The International Panel on Climate Change recently released a special report, “Climate Change and Land,” which covers land degradation due to climate change, sustainable land management, global food security, and changes in greenhouse gases in land ecosystems. Top-tier media coverage on the report focused on its primary issue: Climate change is threatening the world’s food supply.
From my perspective as an RD, these are the key highlights of the report:
• Temperatures are rising. Increases in global mean surface temperature, relative to preindustrial levels, can contribute to water scarcity, land degradation (eg, soil erosion, vegetation loss, wildfires, permafrost thaw), and food security (eg, crop yield and food supply instabilities).
• Soil is eroding more quickly than it’s restoring. Soil erosion from agricultural fields is estimated to be 10 to 20 times (using no tillage) to more than 100 times (using conventional tillage) higher than the soil formation rate.
• Nutritional value may decline. As soil erodes, temperatures rise and greenhouse gas emissions increase, and the nutritional value of the food we grow in traditional farms may decrease.
• Croplands are being lost. Urban expansion is projected to lead to loss of cropland, leading to reductions in food production.
• Land use decisions have been unsustainable. Over the years, land use has favored the production of food, feed, and fiber. From 1961 to 2017, the total production of cereal crops increased by 240% because of land area expansion and increasing yields. Cotton production increased by 162% between 1961 and 2013.
• Extreme weather negatively affects farming. The food supply is projected to decrease as the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events increase. This comes as bad news for the United States as well—the most recent figures from the USDA Economic Research Service show that 11.1% of households in America experienced food insecurity in 2018, and 13.9% of households with children were food insecure.
• Food is lost and wasted across the supply chain. Currently, 25% to 30% of total food produced is lost or wasted. From 2010 to 2016, global food loss and waste contributed 8% to 10% of human-related total greenhouse gas emissions.
• Pests are adapting. There’s robust evidence that agricultural pests and diseases already have responded to climate change, resulting in both increases and decreases of infestations.
Something Can Be Done
The report authors explained that food waste can be reduced throughout the supply chain by improving harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure, transport, packaging, retail, and education. Cities can look for ways to produce food in urban and peri-urban environments, as well as reduce the risk of destruction from extreme weather events by improving infrastructure.
On an individual level, choosing more sustainably produced foods and wasting less food can reduce demand for land conversion and free land for more sustainable purposes such as planting trees.
It’s striking and inspiring that we as RDs can play such a big part in responding to climate change. One thing we can do is to emphasize the connection between nutrition and how we plant, grow, and supply food. Here are some ways RDs can help advocate for a more sustainable supply chain:
• At the seed: RDs can play a role in research and development right down to the seed in both conventional breeding and biotechnology. We can help agronomists make decisions in the lab that will positively impact public health.
• Innovative practices: Seek roles with organizations working to improve the food supply with innovative, sustainable practices. Consider indoor farming companies, such as those with hydroponic, aquaponic, or other sustainable techniques. The tech industry has taken on the future of food production with the goal of creating safe, data-driven farms that sit on less land, use remarkably less water, and are immune to weather disruptions and pests.
• Local and global efforts: Innovative measures to thwart the impact of climate change can be found locally or on a global scale. Supermarkets have taken on climate change—eg, Publix’s seafood initiative. It’s likely that your local markets could use your expertise—even if they don’t know it yet.
As we’ve always done, we have the power to change people’s dietary behaviors. Encouraging a “sustainable diet” may be the most powerful impact our profession can have on the environment.
— Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD, is the VP of nutritional science for Crop One Holdings and FreshBox Farms. Crop One is a global pioneer in vertical, hydroponic indoor farming in a completely controlled environment. Her role with Crop One began after seeing a presentation by their chief plant science officer. So inspired, she knew she must be part of the Crop One team. Fortunately, they agreed.