Unless you don’t know where your next meal is coming from – which is the case for some 800 million people, a number that could increase during the Covid-19 fallout – you’ve probably not thought this much about food before. Going to the supermarket is an ordeal. Your favourite restaurant is closed. Produce is rotting in the fields while unprecedented lines form at food banks.
But once your local fast food joint reliably has meat for burgers again and you no longer fear contracting a lethal virus when going for groceries, food has every reason to stay on your mind. The pandemic has shown that our food systems are stressed to a breaking point. Fixing them will take long-term and global commitments that require us to completely rethink the way we feed ourselves and the planet.
Food production has skyrocketed in recent decades, at a tremendous cost to Earth’s natural environment and health. Because food production turns forests and wetlands into expanses of extensive and unproductive grazing, it is the single biggest driver of biodiversity loss. Agriculture is responsible for about 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and sucks up 80% of the fresh water we use. Synthetic fertilizers and agrochemicals pollute the air we breathe, water we drink and soils we farm, threatening both biodiversity and human health.
And for what? The food we produce is killing us. The flip side of the 800 million hungry is the roughly two billion people who are overweight or suffer from diet-related, non-communicable diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure – potentially life-threatening conditions. Today, about 11 million premature deaths per year are related to unhealthy diets.
Our unhealthy diets are tied to the loss of diversity in the food we eat. Between 1961 and 2009, global diets became homogeneous, dominated by staple crops rich in energy but poor in nutrients. Rice, wheat and maize provide more than 50% of the world’s plant-derived calories. Simply put, people are not consuming enough nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, nuts and seeds, vegetables and whole grains.
Furthermore, our global population is hurtling towards 10 billion people and if current trends continue, the day will come that our soils will be so unproductive, and our ecosystems so disrupted, that food and water will not be able to sustain a healthy population. Every business-as-usual day brings us closer to these critical tipping points. And once we get there, no one will be spared, be it poor or rich people.
This must change. Returning to diets based on agricultural biodiversity is a critical component to fixing our food systems.The good news is we know what do to about this.
A first step is improving efforts to safeguard, conserve and use again what is left of the world’s genetic diversity, including different varieties and wild relatives of crops and livestock.
Citizen science, driven by local knowledge, can help communities rediscover the potential of neglected and underutilized crops. These crops, once grown more widely, are falling into disuse for economic, institutional and cultural reasons – including the drive for more “westernised” diets. Some of these crops are stigmatized as food for the poor. But change is happening. Quinoa and fonio are growing in global popularity, and they both have better protein quality than most major cereals.
These are just two examples of underutilised crops. There are dozens, if not hundreds, more.
Diversified agricultural fields and landscapes must become the norm if we want to build more productive, resilient, and healthy food futures. This would contribute to reducing biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity and contamination, ecosystems pollution and land degradation.
Yet, many farmers have few incentives to adopt this approach as they are driven by market demand for more common high yielding crop varieties. This leads us to a second step: increasing the adoption of nature-based solutions, by mainstreaming biodiversity in agricultural policies, and by incorporating biodiversity and traditional knowledge into countries’ dietary guidelines.
Because most of our food biodiversity is conserved by smallholders, we need to better link them to public procurement programmes in order to create additional market opportunities and demand for their products. Increasing consumers’ awareness on the benefits of diverse diets and leveraging peoples’ attachment to food cultures and traditions will also be important to increase demand for more nutrient-rich and diverse food. Reducing food waste is also critically important – about a third is lost at some point between farm and table.
Finally, we need to recognise that we all have a role to play in halting biodiversity loss. The negotiations of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, an ambitious plan to implement broad-based action to bring about a transformation in society’s relationship with biodiversity, offer a unique opportunity for all of us to commit, mobilise, and join forces to transform agriculture and food systems to benefit people and the planet, through increased use and conservation of biodiversity.
Let’s commit to adopt a visionary post-2020 global biodiversity framework that recognises the links between agriculture, food systems and the environment. Let’s put aside individual interests and adopt a broader perspective that speaks to the needs of all humankind. Let’s fundamentally transform our relationship with nature and take the necessary actions needed for a sustainable future through sustainable agriculture and food systems that will benefit us all.
Juan Lucas Restrepo is Director General of the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Elizabeth Maruma Mrema is Acting Executive Secretary, Convention on Biological Diversity
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