A wake-up call on agriculture’s role in climate change

Iowa agricultural land.

When we think about fighting climate change, we tend to focus on the usual suspects – energy, transportation, and manufacturing. But there’s one industry we often forget about that’s responsible for about ten percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions: agriculture. And when you combine agriculture, forestry, and other land uses, you’re looking at about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.

The connection between food and land use and global climate change is the subject of a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body that assesses the science of climate change for the benefit of global policymakers. IPCC’s August 2019 report focuses especially on the impact of agriculture—with good reason.

Agriculture accounts for about 40 percent of the land we occupy and 70 percent of the water we consume. Food production often goes hand in hand with water pollution, deforestation, and loss of wildlife biodiversity. And by contributing to global warming, agriculture emissions propel a cycle where it will be more and more difficult to reliably grow enough food to nourish everyone. These impacts are significant, but we also have substantial and largely untapped opportunities for improvement.

Farmland in the UK.

Unlike other contributors to climate change, we can produce food in ways that don’t just minimize new emissions but reduce existing emissions. Done in the right places and in the right ways, agriculture pulls carbon out of the atmosphere and puts it into the ground where it helps food grow.

We can also cut down on the land we use for food by rehabilitating soil that’s lost its ability to support life. Needing less land to grow food means fewer acres of forests and grasslands destroyed and more opportunities to replant and rebuild forest and grassland habitats around the world. More trees and grass standing upright mean more carbon taken out of the atmosphere, which means less warming.

Food waste is another area ripe for action. From farm to fork, we currently waste or lose about a third of all food we produce—that’s enough to feed every hungry person on the planet. Imagine if we could cut this waste in half and put that lost food to good use. We would save water and land, produce less greenhouse gas, and feed more people.

To make these changes at scale and put a real dent in agriculture’s climate change impact, we need everyone on board. We need new technologies to improve efficiency; we need innovative financing that incentivizes planet-smart practices; we need businesses to collaborate and coordinate to drive unsustainable sourcing out of their supply chains, and we need governments to implement and enforce stronger regulations. Even individual consumers have a role to play by wasting less food, advocating for better policies, and supporting companies that are moving in the right direction.

This IPCC report will put this issue on the radar of world leaders, but we need more than awareness. In the past 10 years, we’ve seen lots of commitments from stakeholders, especially corporations, to improve practices for more sustainable agriculture. For the next 10 years, we need to see action. There’s still time to limit the impacts of climate change and prepare for what’s ahead. But we must act now to build efficient and resilient food systems that can feed the planet without hurting our climate – and ourselves -- in the long run.