To feed 9 billion people by 2050, and keep planet Earth from overheating, will mean massive and radical food changes – and not just in the way food is grown.

To contain global temperatures to no more than 2°C [3.6 F] above the average for most of human history will require humanity to change its diet, contain its appetite and reform the entire system of food production and distribution.

This is the verdict of the latest study of the challenge set in Paris in 2015, when 195 nations promised to limit global warming – driven by profligate use of fossil fuels and by the conversion of forest, grassland and wetlands into commercial use – to “well below” 2°C by 2100.

Researchers report in the journal Sustainability that they looked at 160 studies and analyses of global agriculture and food systems and most closely at the world’s smallholders and markets that sustain as many as 2.5 billion people, mostly in the developing world.

Farming’s Massive Impact

Small farmers account for about a third of global agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, but these include also many of the people most vulnerable to the coming climate crisis, which is likely to put harvests at hazard on a global scale.

Agriculture, together with forestry and changes in land use, accounts for a quarter of all the carbon dioxide, methane and oxides of nitrogen that fuel global warming.

Just on its own, the action of growing grain, fruit and vegetables or feeding grazing animals accounts for no more than 12% of global warming, but a third of all the food that leaves the farm gate is wasted before it arrives on the supper table.

This is enough to provide 8% of the world’s emissions, and if just one fourth of the waste could be saved, that would be enough to feed 870 million people for a year.

Agronomists, crop researchers, climate scientists and ministry planners know of many steps that can be taken to reduce the greenhouse impact of agriculture: even under the most hopeful forecasts, these are likely to be deployed slowly.

The researchers see reductions in food loss as a “big opportunity” that will benefit farmers and consumers as well as reduce emissions. A more challenging problem is to change global appetites: the meat and dairy business accounts for about 18% of all human-triggered emissions, counting the clearance of forests and the impact of changes in the way land is used to feed the demand for meat, milk, butter and cheese.

A shift to plant-based diets would save on land and water and deliver more and healthier meals and permit more forest restoration.

“If you think about the two degree increase, efforts need to go beyond the agriculture sector,” said Anna Maria Loboguerrero, of the climate change, agriculture and food security programme of CGIAR, once known as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, who led the study.

Drastic Cuts Needed

“This means reducing emissions by stopping deforestation, decreasing food loss and waste, reducing supply chain emissions and rethinking human diets, if we really want to get on track to that target.”

The researchers acknowledge that what they propose will constrain farm choices and increase costs. But a second study reports once again that the health benefits of immediate, dramatic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions will save lives, improve human health, and offset the immediate costs of containing planetary heating and adapting to the climate crisis.

“The global health benefits from climate policy could reach trillions of dollars annually, but will importantly depend on the air quality policies that nations adopt independently of climate change,” they write in the journal Nature Communications.

And Mark Budolfson of the University of Vermont, one of the authors, said: “We show the climate conversation doesn’t need to be about the current generation investing in the further future. By making smart investments in climate action, we can save lives now through improved air quality and health.”

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