Experts advise food system reform, more plant-based diets to save planet

The current ‘cheaper food’ paradigm is wreaking havoc on our ecosystems, report says
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LONDON — On February 3, UK thinktank Chatham House published a research paper arguing that the global food system is the primary driver of global biodiversity loss and that current food production decimates natural habitats.

Without reforming the existing food system, the continued destruction of ecosystems and habitats will eventually endanger the planet’s ability to sustain the human population, the report stated. 

“The global rate of species extinction today is orders of magnitude higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years,” the report said. The population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles have also declined by an estimated average of 68% since 1970 — in a little over half a century.

According to the report, over the last 50 years, the conversion of natural ecosystems for pastures or crop production has been the biggest culprit of habitat loss. The area of land allocated for farming has increased around 5.5 times since 1600 and continues to grow, the report stated. 

“Current food production depends heavily on the use of inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, energy, land and water, and on unsustainable practices such as monocropping and heavy tilling,” according to the authors. The food industry has effectively reduced the variety of landscapes and habitats, imperilling different animal and plant species. 

Photo: Courtesy of Chatham House

According to the report, now is high time to reconfigure the food system.

“In 2021, governments around the world are expected to unlock unprecedented levels of investment to support economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the report. 

“Efforts to set in motion a “green recovery” will bring questions of sustainability, equity and societal resilience to the fore, creating new opportunities for joined-up policymaking that affords equal priority to public and planetary health.”

This year offers a suitable set of possibilities for systemic transformation, according to the report. There will be a series of international summits and conferences centred around food systems and biodiversity as well as the inaugural UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). The summit will address the need for food system reform for nutrition security, public health, and environmental sustainability.

The authors insist that both the food system and its participants need to adjust its modus operandi in order to create sustainable change for the planet. 

According to the report, our existing food system is a highly defective one: “Intensified agricultural production degrades soils and ecosystems, driving down the productive capacity of land and necessitating even more intensive food production to keep pace with demand,” the report pointed out. 

“Growing global consumption of cheaper calories and resource-intensive foods aggravates these pressures.” 

The food production apparatus has been shaped over decades by a “cheaper food” paradigm in which policies and economies privilege quantity over quality.

 

The “cheaper food” paradigm (Photo: Courtesy of Chatham House).

“Politicians are still saying ‘my job is to make food cheaper for you,’ no matter how toxic it is from a planetary or human health perspective,” lead author Professor Tim Benton told the Guardian. 

To Benton, this trade-off is not a viable long-term solution to poverty nor food insecurity: “We must stop arguing that we have to subsidize the food system in the name of the poor and instead deal with the poor by bringing them out of poverty.”

The authors propose three “levers” that create a more sustainable food system and reduce the strain on land and natural resources: adjusting dietary patterns to lessen food demands and switching to more plant-based diets; protecting and setting land aside for nature; and adopting more sustainable modes of agriculture.

All three levers are interdependent, the report pointed out. And all three levers are indispensable in the project to redesign the food system and rescue the planet.

How the food system affects biodiversity (Photo: Courtesy of Chatham House).

“Dietary change is a necessary global enabler to allow widespread adoption of nature-friendly farming without increasing the pressure to convert natural land,” according to the report.

The authors argued that allocating for biodiversity to the exclusion of other uses and restoring natural habitat would create the most benefit to biodiversity across any given landscape. The most significant gains for biodiversity, according to the report, would be the wholesale restoration of an entire ecosystem.

However, the authors contend that we need to rupture the current consumption pattern because “even radically different modes of farming, such as agroforestry or regenerative farming, will drive rising demand for land if they are not accompanied by a significant reduction in overall demand for food.”

Wiki Production Code: A0598

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