Farming revolution needed to continue feeding world

New UN report will stress need to revamp food production to curb impact of climate crisis

Cows looking for food on dry grassland during a severe drought in France's Creuse region. Scientists say that climate change is expected to bring about extreme weather conditions, such as more intense droughts and floods, which may worsen land degrad
Cows looking for food on dry grassland during a severe drought in France's Creuse region. Scientists say that climate change is expected to bring about extreme weather conditions, such as more intense droughts and floods, which may worsen land degradation and jeopardise food production.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mankind will have to overhaul the way it grows food if it is to curb the impact of climate change, and to clothe and feed billions more people, a major United Nations report will say this week.

About a third of the Earth's land area is used for agriculture to feed 7.7 billion people. But booming demand for food and resources has pushed the planet to the brink.

Decades of expansion for farming and forestry have caused widespread land degradation globally. Poor farming practices, especially in drier areas, have led to widespread soil erosion and the loss of biodiversity. Huge areas of forests and wetlands have been cleared for palm oil, soya, cattle ranching and rubber.

The increasing degradation also means lower productivity of farmlands, hurting crop yields.

This likely means that millions more people, especially in poorer nations, will struggle to grow enough food, triggering mass migration.

Climate change is expected to make things worse, scientists say, because extreme weather - such as more intense droughts and floods - risks causing greater erosion and more uncertain food production.

Making agriculture greener and cutting food waste are key solutions in the climate fight, authors of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will say in their special report on land use, due for release tomorrow.

These solutions are vital if the world is going to be able to feed 10 billion people by 2050.

Changing the way the world grows food is urgent. Agriculture and forestry account for about a quarter of humanity's greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's not going to be a comfortable report to read if you're a policymaker. There are lots of challenges ahead," Dr Mark Howden, an IPCC vice-chair and director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University in Canberra, told The Straits Times.

Scientists and policymakers from around the world have been meeting in Geneva this week to finalise the report.

Changing the way the world grows food is urgent. Agriculture and forestry account for about a quarter of humanity's greenhouse gas emissions.

Cutting down forests, draining peatlands and ripping up grasslands emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). Rice paddies and cattle ranching also produce large amounts of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

It is a vicious circle. Destroying nature in this way removes a key tool for humanity to soak up the excess emissions that are heating up the planet and fuelling more extreme weather.

To better assess the threat, more than 100 scientists from 52 countries have spent about three years researching the links between agriculture, land degradation, desertification, food security and climate change.

The Straits Times spoke to some of the report's authors before the Geneva meeting. Without revealing the exact findings of the report, they underscored the urgency of the crisis that countries, including Singapore, are increasingly focused on.

Dr Annette Cowie, principal research scientist for climate at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, said: "We are losing land annually to new degradation in the drylands and other parts of the landscape... as a result of unsustainable land management practices, mostly unsustainable agriculture in terms of cropping and grazing management."


"This is a systemic problem. It's not the individual landholders wanting to cause degradation," she said, adding that the pressure to grow food as cheaply as possible has made it hard for farmers to focus on green practices.

Poor land management practices also mean that soil can no longer hold sufficient organic matter or soak up CO2, Dr Cowie said. This has made farming a major part of the climate problem.

But this can change, she said. "We can turn that around with more sustainable practices that would build soil carbon and take carbon out of the atmosphere."

Dr Howden noted that farmers were already making changes. "Small ones are changing cropping practices and breeds. The large ones are moving agricultural systems to different areas."

"We have to become better at what we do. We need to become more efficient. We need to be thinking about managing increased variability of our climate. We need all of the tools, including seasonal forecasts, but also finance and government policy tools such as drought support," he said.

Placing a higher value on food was also key, Dr Howden added.

"We've become so efficient in the West in terms of producing food, and food is so cheap that we no longer really value it, nor do we value the farmers who produce it. And one of the large social changes which needs to happen is that we need to reverse this," he said.

Land use and abuse in S-E Asia have global consequences: Experts

An upcoming report is likely to provide the scientific basis of calls for people to switch to a plant-based diet to combat climate change.

Leaked versions of the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have pointed to how emissions of methane, a planet-warming gas, come from cattle and rice fields, The Guardian reported.

Apart from a global analysis of the links between climate change and how land is used for agriculture, among other things, the report will likely zoom in on specific regions.

Experts who spoke to The Straits Times ahead of the report's official launch tomorrow noted that South-east Asia's agricultural sector increasingly contributes to and suffers from the impact of global warming, such as changing rainfall patterns and rising temperatures.

However, they were commenting on general trends and not specifics from the report.

Professor William Chen, who is Nanyang Technological University's Michael Fam Chair Professor and the director of its Food Science and Technology Programme, said the region's emissions will grow as its economies develop.

Indonesia and Myanmar are already listed as two of 10 countries with the largest emissions from agriculture worldwide, he said.

Farmers in the region are also planting more lucrative crops, such as durian, on top of staples like rice.

"The competition with traditional crop farming will drive deforestation, thus contributing to higher greenhouse emissions," said Prof Chen.

Natural ecosystems such as forests and peatlands function like carbon "banks", storing carbon in organic matter like soil, roots and vegetation, and preventing the release of carbon dioxide. But when cleared, the land loses its ability to capture and store carbon.

This is a particularly pressing issue for South-east Asia, home to large swathes of tropical rainforest and peatland, scientists say.

Princeton University research scholar Timothy Searchinger, lead author of a separate report on climate change and food security published last month by the World Resources Institute (WRI), said: "The ongoing conversion of forests in South-east Asia is a major challenge.

"They are very large sources of greenhouse gas emissions, as is the drainage of peatlands whose burning causes much of the smoke that Singapore occasionally faces."

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have a global effect, regardless of the source of their emission.

But scientists say agriculture in South-east Asia will be particularly vulnerable to the changing climate, due to its location in the tropics.


Dr Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, said: "Many crops are getting awfully close to their high-temperature margin in a given space. And some of these are almost physiological barriers... Some of those temperature limitations are hardwired and there's not as much opportunity to breed resistance to extreme heat."

The reports by the WRI and IPCC shine a light on links between climate change and land use, and raise questions about food security in a warming world.

But a new Climate and Food Vulnerability Index compiled by British charity Christian Aid has ranked Singapore as the least food-insecure of 113 countries.

Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food, and a pillar of its food security strategy has been to diversify its imports. The Government is also offering grants to help farms here boost productivity and weather-proof operations by using technology.

Nations in Africa were the most food-insecure on the list, with Burundi, Congo and Madagascar listed as the top three.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2019, with the headline 'Farming revolution needed to continue feeding world'. Subscribe