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Experts On Climate Change Say How We Use Land To Grow Food Needs To Change


Some of the world's top experts on climate change issued a new warning this morning about land and how humans use it to grow food. The scientists say it's contributing to global warming. They also say it doesn't have to. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The warning and the hope come from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a special IPCC report on climate change and land. Here's Youba Sokona, co-chair of the IPCC, at a press conference early this morning in Geneva, Switzerland.


YOUBA SOKONA: The special report explores how the way we use our land contributes to climate change and how climate change affects our land.

CHARLES: Humans use most of the world's fertile land to grow food. They're clearing forests and grasslands, planting crops, grazing cattle. And it releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide from the soil, methane from cattle and rice paddies. In all, it's about a quarter of all greenhouse emissions from all human activity worldwide. And in turn, climate change is becoming a threat to farming. As temperatures rise and rain patterns shift, farmers in many parts of the world will have a harder time growing food reliably. They'll be forced to adapt. So it's a big problem. But Debra Roberts, another IPCC member, was not all doom and gloom.


DEBRA ROBERTS: This calls out land as a very important opportunity.

CHARLES: People can reverse some of this - plant more trees, expand grasslands where the plants capture heat-trapping carbon from the air and grow deep roots, storing the carbon in the soil again. Farmers can farm differently. Here's Valerie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of one of the IPCC's working groups.


VALERIE MASSON-DELMOTTE: There are solutions in the hands of farmers. They are solutions in the hands of each of us when we buy the food and we prepare food at home and we avoid wasting food, as well.

CHARLES: People will need more food in the future. In the pessimistic scenario future agriculture, either people suffer because there's not enough food, or the environment suffers as farmers keep clearing more land. But the IPCC also laid out an optimistic scenario with farmers growing enough food for everybody on existing land, doing it more efficiently with lower greenhouse emissions. Crops can improve. Cattle can release less methane if they get fed better. Farmers will certainly have to stop draining carbon-rich peat lands to grow their crops.


MASSON-DELMOTTE: Practices, technologies exist. There are case studies that show they work. The challenge is to scale them up.

CHARLES: The report makes clear, though, it will be a huge challenge. And there will be political battles over these changes - over restrictions on deforestation, for instance, or whether countries like the U.S. should encourage farmers to grow more crops that get converted into fuel for cars instead of food. The changes probably can't happen quickly. They involve shifts in government policies around the world, shifts in behavior by hundreds of millions of farmers and even larger numbers of consumers. So the scientists say the changes really have to start now.

Dan Charles, NPR News Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.