Lessons for feeding a warming world

Takeaways from new IPCC report on land

A ripe avocado sliced open. Amir Yalon, Flickr
15 August 2019

Avocados are an increasingly common ingredient in Western diets – but their intensive use of water means that, as with meat, their consumption will have to be reduced in the face of climate change. As the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reveals, rising global temperatures are reducing the ability of the land to provide food for humanity as crop yields decrease and droughts and wildfires become increasingly common.

Landscape News spoke with Saul Morris, director of program service at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), on the report’s findings.

This interview has been edited for content and length.

What were the key messages for you that came out of the IPCC report?

Obviously, the urgency and the key role that the food system plays in the environment comes across very, very strongly. I think many members of the public are more familiar with messages around energy, the way that we produce energy and the way that we use energy. People are perhaps not quite so familiar with the incredibly tight linkages between the way we produce and consume food and what that means for our environment.

That’s the absolute, top-line message coming out of it for me.

I also thought it was very clear that there are many things that can be done to change the food system that would have beneficial impacts for the environment and, equally, for food security.

The other message that comes across very strongly for me is the importance of doing more than one of these. There is no silver bullet, and we have to implement a whole range of policy and programmatic interventions to get ourselves into a better place.

This report was about environmental impacts of food production. Is this something that we all need to think more about?

I would urge people to think about the whole food value chain – and particularly about the consumer at the end of that chain – because none of this is going to change unless people decide that they want to eat something different. That is where the key focus has to be: how are we going to convince people that they might like to eat something different from what they’re eating at the moment?

Avocado sandwich
An avocado sandwich, a popular snack in the U.K. and many other Western countries. Marco Verch, Flickr
Do you mean a shift away from consuming beef and dairy, or also reconsidering other types of food and their environmental impacts as well?

I’m thinking of the whole shift of dietary patterns toward those that are more conducive to better health.

For example, every time that consumers in the U.K. decide to have another crushed avocado sandwich, which has become a very popular snack, they’re probably not thinking about the water implications of the production of avocados.

Could you explain those implications?

It’s important to remember that the environment is not just about greenhouse gases. How we think about water availability on our planet is critical as well. More environmentally sound choices might have complex implications for the use of planetary resources.

Avocados are a great example because of the way avocado trees intensely use water resources. Entire areas of Chile are becoming water-stressed because of a very small change in consumption habits among consumers in the U.K., for example. These changes can have enormous knock-on effects in specific locales.

Taking the right decision is complex and difficult and is going to require huge amounts of careful, local planning. This report is a fantastic start on a global basis, but actually, it has to be localized. We need to know the local implications of all of these features.

Avocados hanging from a tree
An avocado tree, a highly water-intensive plant that has exacerbated water shortages in countries such as Chile. Kevin Brown, Flickr
Thinking of consumer choices, are there significant benefits to purchasing primarily locally-produced food?

There is no simple answer to that. If you live in the Sahel, for example, that’s not an option because things don’t grow in the dry season in the Sahel!

Transportation over large distances to move food around, as a general rule, is going to absorb energy resources. So that could be expected to be environmentally negative. Yet, there might be examples where actually it’s much more globally efficient to try and produce in a more concentrated locale than to try to distribute production. By moving consumption to a local source, you could end up having a greater environmental impact.

The key to all of this is local planning that can look at local circumstances and local constraints and try and come up with locally appropriate solutions.

The IPCC report suggests that as much as 30 percent of food produced is lost or wasted. How significant a concern is this?

Unfortunately, the foods that are most prone to waste and loss are actually the most nutritious ones. It’s perishable items like vegetables or eggs or fish, which are very prone to huge amounts of waste and loss in the food value chain.

This means global resources are going into the production of food that will not be used for anyone’s benefit. That’s shocking from an environmental perspective. There is also a link with poor food safety – and that causes lots of suffering around the world. So, for all of those reasons, food waste really is something that needs to be tackled.

In developed countries, consumers waste a lot of food. They buy it, don’t eat it, throw it away. Whereas in poor countries, waste can happen immediately post-harvest on the farm. Perhaps local storage conditions are just not good enough to ensure the food can even leave the farm for the market. Producers load all of their fruit into baskets, and half of it gets crushed before it arrives in the market, and then it can’t be sold. So a solution might be something as simple as reusable plastic crates to take fruit to market.

Different interventions will be needed in different places.


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