WASHINGTON — If the world hopes to make meaningful progress on climate change, it won’t be enough for cars and factories to get cleaner. Our cows and wheat fields will have to become radically more efficient, too.
That’s the basic conclusion of a sweeping new study issued Wednesday by the World Resources Institute, an environmental group. The report warns that the world’s agricultural system will need drastic changes in the next few decades in order to feed billions more people without triggering a climate catastrophe.
The challenge is daunting: Agriculture already occupies roughly 40 percent of the world’s land and is responsible for about a quarter of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. But with the global population expected to grow from 7.2 billion people today to nearly 10 billion by 2050, and with many millions of people eating more meat as incomes rise, that environmental impact is on pace to expand dramatically.
Based on current trends, the authors calculated, the world would need to produce 56 percent more calories in 2050 than it did in 2010. If farmers and ranchers met that demand by clearing away more forests and other ecosystems for cropland and pasture, as they have often done in the past, they would end up transforming an area twice the size of India.
That, in turn, could make it nearly impossible to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, the agreed-upon international goal, even if the world’s fossil-fuel emissions were rapidly phased down. When forests are converted into farmland, the large stores of carbon locked away in those trees is released into the atmosphere.
“Food is the mother of all sustainability challenges,” said Janet Ranganathan, vice president for science and research at the World Resources Institute. “We can’t get below 2 degrees without major changes to this system.”
Less meat, but also better farming
The new study, the result of six years’ worth of modeling work conducted in partnership with French agricultural researchers, is hardly the first to warn that feeding the world sustainably will be a formidable task. But the authors take a different view of the most plausible solutions.
In the past, researchers who have looked at the food problem have suggested that the key to a sustainable agriculture system is to persuade consumers to eat far less meat and waste far less of the food that’s already grown.
The new report, however, cautions that this could prove difficult in practice. The authors do recommend that the biggest consumers of beef and lamb, such as those in Europe and the United States, could cut back their consumption by about 40 percent by 2050, or down to about 1.5 servings a week on average. Those two types of meat have especially large environmental footprints. But they don’t count on a worldwide shift to vegetarianism…
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