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UN Climate Report: Change Land Use To Avoid A Hungry Future

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Human-caused climate change is dramatically degrading the Earth's land and the way people use the land is making global warming worse, a new United Nations scientific report says.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Land and water resources across the planet are being exploited as never before. That dire pressure combined with climate change threatens the ability of humans to feed themselves. This frightening conclusion is from a United Nations report by more than 100 experts from 52 countries released today, it warns a half billion people are already living in places turning into deserts and mass migration already seen in North America, Europe and other places will only be exacerbated as part of coverage from the KPBS climate change desk. Reporter Christopher Flavio, who covers climate adaptation for the New York Times joins me now. Welcome to midday edition as have me on, well, what does this new UN report have to say about the factors driving a looming food shortage? Sure.

Speaker 2: 00:47 The point of the report is to, is to go through and summarize existing research showing the variety of threats facing our foods, apply it that includes lower crop yields, lower nutritional contents, disruptions, and food supply. The problem with climate change as it pertains to agriculture is you've got all this barrage of events hitting at unpredictable times and having sort of a cumulative effect. And that effect is to make it harder and harder to grow enough food in the right places, in the right way, at the right time to feed a growing population.

Speaker 1: 01:25 And how has that already playing out politically as we're seeing here on our southern border with hundreds of thousands of migrants, mostly from Central America.

Speaker 2: 01:33 So I spoke with some of the authors of the report and one of the questions I asked was, what's the message here for people in developed countries, the US, Europe, Canada, et Cetera, because you've got enough money, enough wealth in those countries that people will certainly experience the effects of higher prices, but it shouldn't necessarily lead to food shortages, at least not in the near term. So I said, what, in what way might those people in wealthy countries feel these effects? And the message I got from the authors was they might not feel it economically when they buy a food, but they will notice when the number people trying to leave their homes and enter those countries goes up because whether it's Latin America or Africa or parts of Asia, these, these pressure points will hit poor areas first. And when they do, the result will probably be people trying to leave those areas that they can't produce enough food in and go somewhere that isn't as bad off. Uh, and so the probably the way you'll feel this in richer countries won't be through the food market and food prices right away, but we probably need more, more migration and more attempts by people in poor areas struggling through these problems to live somewhere else.

Speaker 1: 02:45 And how does the report specifically say that climate change is going to accelerate the danger of severe food shortages?

Speaker 2: 02:51 So again, it's a, it's a variety of things. I think that you can divide this into acute and chronic problems. Acute problems would be flash floods, droughts, heat waves, storms, things that happen suddenly and can either destroy a farmer's yield. In an area or make that make farming harder all of a sudden. And then you get chronic events, higher temperatures over time, higher CO2 levels, more pasts. And the result is overtime. Even if farmers can figure out ways to deal with those sudden shocks, higher temperatures generally mean, uh, it's more of a struggle to produce the same kinds of crops and higher CO2 levels generally mean lower nutritional levels. So even the food you do produce isn't as healthy and as nourishing. So really it's a, it's the report paints a picture of an industry under attack from different directions at the same time.

Speaker 1: 03:46 Now the report states that already 10% of the world's population is undernourished. Explain the risk that researchers warn of regarding food crises that could develop on several continents at once.

Speaker 2: 03:57 Yeah. One of the themes I heard was it's the unpredictable nature of these threats, not just that you know, that the food supply we threatened, it's that you can't really guess in any given year when or where those threats might happen. And you could certainly have situation where you have food supplies in one area knocked out, but it's not just that area. For example, droughts in the u s like this year, but you could also have some other sort of catastrophe hitting productive areas elsewhere in the world and the result would be a situation that is perhaps manageable at a global level. If it's located in just one part of the world. If it spreads through a lot of events happening at the same time, it's much harder for the supply chain to keep up and to people who don't live in those areas might still feel the effects because they had a harder time buying the food they want.

Speaker 1: 04:46 Now dire is, it is the report does offer hope, explain some of the main things needed according to the authors to address the looming food crisis.

Speaker 2: 04:54 It's important with a report whose, whose headline findings are so dire to stress. The fact that the authors really seemed keen on getting across this idea that it's not too late. There's still steps that we can take as a society to try and shield ourselves in these effects. And even change direction a little bit. Those include making farm lands more productive. They include wasting less food. The number using the report is that at least one quarter of all food produced is wasted. They include changing diets. Um, the point was made to me that the amount of land required to produce a kilogram of say beef is multiples more than the land required to produce a kilogram of grains or vegetables. So they say any of these changes can make a big impact in terms of protecting us from food shortages. And also at the same time reduce emissions, which will make global warming less of a pressing threat. It might not be enough by itself to change direction, but it can help. But the point they made is that the window for those things closing and as temperatures rise, it won't, it'll get harder and harder to use those changes to make a meaningful difference. So if we want to prevent some sort of really painful shift in the food supply, we have to do it soon.

Speaker 1: 06:11 Now, Democratic senators, Elizabeth Warren and Cory booker have put forth plans to address major shortcomings within American agriculture. Some of the things you're talking about here, you expect this to be a major issue in the 2020 campaign?

Speaker 2: 06:23 I'd be a fool to make predictions. The one thing that is clear from my reporting is climate change is sort of a steady flood of bad news. And the one thing that may be different about this report is I think people can easily conceptualize what it means if they can't buy the food they want, one they wanted. And so the, I think the nature of this threat, unlike sort of more distant climate threats like sea level rise or gradual increase in temperature is you don't have to struggle to think of what it might mean to you and how unpleasant it would be. So you could imagine a world where the fact that this information is getting out there and the UN is making these warnings about food in particular might sort of motivate people to take this more seriously. But that, you know, that prediction has been made before about people becoming more concerned about climate change. Uh, and it's, it's hard to tell whether any one thing will change minds. Uh, but certainly the warnings and this are quite dire, um, and not hard to understand why they'd be so problematic.

Speaker 1: 07:25 I've been speaking with reporter Christopher [inaudible] of the New York Times. Thanks for joining us.

Speaker 2: 07:29 Thank you so much.

Speaker 3: 07:32 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.