Care about biodiversity? Push for food systems transformation
Biodiversity is poised to become this year’s biggest sustainability trend. Following the “Paris agreement for biodiversity” reached at COP15 in Montreal in December, more and more companies and investors want to understand their impact on our ecosystems and adopt efforts to protect, regenerate and sustainably manage natural resources.
That’s fantastic news — leaving carbon tunnel vision behind and instead approaching the intertwined crises of climate change and nature loss together has been long overdue.
So now, sustainability practitioners are figuring out how to approach their new task. Why is the world’s biodiversity in such a dire state? What should we do about it? I don’t have all the answers in my back pocket, but what I do know is that we won’t be able to turn the switch on biodiversity without transforming food systems. Here’s why.
Chomping away on our living planet
I love food — you probably do too. Eating doesn’t only mean survival, but joy, culture and connection. Unfortunately, how we’ve been feeding our own species has led to the destruction of much of the world’s native ecosystems and the extinction of many plants and animals. (By the way, our diets are also killing our own species, but I’ll hold on to that story for another article).
That’s because to produce ever more food for ever more people — who demand ever more resource-intensive products such as meat and dairy as they get wealthier — we’ve been continuously cutting down forests, plowing up savannas and draining peatlands to expand global farmlands. And we’ve been managing those acres without much concern for its native inhabitants or those in neighboring areas.
Here’s how agriculture has affected biodiversity:
- Agriculture and aquaculture threaten 54.5 percent of the 42,109 species currently at risk of extinction, according to my calculation based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. (This doesn’t mean that agriculture is the only threat these species are exposed to).
- As agriculture is threatening wildlife, it’s replacing it with livestock. A stunning 96 percent of the world’s mammal biomass is livestock (this excludes humans), and 71 percent of the world’s bird biomass is farmed poultry. In other words, only 4 percent of the world’s bears, elephants, seals & co. are wild, and only 29 percent of birds live in nature.
- To raise all these cows, pigs and chickens, grow their feed and other food for human consumption, agriculture uses half of the planet’s habitable land (defined as ice- and desert-free land).
- We’re not stopping there. Expansion of cropping and grazing land has caused 90 percent of deforestation worldwide between 2000 and 2018. The vast majority of these forests disappeared in tropical areas, which are home to many of our planet’s biodiversity hotspots.
- Agriculture is also responsible for 78 percent of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication — excess nutrients leaking from farms into waterways that spur uncontrollable plant and algal growth downstream. Think of algal blooms, dead zones and so forth, harming life in rivers, lakes and oceans.
Disclaimer: Not all agricultural land is used to grow food — about 8 percent of global cropland is used for biofuels, and 2.4 percent for cotton. Agriculture is also not the only industry impacting biodiversity. Other extractive and polluting industries such as oil, gas, mining, timber and plastics play significant roles, too, alongside urbanization and other pressures. Still, as the statistics above show, food is a major area of concern.
This has two implications: 1) If your company produces, sources or invests in agricultural products (including materials such as leather for shoes and car seats), it likely has a large biodiversity footprint. 2) That exposure comes with risk — physical, reputational and transitional. Increased land protection measures or other conservation policies are examples of nature-related transition risks. The investment bank Jefferies estimated in a recent briefing that agricultural companies’ net-present value will fall by an average of 26 percent between 2020 to 2030 if they don’t mitigate such emerging transition risks.
Any food-adjacent company and investor would thus do itself a favor by pushing for food systems transformation. And if you’re an investor without current agricultural exposure but want to make a dent in biodiversity loss, food system solutions that alleviate biodiversity pressures present a big opportunity for you.
How can we decouple food from nature loss?
Despite those depressing statistics, not all is lost. Quite the opposite: We have clear and sophisticated roadmaps for a better future, including WWF’s Solving the Great Food Puzzle, Conservation International’s Exponential Roadmap for Natural Climate Solutions and WRI’s Creating a Sustainable Food Future. They outline how to nourish a growing global population while respecting our planet’s boundaries and restoring some of the vital ecosystems we previously destroyed.
Market and regulatory incentives that would drive businesses to rethink the status quo of food production and consumption have been insufficient. There’s a small chance that biodiversity will be the trigger.
Putting these roadmaps into practice requires enormous shifts in food production and consumption, drawing on reforms in policy, business practice and cultural norms. They also ask for the deployment of technological innovation and traditional ecological knowledge. So there’s an opportunity for everyone to contribute — whether you’re motivated by carbon, biodiversity or your wallet. Across the roadmaps, three essential action areas emerge:
- Plant-rich diets: We can’t sustain current levels of animal food consumption in middle and high-income countries while combating the climate and biodiversity crises. Healthy and sustainable diets should be centered around grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds and only feature meat, fish, dairy and eggs in significantly smaller proportions. This shift will enable more efficient agricultural land use while stopping deforestation and other land-use changes.
- Circular value streams: Nearly a third of food grown worldwide doesn’t get eaten. Fourteen percent of food is lost between harvest and retail, and 17 percent is wasted between retail, foodservice and households. Those are huge inefficiencies we need to tackle if we want to cut back land use and restore biodiversity. In addition, we need to do a better job at cycling essential nutrients back into the system, i.e., by expanding composting programs that can fertilize farms or upcycling formerly wasted ingredients into new products.
- Regenerative production: Optimizing farmland productivity underpins further expansion into natural ecosystems. At the same time, yield goals need to be balanced with bringing a certain level of biodiversity back to working lands, and turning them into carbon sinks rather than emitters. Companies should also watch the environmental impacts of farm inputs — from fertilizer production to the energy that’s fueling tractors and irrigation systems.
These approaches may originally not have been developed to address nature loss. But they all do their part in managing agricultural land more sustainably and feeding the world more efficiently — thus sparing land, water and other resources that will allow other species to thrive, in turn regenerating Earth’s cycle of life on which we collectively depend.
And yet, knowledge has not trickled down to action at scale. Thus far, market and regulatory incentives that would drive businesses to rethink the status quo of food production and consumption have been insufficient. There’s a small chance that biodiversity thinking will be the last straw in triggering a chain of reforms, but we’ll take any help we can get.