The world cannot avoid the worst impacts of climate change without radically changing how it produces food, the UN has warned in its latest assessment on the accelerating impact of global heating on the planet.
The findings of leading scientists who make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), places additional pressures on the Government to re-direct agricultural policy, to diversify the sector and to reduce reliance on beef and dairying. Ending peat extraction from boglands is also endorsed in the report issued in Geneva on Thursday.
The IPCC concluded that eating less meat, especially in developed countries, and reducing food waste was an effective method to help reduce global warming. It predicts that taking this course would save millions of square kilometres of land from being degraded by farming.
The findings led to calls on the Government from climate campaigners and the Green Party to draw up a national land-use plan to help redirect agriculture and to set out how afforestation could help reduce carbon emissions.
Climatologist Prof Peter Thorne of Maynooth University, who is a leading IPCC author, said the report underlines the huge vulnerability facing the country due to reliance on beef and dairying.
The IPCC had demonstrated climate and land degradation were entwined risks, he added. “If we want to reduce risk to land we need to get serious about addressing climate change,” he warned.
Prof Thorne added: “Our patterns of consumption matter. Higher consumption places greater stress on the system, making it less robust [in countering climate disruption].”
Everybody needs to think carefully about their diets, he said. The evidence was overwhelming that meat-rich diets placed greater stress on land and had a higher carbon footprint. “We need to actively promote less intensive agricultural production.”
About 25 per cent of food globally was wasted, he noted, "yet hundreds of millions are malnourished . . . We do need a serious assessment of how we can do better". He was not calling for getting rid of all cattle. "But we need to take a number of actions which makes sense irrespective of climate change. We are one disease outbreak or shift in consumer habits from decimating rural Ireland economy."
There was a need to reduce the national herd and to diversify production “so we produce locally more of the food we nationally need to consume”. A national land-use plan was key to effectively managing land in a changing climate, he said.
Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed said the report was a timely scientific assessment of the current state of knowledge on climate change and land.
“I note the report states that along with plant-based foods, animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG [greenhouse gas] emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation.”
This conclusion created a major opportunity for the Irish agri-food sector “as our production system [was recognised] as having one of the lowest carbon-footprints in the EU”, he said.
A spokeswoman for Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton welcomed the study which "underlines the importance of the work of the [Government's] Climate Action Plan". Better land management "is one of our most powerful tools in responding to the climate challenge", she said.