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Don't Panic, Go Organic: The IPCC Report Should Be a Wakeup Call for Climate-Smart Food

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The just-released synthesis report on global warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has prompted some to start name-dropping Thomas Malthus. Malthus, you may remember, was the 19th Century British economist and demographer who warned that population growth would inevitably lead to global food shortages. In a New York Times article just days after the long-awaited report was released, reporter Eduardo Porter wrote that the IPCC "rolled straight into Malthus's territory, providing its starkest warning yet about the challenge imposed by global warming on the world's food supply."

So should we be stockpiling Chef Boyardee and plowing down forests for farms to forestall famine? Not so fast. The climate crisis will indeed have colossal consequences to agricultural yields, as the IPCC documents in the report. Continuing on the current path, we could see an average of two percent productivity declines over each of the coming decades, with some developing countries experiencing much steeper declines.

But these stark predictions need not result in more hunger. In fact, they can also be the wake-up call we need to make "climate-smart" food decisions. And for once there is some good news in the story of global warming: We already have a solution. We know how to grow food in ways that cuts emissions, creates more resilient landscapes, and ensures ample yields, all while reducing the use of non-renewable resources, fossil fuels, and land. And we know how to get more nutrition from what we're already producing. Does this sound too good to be true? It's not.

Here are four climate-smart food strategies:

1. Reduce food waste. Globally, we're wasting as much as 30 percent of all food that could be eaten. In the United States, Dana Gunders at the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates the figure is as high as 40 percent. Food waste is often the single largest component of municipal solid waste, making it a major source of methane emissions methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) with 21 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide. Indeed, if food waste were a country, it would rank as the world's third worst GHG emitter, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Just think about all the energy and resources wasted in producing food that doesn't even make it to our bellies! When we hear dire predictions about agricultural yield declines, consider the calories we could unleash, if only we didn't waste so much food.

2. Guard the soil. Across the planet, ecosystems on the land-soils, forests, prairies-absorb about one third of the greenhouse gases humans emit each year. Though protecting forests is often presented as a frontline strategy to reduce emissions, soil stores even more carbon than our forests. Healthy soils, therefore, are essential in absorbing already emitted carbon dioxide. What's more, industrial agriculture practices now going global-including synthetic fertilizer, monocropping, chemical use, and tillage-destroy soil carbon, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Much of the farmland across our Midwest that had levels of 20 percent carbon as recently as the 1950s, now contain only one or two percent, according to the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute.    
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