The IPCC’s Latest Climate Report Is a Final Alarm for Food Systems, Too | Civil Eats

The IPCC’s Latest Climate Report Is a Final Alarm for Food Systems, Too

In this week’s Field Report, food and agriculture in the IPCC’s summary report, new drinking water limits for PFAS, and policy debates over food insecurity.

PAJARO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 14: In an aerial view, floodwaters fill the streets on March 14, 2023 in Pajaro, California. Northern California has been hit by another atmospheric river that has brought heavy rains and flooding throughout the region. The town has been inundated with floodwaters since Saturday after a levee was breached along the Pajaro River. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Floodwaters fill the streets in Pajaro, California. Northern California has been hit by another atmospheric river that has brought heavy rains and flooding throughout the region. The town has been inundated with floodwaters since Saturday after a levee was breached along the Pajaro River. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The world’s top climate scientists are not pulling any punches in their latest assessment: The climate crisis is already affecting the world’s food supply and exacerbating hunger—and those impacts are going to get worse.

“Rapid and far-reaching transitions” are required in every sector, the experts concluded, including food and agriculture. And if we’re going to “secure a livable and sustainable future for all,” those changes must happen within the current decade.

“Food systems around the world are being pounded by the climate crisis now. Every fraction of a degree of warming raises the risk of food shortages and multiple crop failures,” said Million Belay, a food systems expert with the international nonprofit IPES-Food, in reaction to the report’s publication. “Transforming food systems is now an urgent priority and a massive opportunity.”

Since its creation in 1998, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has convened every five to seven years to review the climate science and provide governments with updates to set policies. Its last cycle, completed in 2014, led to the historic Paris Agreement.

“Transforming food systems is now an urgent priority and a massive opportunity.”
~ Million Belay, IPES-Food

Over the past few years, IPCC members have put out a series of reports that have not spurred nearly enough action, including several last year that included how the food system will need to adapt to inevitable changes while also contributing to critical emissions reductions.

The panel confirmed what many have been saying and experiencing: Climate change is making it harder for farmers to produce food, and those challenges will likely get worse due to declining crop and fishery productivity and losses from events like droughts and flooding. They emphasized that adaptation within the food system is possible only if it happens extremely quickly and that the most effective solutions identified would work with natural processes to also preserve biodiversity and resilient ecosystems.

The experts also declared food systems solutions as a critical component to hitting targets that would prevent catastrophic outcomes. The authors estimated that the sector could provide nearly one-third of the greenhouse gas reductions needed.

This latest publication doesn’t offer dramatic new conclusions about the food system, but it does set new benchmarks that are meaningful for every sector. To limit warming to 1.5°C—beyond which research shows impacts will likely be catastrophic—global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced 60 percent by 2035.

To be clear, the authors found that hitting 1.5°C is now inevitable, but that aggressive emissions cuts now could then reverse the trend, bringing global temperatures back down. And yet the promises and plans countries have made so far come nowhere near what will be needed to do that. (Food companies, by the way, are in the same boat.) To have any chance at hitting it, the experts say, deep, far-reaching changes must be made immediately.

Thankfully, there are now more opportunities than ever before, especially since the cost of solar and wind energy has dropped exponentially. While shifting energy use to those systems represents the most powerful climate solution available, some food and agriculture solutions follow close behind.

Those include reducing deforestation, especially in tropical regions, and increasing carbon sequestration by improving cropland management and implementing systems like agroforestry. On the demand side, shifting diets away from climate-intensive foods like animal proteins and reducing food waste would cut emissions on several fronts, including methane and nitrous oxide emissions and freeing up land for ecosystem and forest restoration, the authors write. (More explicit language about how plant-based foods could halve emissions of the average Western diet was removed from the report in response to pressure from the meat-producing countries Brazil and Argentina.) “Many agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) options provide adaptation and mitigation benefits that could be upscaled in the near-term across most regions.”

The report comes at a critical time for the food system.

Attention to the connection between food and climate has only increased since last year. Debate over global solutions proposed at COP27 in November was heated and will continue as the Biden Administration prepares to host the first AIM for Climate Summit in May. Projects funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recent Climate-Smart Commodities initiative are just getting started. And some farmers and advocates are pushing policymakers to prioritize climate initiatives as they prepare to draft the 2023 Farm Bill.

When boiled down, the IPCC’s summary stresses that if policymakers fail to act immediately, it will become harder and harder to reach any goal that ensures that we have food to eat and the planet remains livable.

“There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all,” the authors write. “The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”

In other words, if those actions fall short, by the time the panel convenes again, it will be too late. As IPCC chair Hoesung Lee said during a press conference today, “We are walking when we should be sprinting.”

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Read More:
New UN Climate Report Urges Food Systems Solutions—Before It’s Too Late
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Op-Ed: The Flood Climate Disasters Has the Food System Reeling. It’s Time to Act.

Central Valley Flooding is a Preview of What’s to Come. In the immediate term, farmers and rural communities in California’s Central Valley have been bearing the brunt of climate-fueled flooding after the state was hit by multiple atmospheric rivers over the last few weeks. Some of the worst flooding hit Tulare County, one of the most agriculturally productive in the state, and the home to a historic lakebed that was drained and diverted in the late 19th century.

Now, wealthy land owners and ranchers in the region have reportedly resorted to “heavy-handed and, in one instance, illegal tactics” to divert the water off their ranches and farmland while water from several creeks and rivers has overflowed to flood farmland and close down highways. Farmworker communities have been hit especially hard, as has the historically Black farming community of Allensworth, where a broken levee led to the evacuation of hundreds of people.

Meanwhile, last week, the L.A. Times editorial board made a bold move by advocating for the return of the valley’s natural flood plains—a decision that would alter the landscape in multiple ways. “In dry seasons, restored floodplains can be wildlife preserves. But they also can be soccer fields, golf courses, even farm fields for annual crops like tomatoes or melons. Just not homes or perennial crops such as almonds,” wrote the editors. More flooding is expected throughout the spring as the snowpack—which is over twice the size it is in an average year—begins to melt.

Read More:
US Taxpayers Are Spending Billions to Keep Farms on Flooded, Unproductive Land
Op-ed: Some Regenerative Farms Are Weathering California’s Unprecedented Rainfall
Climate Change Is Intensifying Food Shocks

A Win for Safe Drinking Water. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first-ever federal standard that would require water systems to monitor drinking water for certain PFAS and to keep levels below a strict limit. PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are now known to be contaminating drinking water, farmland, seafood and popcorn. At certain levels of exposure, they have now been linked to a wide range of harms, including increasing the risk of certain cancers, reproductive issues, and reducing immune system function. The EPA’s proposed limits are strict and apply to six of the chemicals determined to be the most dangerous: PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PFBS, PFNA, and PFHxS.

“Today, we can celebrate a huge victory for public health in this country—U.S. EPA is finally moving forward to protect drinking water across the United States by proposing federally enforceable limits on some of the most toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative chemicals ever found in our nation’s drinking water supply,” said Rob Bilott, the lawyer who first sounded the alarm about PFAS contamination, in a press release.

Many public health groups including the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Environmental Protection Network praised the agency’s action, while some water industry groups called attention to how much meeting the standards will likely cost local utilities. While the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided billions of dollars to low-income communities specifically for upgrades to get PFAS out of drinking water, the American Water Works Association said the costs would exceed those investments. In its comments, EWG noted, however, that in 10 states that already had limits in place, water rates for taxpayers have not gone up.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are looking for ways to help farmers deal with PFAS contamination in their soils. Earlier this month, a bipartisan group introduced the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act, which would provide funding for soil testing and relief for farmers who suffer losses due to contamination. Its provisions could be included in the upcoming farm bill.

Read More:
New Evidence Shows Pesticides Contain PFAS, and the Scale of Contamination is Unknown
High Levels of PFAS ‘Forever Chemicals’ Found in Fish
Health Concerns Grow as Oklahoma Farmers Fertilize Cropland with Treated Sewage

Hunger—at Home and at School. Despite the boosts to SNAP benefits and free school meals that were provided during the early stretches of the pandemic, new evidence points to the fact that families are still struggling to put food on the table. And while some states are moving to provide relief, House Republicans are attempting to restrict federal food benefits further.

In a report released on Tuesday, No Kid Hungry analyzed the results of two national surveys. Its authors found that among 3,000 parents of public-school children, 68 percent of low-income families and 58 percent of middle-income families said that it had become harder to afford enough food for their children over the last year, primarily due to rising prices.

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Meanwhile, the Minnesota and New Mexico legislatures both passed bills to provide free meals to all public school students in their states. They follow several states that have recently moved to provide free meals either temporarily or permanently, including California, Vermont, and Maine.

But in Washington, a group of House Republicans introduced a marker bill that would tighten work requirements and time limits on SNAP recipients, especially those with children over 7. Those requirements are expected to lead to significant partisan fighting as the farm bill process accelerates.

Read More:
The People Behind School Meals Are Pushing for Free Access for Al
Are Expiring School Meal Waivers a Looming Catastrophe?

SVB and the Food Industry. Coverage of last week’s collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) was primarily tied to what it will mean for tech companies and its impact on larger market forces and the overall economy. But it turns out food and wine companies are also caught up in the drama.

Just like SVB was the go-to bank for risky tech bets, it also funded food start-ups with unconventional products and business models, such as plant-based meat leaders Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Both companies have been struggling financially over the past year.

At Expo West, the country’s biggest trade show for healthy-leaning packaged foods, start-ups making everything from plant-based honey to protein-rich bread panicked on the show floor as the news came in. Food & Wine reported that SVB also financed many smaller, family-owned vineyards and wineries in California. While immediate impacts on these companies are likely to be minimal given the government’s announcement that it will make all depositors whole, some said finding alternate sources of credit will now be difficult.

Read more:
Op-Ed: Fake Meat Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis
Inside the Race for Lab-Grown Meat

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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