Solving hunger and climate change through agriculture

Solving hunger and climate change through agriculture

What if we could solve world hunger while also stopping climate change?

With nearly one-quarter of the total greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change coming from food, agriculture and land use, it’s clear that we must make drastic changes to reduce our impact. From deforestation to methane emissions from livestock, a growing list of causes have the potential to either protect or pummel our planet.

But what if these concerns could actually become part of the solution? With the right strategies, the right management and the right mindset, they can.

“Most of the time, whenever we are having a discussion about what we can do to address climate change, the answer is directed toward energy and renewables,” said Dr. Mamta Mehra, senior fellow with Project Drawdown. “And that is true. We need those solutions. But nature-based solutions also have an impact.”

Project Drawdown is a California-based think tank for climate solutions, and one of their most impactful strategies for solving global climate change comes from the food, land and agriculture sectors. By changing how we approach food production and land management on a global scale, we can not only make a major impact on agriculture greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of global warming — we can also help reduce food waste and hunger across the globe.

“We believe at Project Drawdown that for every problem, there is a solution,” said Dr. Mehra at the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience 2020. “For every fear, there is a possibility. And every conflict can be resolved by collaborations.”

What is drawdown?

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the air continues to increase, magnifying and accelerating global climate change. Drawdown refers to the point at which those levels of greenhouse gas emissions begin to decline — in other words, the point at which we begin to reverse global warming.

Project Drawdown is dedicated to finding ways to achieve that goal by 2050 by looking at climate solutions across all industries and sectors. Of their 20 most impactful climate solutions, ten are related to land, food and agriculture, making those sectors some of our most powerful weapons in the fight against global climate change.

Project Drawdown’s top 10 food, agriculture and land-use strategies

  1. Reduced food waste
  2. Plant-rich diets
  3. Tropical forest restoration
  4. Silvopasture
  5. Peatland protection and rewetting
  6. Tree plantations on degraded land
  7. Temperate forest restoration
  8. Managed grazing
  9. Perennial staple crops
  10. Tree intercropping

Transforming threat into opportunity

So how can we turn land use and agriculture from a cause of climate change into a solution? As with any topic this diverse, the answer lies in making multiple smaller changes instead of attempting to make one big change. Project Drawdown’s climate solutions fall into three main categories:

  1. Protect intact ecosystems: Earth is rapidly running out of intact ecosystems, as 77% of the land on the planet has been modified by human activities — and that’s excluding Antarctica. The remaining intact forests, wetlands and grasslands are vital to fighting the effects of global warming and must be protected from further encroachment and destruction.
  2. Restore degraded land: This could mean restoring wetlands to their original, intact state. It could also mean turning degraded forests and grasslands into usable space for growing crops like corn or bamboo. Both strategies turn degraded land from wasted space into productive acreage, helping reverse the effects of global warming while also protecting intact ecosystems from future use by reducing the need for new land to exploit.
  3. Shift agriculture practices: Shifting existing agricultural practices to more sustainable methods can have a major impact on climate change. Many of these practices — like silvopasture, the integration of trees and pasture for grazing livestock, or planting perennial staples like bananas, avocado and coconut instead of annual crops — have been practiced for thousands of years but aren’t used as widely as they could be.

All of these climate solutions fight the effects of global warming in two ways: they reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere and they sequester carbon dioxide into the soil, as well as into the biomass of the plants themselves.

Answering global hunger

Where exactly does world hunger come into play in this discussion?

For Project Drawdown, changing the way the world eats is key to solving global warming. Their number-one most impactful solution is reducing food waste, which accounts for a staggering percentage of total global food production.

“Reducing food waste is about reducing food losses and wastage across all stages of production, distribution, retail and consumption,” said Dr. Mehra. “Thirty to forty percent of food gets wasted, and we still have issues of poverty and hunger. And because we are having these losses, the resources — seeds, water, nutrients and financial capital for the production of these wasted foods — also get wasted.”

According to the World Food Program USA and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), reversing food waste “would preserve enough food to feed 2 billion people . That’s more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe.”

In addition to reversing waste, Project Drawdown also highlights the positive impact of shifting to a plant-rich diet. With 77% of all agricultural land currently in use for livestock, reducing the demand for meat and dairy would reduce both the need for this land and the methane gas emissions from cattle — a major source of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Since plant crops use less land and fewer resources than livestock, shifting to a plant-rich diet would allow us to grow more food — and feed more people — on existing grazing lands across the globe.

“Together, as a system addressing the supply side and demand side, our analyses have shown that we are in a position to produce a sustainable amount of food and biomass for our current population as well as a growing population, besides having additional impact on the climate,” said Dr. Mehra. “This is a win-win situation. You have a positive climate impact. You have a positive impact on society, and you also have a positive impact on the livelihood of the people who are dependent on these resources.”

The takeaway: “Drawdown is very much possible,” according to Dr. Mehra. “What we need is a political will and collaboration at all stages with global, national, regional and local groups to achieve it.”