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Food & Hunger

The Planet Is Doomed Unless We Stop Eating So Much Meat, UN Warns

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Reckless land use is a major driver of climate change. The United Nations urges countries to rapidly begin restoring environments that have been degraded in recent decades. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

Countries have to rapidly shift to restorative forms of agriculture and dramatically reduce meat production to save the planet from catastrophic climate change, according to a leaked version of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on land, the Guardian reports

Even if renewable sources of energy and electric vehicles become the overwhelming norm, the environmental harm caused by food production will still render the planet uninhabitable in the decades ahead. From deforestation to soil degradation to water pollution, food production has become a liability that must be addressed, the report warns. 

“We are now getting very close to some dangerous tipping points in the behaviour of the climate — but as this latest leaked report of the IPCC’s work reveals, it is going to be very difficult to achieve the cuts we need to make to prevent that happening,” Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, told the Guardian. 

This leaked report, which will soon be released in full, follows a series of similar reports calling for a transformation of the global food system. In July, the UN released a report exploring the state of food security and found that world hunger is on the rise. The World Resources Institute teamed up with the UN for another report on food sustainability not long after. That report concluded that the world needs to produce more food on less land by 2050, otherwise catastrophic climate change will occur.

The latest report by the UN expands the discussion by focusing on how land is being used around the world.

Read More: Here's What It Will Take to Feed 10 Billion People by 2050

More than 72% of the Earth’s ice-free surface is being exploited to support humanity’s rapacious appetite for food and natural resources, the authors of the report found. The vast majority of this land is being used to raise livestock or grow crops, two systems that are both adversely impacted by climate change and heavily contribute to it.

In fact, land use is responsible for a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions that heat up the planet each year. Cattle, in particular, are the leading source of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas significantly more potent than carbon dioxide. 

Deforestation is another driver of climate change. As forests are mowed down to make space for cattle grazing or crops, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, and a vital carbon sink is erased in the process. Deforestation has surged by 80% over the past year in the Amazon Rainforest, primarily because of agribusiness operations. 

Read More: 7 Staggering Facts From the UN's New Report on Hunger

As climate change heats up the planet, erodes and floods coastlines, disrupts precipitation patterns, and causes extreme drought, food production is becoming even harder. The very practices that agricultural systems rely upon are undermining the ability of future food production. 

An alarming example of this is the prevalence of soil degradation caused by chemical-heavy farming, deforestation, and other industrial practices. Similarly, desertification, when once verdant land turns to sand, is sweeping the globe

The UN calls for countries to fundamentally change how land is being used. Rewilding — returning land to the condition it was in prior to human interference — will have to be a major part of the solution, the authors argue.

Another important dimension involves dietary shifts. Countries that have high rates of meat consumption need to lower their intake of animal products. 

Read More: Scientists Pitch New 'Planetary Health Diet' to Save Lives and Environment

Food waste, which covers a third of all the food that’s produced, has to be reduced. In addition to being hugely inefficient, food rotting in landfills releases greenhouse gas emissions. 

Technological progress also has to be shared between countries to ensure that harvests reach their maximum potential while also minimizing the use of vital resources such as water.

The IPCC is a sweeping annual report by the UN and it will cover far more than land use when it comes out. But the leaked section makes one thing clear — fighting climate change is a broad challenge that touches all aspects of life.