05.02.2021 |

Food system reform needed to protect biodiversity, report

Agriculture is driving biodiversity loss (Photo: CC0)

Biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history and the global food system is the main driver, making food system reform an urgent priority. This is the message of a new Chatham House report, supported by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Compassion in World Farming. The report published on February 3rd, highlights that biodiversity loss will continue to accelerate, unless we change the way we produce food to prevent further destruction of ecosystems and habitats. The authors recommend three interdependent actions needed for food system transformation: “We need to change global dietary patterns, protect and set aside land for nature and farm in a more nature-friendly and biodiversity-supporting way,” says Susan Gardner, Director of UNEP’s Ecosystems Division. The findings were presented during an online event.

Biodiversity loss is accelerating around the world, the report warns. The global rate of species extinction today is higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years. Around a quarter of species in most animal and plant groups are already under threat from extinction, and around 1 million more species face extinction within decades. The global food system is the primary driver of this trend. Agriculture alone is an identified threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 (86%) species at risk of extinction. Over the past 50 years, the conversion of natural ecosystems for crop production or pasture has been the principal cause of habitat loss. “The biggest threats to biodiversity arise from exploitative land use – converting natural habitats to agriculture and farming land intensively – and these are driven by the economic demand for producing ever more calorie-rich, but nutritionally poor, food from fewer and fewer commodities grown at scale,” says lead author Professor Tim Benton, Research Director at Chatham House. “These commodities underpin a wasteful food system that fails to nourish us and undermines biodiversity and drives climate change.” Another problem is that current food production depends heavily on the use of inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, energy and water, and on unsustainable practices such as monocropping and heavy tilling. Our food system is also a major driver of climate change, accounting for around 30% of total human-produced emissions. Climate change further degrades habitats and causes species to disperse to new locations, creating opportunities for the emergence of infectious disease.

If we continue with business as usual, biodiversity loss will continue to accelerate, the authors warn. The reform of our food system is thus an urgent priority. The report describes three principal levers needed for food system transformation in support of biodiversity. Firstly, global dietary patterns need to move towards more plant-heavy diets, mainly due to the disproportionate impact of animal agriculture on biodiversity, land use and the environment. “Such a shift would also benefit the dietary health of populations around the world, and help reduce the risk of pandemics. Global food waste must be reduced significantly. Together, these measures would reduce pressure on resources including land, through reducing demand,” the authors write in the summary of the report. Secondly, more land needs to be protected and set aside for nature. The greatest gains for biodiversity will occur when we preserve or restore whole ecosystems. Therefore, we need to avoid converting land for agriculture. Human dietary shifts are essential in order to preserve existing native ecosystems and restore those that have been removed or degraded. “It is key to recognize that land could in effect be spared by shifting to less resource-intensive diets. Hence, land-sparing does not always require an intensification of agricultural land elsewhere to compensate,” the authors explain.

The third lever for transforming the food system is to adopt more biodiversity-supporting modes of food production, limiting the use of inputs and replacing monoculture with polyculture farming practices. The report outlines three key avenues in order to achieve this – gaining efficiency, substituting artificial processes with ecological ones, and redesigning the system. These three avenues “are about maintaining adequate food yields while reducing environmentally damaging inputs, in other words, they are about sustainably intensifying production.” The authors mention that the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’ is subject to much debate and is often used to describe practices that are far from sustainable. With regard to the third avenue which is about switching to modes of production that utilize land and other natural resources in fundamentally different ways, they mention regenerative farming practices, organic farming, agroforestry, or extensive farmed animal systems. “Many agro-ecological and regenerative farming systems – such as organic farming – are inherently more diverse, relying on polycultures and rotations,” they write. “In general, the yield–biodiversity relationship means that such systems tend to be lower-yielding than intensive farming. Hence, large-scale adoption of such techniques would require other fundamental changes to food systems to reduce overall demand for food.”

The authors stress that these three levers are in part interdependent. Dietary change is necessary to enable land to be returned to nature, and to allow widespread adoption of nature-friendly farming without increasing the pressure to convert natural land to agriculture. The more the first action is taken up in the form of dietary change, the more scope there is for the second and third actions. “The future of farming must be nature-friendly and regenerative, and our diets must become more plant-based, healthy and sustainable,” summarises Philip Lymbery, Global Chief Executive at Compassion in World Farming. The authors also sets out recommendations to embed food system reform in high level political events in 2021 that will cover food, climate and biodiversity, such as the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). They call on stakeholders to recognise the interrelationship between demand and supply, adopting a ‘food systems approach’ to drive action; and to strengthen the coherence between global agreements and local actions. “A year of unique opportunity for food system redesign is in prospect in 2021,” the authors conclude. (ab)

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