zones. Numbering more than 400 around the globe, dead zones are created by an increase in nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from industrial farms and livestock operations.
This nutrient spike triggers algal blooms that, when they die and decompose, draw oxygen from oceans, creating a “dead zone” no longer inhabitable by most aquatic life. Without dramatically changing American farm production, we could reduce this harm to our oceans: In a typical season, only 30 to 50 percent of nitrogen applied is absorbed by crops; the rest is lost as leaching or runoff, ending up in rivers and oceans. (Poorly managed soils also lose nitrogen to the atmosphere, another source of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, with 310 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide).
Incentivizing the precision use of synthetic fertilizer would reduce runoff, while at the same time decreasing a major on-farm source of greenhouse gas emissions: fertilizer use and production. In the long run, we can also further incentivize transitioning to organic farming, supporting farmers who use ecological, renewable sources of fertility, like planting nitrogen-fixing legumes.
4. Grow (and eat) food, real food. Take a look at all the corn planted in the United States in 2013, 87 million acres of it, and you’ll find only 1.8 percent was eaten, as cereals or food. The rest was grown for feedlots, ethanol plants, or industrial products. We’re wasting farmland—often prime farmland—to grow crops that we don’t consume, or eat directly. Climate-smart food means using land for real food. I know that may not seem like an earth-shattering idea, but it is. Consider palm oil, the most widely traded vegetable oil in the world. Today, precious carbon-rich peatlands in Indonesia and Malaysia are being destroyed for oil palm plantations, producing a product that ends up in the gas tanks of cars in Europe or in processed foods to enhance shelf life, improve texture or, like in peanut butter, to bind ingredients. I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to stir my own peanut butter, if it means slowing the climate crisis.
These are just four of the many climate-smart steps we can take today, without waiting on global emissions reduction commitments or breakthroughs in energy innovation. I don’t want to downplay the challenges in implementing these steps, especially on the scale needed; but I do want to stress how doable these strategies are. Already, many governments are starting to catch on with support from international agencies like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
If we absorb the fear mongering of the neo-Malthusians, however, we could find ourselves blindly adhering to pseudo-food security solutions focused on bumping up yield, without fully grasping the complexity of food system change. As the outgoing U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food wrote in his final report [PDF] in March:
Any prescription to increase yields that ignores the need to transition to sustainable production and consumption, and to reduce rural poverty, will not only be incomplete; it may also have damaging impacts, worsening the ecological crisis and widening the gap between different categories of food producers.
With the IPCC’s latest warnings ringing in our ears, we now have no excuse but to alert our elected leaders—from mayors to governors to heads of states—that the time for climate-smart food is now. If we don’t, we might be hearing Malthus’s name again in 50 years. But by then it will be for real.