Politics of Poverty

Our land, our food, our climate crisis

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land Guatemala climate crisis drought Maria Brigida Garcia walks toward her fields during a terrible drought that gripped farming families like hers in Chiquimula and Baja Verapaz, Guatemala in 2016. Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam America

A new UN report links industrial food production and unsustainable land use to the worsening impacts of climate change.

The late Anthony Bourdain, one of my favorite celebrity chefs, once said “food is everything we are.” It doesn’t only nourish our bodies—it connects us to our own history, and to each other.

That life-giving experience is increasingly under threat. As our global food system continues to deplete the earth’s finite resources, a report released today by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) signals another disturbing dimension of the story.

The way that we use land to produce food is fueling the climate crisis.

A recipe for disaster

More than 820 million people—1 out of every 9 people on the planet—go to bed hungry. That includes more than 50 percent of small-scale farmers that try to survive on less than 5 hectares of land—mostly women.

The IPCC report says climate change is having severe impacts on the land that people rely on to feed their families. Changing rainfall patterns and rising temperatures mean drier and less fertile lands where fewer crops survive every planting season, decreased soil health, increased water scarcity, and a less nutritious harvest overall. In rural communities, that could bring on food price spikes as supply shrinks. More farmers could be forced to migrate to find food.

Meanwhile, our food system is only making matters worse. More than 70 percent of ice-free land is now under human use, largely driven by industrial agriculture and the growing demand for commodities like meat and palm oil. Agriculture, forestry, and land use contribute 22 percent of global greenhouse emissions, half of which come from deforestation and emissions associated with fertilizer use, livestock, and rice paddy. And that doesn’t account for emissions associated with food waste and loss, storage and transport.

These dynamics also create serious human rights issues. The production of palm oil, an ingredient commonly found in chips and cookies, has been responsible for pushing communities off their land in countries from Peru to Indonesia.

Not your everyday sink

If that sounds dire, it is. But there is hope.

Land is not just a source of carbon emissions. Soil, forests, and the like are able to capture and store carbon, otherwise known as a “sink.” In fact, the report shows several ways that good land management can help reduce emissions while supporting adaptation to climate change and strengthening resilience and food security among vulnerable communities.

  • Models like agro-ecology or agroforestry systems offer one alternative to big industrial agriculture. In Bolivia, for example, Oxfam has supported a community-led land management and agroforestry initiative that has helped restore degraded land, build soil carbon, and strengthen the livelihoods of families.
  • Preserving natural ecosystems—and supporting the indigenous peoples that steward them—are another vital part of the solution. Globally indigenous peoples and rural communities inhabit over 50 percent of the world’s lands, yet only 10 percent of them are recognized as communal. Securing community land rights represents a cost effective and often overlooked strategy for climate action.

Getting to zero emissions and zero hunger means climate action now

While many land-based mitigation options provide multiple benefits such as improved resilience and food security, the report also identifies solutions that carry significant trade-offs that may exacerbate poverty and hunger.

These scenarios entail deploying large areas of land for growing biofuel crops or monoculture plantations that capture carbon. This would inevitably create more competition for land and likely displace farmers in areas where communities—women in particular—are already being hit by extreme weather. It is important that these trade-offs are carefully balanced with the aim of achieving zero emissions as well as zero hunger.

At the end of the day, solutions must put small-scale farmers, indigenous peoples, and rural communities in the driver’s seat. Governments must address the way in which conventional farming practices contribute to climate change and promote sustainable land management that holistically addresses climate change, food security, human rights, and livelihoods. Preventing the climate crisis from worsening will require significant emission reductions from land alongside a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

The private sector has its own role to play in incentivizing new models of agriculture and doubling down on efforts to end deforestation and land grabs in their supply chains. And as consumers of food, you and I must reflect on our own dietary choices and think twice before tossing the leftovers out.

If food is everything we are, let’s do everything we can now to preserve our connection to the past and secure the possibilities of our future.

Download the new IPCC report.

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