Ceres: Deforestation and agriculture present sustainability challenges

A webinar hosted by Ceres has built upon the IPCC’s recent report on land’s relationship to climate change. The webinar includes analysis and suggestions from three representatives, Meryl Richards Ph.D., Senior Manager at Ceres’ Food and Forests programme, Tek Sapkota, Agricultural Systems and Climate Change Scientist, and Tim Searchinger, Research Scholar and Lecturer at Princeton University.

Richards introduces issues of land degradation and water risk which could have significant consequences on world food security and emissions, quoting the IPCC’s report that the agriculture industry contributes 23 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, second only to the energy sector, large portions of which directly result from deforestation and rapidly changing landscapes. Forests are being lost at higher than average rates, with Indonesia’s palm industry and Brazil’s deregulation of environmental protection policy causing some of the most rapid deforestation rates. This is also occurring throughout Africa in countries like Ghana and the Ivory Coast, potentially due to mining and cacao planting.

Sapkota continues this discussion, claiming that extreme events resulting from climate change undermine the food system and impact food security. According to Sapkota, all aspects of land use and food security are affected by climate change, putting countries with lower economies of scale at greater risk. In turn, the food system itself also acts as a major contributor to climate change, both through emissions and high levels of food waste. Sapkota indicates that climate friendly agriculture production systems can actually be more efficient and productive than current methods, and vegan diets could be a significant factor in reducing global carbon footprints, though he admits that cultural habits and practices present a large barrier to this step. He also suggests that minimising food waste could have significant effects, as waste is associated with 8 to 10 per cent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

Both parties emphasise that land must be part of the solution and that all of the pathways to limit climate change require land based mitigation, though strategies for mitigation vary in effectiveness and practicality. For example, reducing deforestation is one of the most practical and effective strategies, with very low trade-offs, while reforestation or afforestation have limits and could increase risks for land degradation and desertification in these areas, depending on how the land is reforested.

Searchinger claims that the biggest challenge will be reconciling the world’s increasing food demand with the need to reduce emissions. If the world’s population is to be fed by 2050, 50 per cent more food will need to be produced due to growing populations, while emissions must be reduced by two thirds to reach climate goals. This causes a precarious situation for planners who must keep both sustainability goals in mind. Searchinger claims that one of the most important steps toward these goals is curbing consumption of ruminant meat, which is responsible for half of the agriculture industry’s land use and emissions, despite providing only three per cent of the industry’s calories. Consumption must be reduced by 50 per cent to reduce these figures. Secondly, he suggests that bioenergy must be avoided as an energy resource, as it is extraordinarily inefficient, converting only up to 0.2 per cent of the suns energy to fuel, 100 times less than the capacity of solar energy. Stopping this would also spare land and free it for solar projects and reforestation. He also identifies opportunities to improve efficiency in the world’s grazing land. Investment in grazing efficiency could be even more valuable than reforestation as its spares resources to protect forests. He suggests flexible regulation that could encourage companies to innovate these processes.

To conclude, the group encourages transparency in industry, asking investors to consult with companies they invest in about environmental goals and science-based targets that could direct the industry toward the suggested practices. Anti-deforestation policies have been emphasised as each member individually refers to the benefits of forest protection during their respective presentations.

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