Last week’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change captures the wide range of factors affecting how we use land and the consequences for a stable climate, nutritious food, and secure water supplies—in other words, the consequences for our future wellbeing.
Although the report points to the dire consequences of continuing with a business-as-usual approach, there is a lot to be optimistic about. Much of the human activity affecting the climate and environment has been undertaken in willful or accidental ignorance of the impact. By better accounting for the effects of these activities—and particularly the interactions between them—we can not only continue to meet the growing demands of the world’s population and improve global wellbeing, but also reverse some of the damage that has been done. The report highlights many examples of such win-win scenarios.
The single most important message from the report is that the food system has been broken by a worldview that ignores the interconnections in the system, producing unintended results that will have dire consequences on our future wellbeing if they’re ignored. However, by acknowledging these interconnections and reconnecting the food system, we can identify fewer but more synergistic interventions on the system as a whole and thus reduce our future risks.
Yes, we can solve our climate crisis—if we pay attention to the interconnections in the food system and create new alliances to solve the complex challenges in the system.
The bright side of complexity
In terms of improving global wellbeing, agricultural science has been spectacularly more successful than almost any other science. During the last 50 years, global population has doubled and consumption has almost quadrupled, due, in large part, to higher standards of living in developing countries as well as overconsumption in the West. It has been only during this time that it’s become clear that human activity is of such a scale as to modify natural systems globally.
We can certainly argue that we should have responded to this knowledge faster. However, the complexities of the challenge have provided an excuse—and have, to some extent, been overwhelming. The IPCC’s report highlights how embracing these complexities will be the single most-important factor in realizing solutions.
In this sense, “complexity” means that the future risks are highly interconnected, often in ways that make it difficult to predict outcomes. However, “complexity” should not be conflated with “complicated.” As the report suggests, these interconnections mean that by solving a few problems in a coordinated way, we can mitigate a far larger number of additional connected risks in the future.
For example, increasing soil health will have wide-reaching positive outcomes: significant reductions in atmospheric carbon, the ability to store more water for food production, more efficient crop nutrition, and production systems more resilient in the face of climate shocks and food commodity price fluctuations. Embracing this complexity actually makes it easier to identify and implement solutions.
However, it also means that there is no single intervention—and solutions will require us to break down traditional barriers between scientific disciplines as well as between science and business in such a way that we can coordinate our response across the entire food chain.
Big data and big business can help
Agriculture is on the brink of a technology- and data-enabled revolution, which will give us access to pervasive and almost real-time information about agriculture and its environmental impact. This will enable more sophisticated mathematical analysis, such as has been used successfully in physics for nearly 300 years to solve complex problems in astronomy, engineering, and, to a lesser extent, medicine.
As the report highlights, progress will require a new synthesis of social factors, economic factors, and physical and life sciences, powered by data and mathematical analysis. Because evidence suggests that governments will be unable to cooperate and coordinate at a global scale in time to avert the worst outcomes, we need global business to take the lead by recognizing that solutions are in their own long-term and near-term best interests. Governments can then take on the role of facilitating this data-enabled innovation at a national and global scale.
The consumer is key
Perhaps the greatest enabler of change, however, is the consumer. We know food choices better aligned with our dietary health (such as diets with higher plant content) exert much less pressure on the environment. By making better dietary choices, consumers can drive the needed changes to the food system.
What we need, then, is a new alliance between science, business, and the consumer, enabled by data and transparency, to help all of us know what these better choices are, and act collectively to make them.