In the first part of his monthly round-up of sustainability news Oliver Balch looks at a pair of reports from the Food and Agriculture Organisation that are a curtain-raiser to this week’s report on the impact of climate change and land use from the IPCC

This week the IPCC is meeting in Geneva to finalise its special report on the impact of climate change and land use, which will be published later this week.

A leaked early draft of the report indicates that scientists will warn that global policymakers face hard choices between growing food for a burgeoning population and competing demands for land to grow biofuels, plant material for plastics and fibres, timber, and the protection of wildlife and biodiversity.

A couple of recent reports have acted as curtain-raisers, issuing alarm bells over the issues at stake. A new report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization(FAO) warns that global farming is off-track on progress towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The most concerning trend relates to hunger, for which “regression is the norm”, according to the prestigious UN body. Since the SDGs were launched four years ago, the number of people without enough food to eat has actually increased by 0.2%, to over 820 million today, equal to just over one in 10 (10.8%) of the global population. The report’s findings are reinforced by a separate FAO report on food insecurity and nutrition, which reveals that 8% of people living in northern America and Europe face “moderate” or “severe” food insecurity. Based on 2015 data, the report also notes that one in seven live births is characterised by low birthweight.

The food system must be linked to climate strategies as well as ecosystem protections and economic prosperity

In developing economies, ironically, it is farmers themselves who are often struggling to get by. The average incomes of the world’s 500 million or so small-scale food producers are less than half that of larger food producers. Smallholders  are estimated to produce 70% of all our food. Consumers in developing world countries, meanwhile, are negatively hit by major price anomalies. High food prices and price volatility seriously affect everyday householders in one in four countries in Africa and western Asia, for instance. In central and southern Asia, the ratio stands at one in five. Behind the problem lie declines in domestic food output, currency depreciation and, in some countries, insecurity. A final dark cloud in the FAO’s recent report (which is based on data from 234 countries and territories) concerns livestock. In the 70 countries for which data is available, around 60% of the local 7,760 registered breeds are judged to be at risk of extinction.

So what is to be done? “The food system must be linked to climate strategies as well as ecosystem protections and economic prosperity.” That is the conclusion of Andrew Steer, chief executive of the World Resources Institute, which recently co-published a 564-page report on the creation of a “sustainable food future”. The report spells out the socio-demographic context that underlies much of today’s food debate; namely, the expectation of the global population increasing from over 7 billion today to as much as 9.8 billion by 2050.

The small tortoiseshell butterfly is one of the UK wildlife species in decline. (heleyro/Shutterstock)

A 56% food gap exists between what was produced in 2010 and what will be needed in 2050. Over the same time period, a similarly significant gap in land-use requirements can be identified. If farming methods remain as they are today, an additional 600m hectares (1,483m acres) must be found over the next three decades. Given these land-related challenges, the report includes in its list of recommendations the expanded use of genetically modified crops, arguing that tests show “meaningful but not large” yield gains from such technology. The authors also advocate a reduction in meat consumption, noting that a drop of 10% in ruminant meat production would reduce the land gap by around 30%.

Focusing on the future state of food and farming in the UK, a two-year commission set up by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) is warning that consumers’ appetite for “cheap, unhealthy food” threatens to cause environmental destruction. At present, UK agriculture contributes 11% of the nation’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. It also identifies the sector as the largest single driver behind the loss of wildlife in the UK (the abundance of which has declined by 67% since 1970). The solution lies partly on the demand side, the RSA commission concludes.

In its recently published final report, the expert commissioners note that the UK government’s flagship healthy eating campaign is funded to the tune of a mere £5m; in contrast, the food industry’s annual spend on advertising unhealthy foods is more than 50 times larger, at £264m. The report also makes the point that Type 2 diabetes (for which unhealthy, high sugar diets are a significant contributing factor) accounts for around 10% of the NHS’s budget. On current trends, this figure is expected to rise to 17% by 2035.

Main picture credit: Riccardo Mayer/Shutterstock
SDGs  FAO  food insecurity  WRI  climate change  IPCC  RSA 

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