12 August 2019

IPCC report on climate change and land use shows we don’t have time to work in silos

Barren fields, encroaching deserts, toxic rivers and dying wildlife. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on Climate Change and Land Use paints a dark picture of the future, not just for farming, but for life on Earth.

Hands holding soil

Barren fields, encroaching deserts, toxic rivers and dying wildlife. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on Climate Change and Land Use paints a dark picture of the future, not just for farming, but for life on Earth.

The way we currently grow, process, distribute and eat our food is condemning an estimated 821 million people to undernourishment and rendering two billion obese. And as we exhaust our soils and disrupt once-reliable growing seasons, the IPCC warns those already living on the breadline will face the most terrifying consequences of food shortages and rising prices.

This IPCC report really highlights the scale and sheer complexity of the problems with our food system. There is no single solution.

Professor Duncan Cameron

The Institute for Sustainable Food

As Professor Duncan Cameron, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield, notes: "This IPCC report really highlights the scale and sheer complexity of the problems with our food system. There is no single solution. 

"So at the Institute for Sustainable Food we're pioneering an approach that recognises the need to slash greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture as a social and cultural problem, as much as it is a technical problem. We need solutions that are capable of working in the real world, and that doesn't just mean technology – it means policy, and working with governments."

Professor Cameron is an expert in soil microbiology who has pioneered new techniques for restoring soil quality, which the IPCC says is crucial for securing future food supplies and helping the land to absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. And he recognises the need to collaborate with social scientists and farmers to put his findings into practice.

Dr Anna Krzywoszynska, Associate Director at the Institute for Sustainable Food and an expert in farmers’ growing interest in protecting soils, has urged politicians to take the same approach. "In order to make the land use changes we urgently need, policymakers must engage with local populations and develop place-specific responses. I am delighted the IPCC report recognises the role that social learning, advisory services and public discourse must play in developing and spreading good land use practices," she said.

"For policy and research institutions, this signals the need to work with farmers and local people in developing new technologies and practices for land regeneration – instead of imposing change from above. My work on the importance of supporting farmer-scientist communities around a shared objective of sustainable soil management supports the IPCC conclusions."

Substantial changes to the way farmers manage their land are vital to cutting emissions, but feedback from farmers tells us that efforts such as reducing the use of fertilisers or building fully organic systems take time. So Dr Janice Lake is working closely with industry to produce a low-carbon fertiliser that incorporates Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU) technology. The resulting product has a carbon footprint 6.5 tonnes per kg of fertiliser less than average, and is helping farmers to keep producing the food we need, while reducing their impact on the climate.

Professor Cameron wants to see more academics listening to the people who grow our food. He warned: "Too often, scientists argue over whether one approach is better than another – should we concentrate our food production on one single piece of land, accepting that we'll do environmental damage, or should we spread the load so that no one ecosystem is completely destroyed? The reality is neither of those solutions is perfect, and the answer will depend on the dynamics of a particular place.

"The status quo is not acceptable. We need tailored approaches for different communities and different landscapes."

Much of the media coverage of the IPCC’s report has focused on the need for members of the public to cut down on meat and avoid food waste – and Dr Christian Reynolds, Associate Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food, sees this as an important part of the picture.

He said: "This report is a line in the sand that should push us towards a food system that benefits our environment, instead of damaging it. Crucially, the IPCC has confirmed that food waste contributes between eight and 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and animal agriculture accounts for half of all emissions from our food system. So if we can reduce food loss and waste and shift our diets to smaller portions of meat and more sustainable farming methods, this more efficient approach will make a huge contribution to efforts to prevent runaway climate breakdown."

Professor Peter Jackson, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food, saw gaps in the IPCC’s analysis: "One issue the report doesn't touch on is the way power is concentrated across the food system, with a few corporations dominating. If we're going to ensure everyone has enough to eat around the world, we're going to need to address these pinch points, and that's where social and environmental scientists must work together to inform policy changes – which is the approach we're taking at the Institute for Sustainable Food."

Professor Jonathan Leake was disappointed to see the IPCC overlook an approach to soil management with enormous potential – adding calcium silicate rock dusts (such as basalt) to agricultural soils. He explained: "The report suggests 0.44Gt of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year could be sequestered if 25 per cent of croplands were to grow cover crops – while results published by the Leverhulme Centre For Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield last year in the journal Nature Plants indicate that basaltic rock dust added to global croplands has the modelled potential to sequester CO2 at several times this rate into more stable forms of carbon. The effect is estimated to be of similar magnitude to reducing global deforestation and forest degradation. It's crucial that scientists and policymakers consider this approach alongside the IPCC's important recommendations."

At the core of the IPCC report was the importance of more joined-up thinking about our relationship with the natural world we all rely on. It recognises that changing our diets alone won’t restore the world’s forests, and technological solutions aren’t enough to end hunger. As the climate and ecological crises escalate, we don’t have time to work in silos – so at the Institute for Sustainable Food, we’re taking our research out of the lab. We work across the academic spectrum, from social medical and natural sciences, through engineering, arts and humanities to solve problems in the real world.

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