Climate change has become a multi-faceted dilemma

The most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (drafted on Aug. 7) emphasizes the susceptibility of global food security to changes in climate and land use. The report highlighted that adaptive strategies to reduce total carbon production and preserve natural ecosystems are humanity’s best chance at mitigating the climate emergency’s effects on food production.  

The report stressed the extent of human dependency on land systems. Humans are currently using one quarter to one third of available land’s potential production capacities. Essential products that come from land use, including feed and natural energy sources such as fossil fuels, are crucial to agricultural yields and the sustainability of the food supply chain. 

“Land degradation is a general term describing negative trends in land condition, such as loss in biological productivity and ecological value to humans,” Margot Hurlbert, a Canadian coordinating lead author of the report, said in an interview with The McGill Tribune

Humanity is consuming resources at an unprecedented rate. Consequently, land has become exhausted to the point that it will soon be unusable. Human disruption of natural processes is leading to adverse, irreversible effects on Earth’s natural systems. 

“The use and emissions of carbon in agriculture is cyclical in nature,” Laxmi Pant, a contributing author to the report, said in an interview with the Tribune. “Modern agricultural practices such as tilling are a major source of carbon output into the atmosphere. But, to produce crops with greater yields, we require the input of carbon back into the land through synthetic sources such as fertilizers.” 

This pattern of replenishing lost carbon through unnatural supplementation disturbs the delicate balance of the Earth’s carbon cycle. As a result, more carbon is released into the atmosphere, leaving the soil unable to reabsorb excess outputs and increasing overall greenhouse gas emissions. As emissions increase, so do global temperatures, causing further water and land stress and exacerbating many of the problems associated with land use and food cultivation. 

The scientific community agrees that the climate emergency will have disastrous downstream consequences on all levels of society. As such, climate change has led to concerns not only of environmental sustainability, but of social stewardship. In reality, the two issues are inseparable. 

“The report takes into consideration people living in areas vulnerable to desertification and land degradation,”  Hurlbert said. “Around half of the vulnerable population resides in already vulnerable areas in South Asia, Central Asia, West Africa, and East Asia.” 

Food insecurity will pose additional problems to people living in susceptible coastal areas, who now face the immediate risk of losing invaluable agricultural and residential land to rising sea levels. 

Moreover, changes in food consumption patterns have created a global divide whereby approximately two billion adults are overweight or obese, yet an estimated 821 million people remain undernourished. Socioeconomic class and geographic location serve as the main determinants for the widening divide. Given sustained increases in mean global temperature, this divide will only deepen without rapid intervention from national governments and international organizations. 

“Socioeconomic choices can reduce or exacerbate climate related risks,” Hurlbert said. “A sustainability pathway with high income, reduced inequalities, and food produced in low emission systems have decreased risks of desertification, land degradation and food insecurity.” 

Exposure and sensitivity to climate change and extreme climate events can impact infrastructure and transport, and can cause direct and indirect changes to the income level and food purchasing power of low-income consumers.  Without a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or the implementation of carbon-reducing agriculture strategies, the cyclical patterns of poverty, malnourishment, and income inequality will become further entrenched into global society.

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