IPCC: Managing agricultural trade-offs – key to successful climate transition.
At a time when the European Union’s new food strategy – the Farm to Fork Strategy – is divisive, the balance of the IPCC report encourages nuance and reflection on the governance of the transition of food systems, far from the caricatures and selective readings that can be made of this vast contribution from the international scientific community.
Scientists are once again sounding the alarm on climate disruption and the urgency to act against global warming. They believe that the next few years will be decisive for humanity in its fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep the situation under control.
The notions of “trade-offs” and synergies are one of the cornerstones of the report, particularly in the areas of agriculture and energy, two subjects that are vital to the transition and to the daily life of our societies. In order to act, we need credible solutions, capable of taking the whole of society along as quickly as possible.
Far from caricatures that fragment opinions and fuel campaigns by groups defending specific interests, reading the latest IPCC report calls for nuance in order to make the transition a success, rather than for decisions taken in a panic. The caricaturists looking for some kind of magic wand will be in for a surprise: even the biofuels so decried by some NGOs should, according to the IPCC report, be used in an intelligent and controlled way, where possible without jeopardizing food security. Sometimes there can be synergies.
In their analysis of the agricultural systems to be promoted, the group of international scientists emphasizes the importance of taking into account the agronomic and environmental context: a practice that is beneficial under certain conditions may have deleterious effects elsewhere. This is the case, for example, with conservation agriculture. This is particularly recommended in dry zones. In temperate zones, absolute no-tillage can have undesirable effects on soil vitality in the long term. Alternating periods and farming systems would be more judicious in this case.
Agro-ecological intensification is put forward as an interesting lever for mitigating the effects of climate change, even if a certain caution is expressed due to the lack of hindsight, at this stage, on these practices. In particular, scientists emphasize the need to avoid any loss of yield, which would have particularly negative impacts, calling into question food security.
In this regard, without dismissing it out of hand, doubts are expressed about organic farming – a form of agro-ecology – which goes against the received wisdom. This has the potential pitfall of lower yields that lead to feeding production needs elsewhere to compensate. Caution is required regarding large-scale conversion, which could lead to an increase in absolute emissions. The report emphasizes its value per unit of land, rather than per unit of production.
Overall, any path to success for agricultural systems, on the path of transition, requires the management of compromises and synergies, as well as changes in eating habits, which must be more balanced in our countries. These two transitions – that of the consumer and that of the citizen – are inseparable from each other, and must go hand in hand in space and time.
The evolution of eating habits in Western societies can free up space and surface resources for other uses of biomass, either for carbon sinks or for non-food purposes. Even forest replanting projects must be well managed to balance the benefits in terms of carbon storage, biodiversity and production.
Similarly, there is also an urgent need to be aware of the already real impacts of climate change on food insecurity in the world. Already a quarter of the planet is food insecure, a situation that has worsened since 2015. By 2050, climate change could have a considerable impact on yields, causing between 315,000 and 736,000 additional deaths, warns the IPCC. Working on scenarios of struggle and adaptation can therefore not wait.
The absence of a fixed prescription that would be the key to the absolute success of the transition, the report encourages not only humility, but also reflection on the governance of change in the agricultural sector. More than any other sector, the agricultural and food sector is complex because of its human environment and its environmental diversity. It deserves not one, but many locally adapted strategies, which can only be implemented with the support and knowledge of the primary stakeholders – the farmers – and one ambition: to give them all the tools they need to do their job – produce – in the most optimal way possible. Whatever the case, a common path must be found to act and achieve results as soon as possible.