Opinion: We don't have to choose between food and biodiversity

Terracing and agroforestry efforts in the Yanze watershed in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by: Rwanda Green Fund / CC BY-ND

How does the weaver ant help to deliver the food on your plate? The answer might not be immediately obvious, but this feisty predator is critical to maintaining balance in the global food chain: eating and repelling fruit flies that could otherwise destroy lucrative and nutritious mango, citrus, and cashew crops.

“The world has the means to conserve and sustainably use the services and resources offered by biodiversity to feed future generations.”

— Cristiana Pasca Palmer, executive secretary, Convention on Biological Diversity

If the weaver ant were to die out, the world would lose a powerful weapon in its pest control arsenal, resulting in devastating losses to foods on which millions of lives and livelihoods depend.

Biodiversity along the food chain helps to maintain the air we breathe and the water we drink. Yet today, the world’s biodiversity is undergoing a crisis not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs.

In just the past year, several studies show we are losing insects along the food chain at an alarming rate. Last year’s census of California’s western Monarch butterflies has found an 86 percent decline from the previous year. Global populations of vertebrates have fallen by 60 percent in four decades, and up to almost 90 percent in some regions.

The world faces mounting challenges to produce affordable, nutritious food for a growing population. Over 800 million people still go hungry every day. Meanwhile, some 2 billion people are overweight or obese worldwide. Noncommunicable diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes, are now the number one cause of mortality worldwide, with unhealthy diets and malnutrition among the top three risk factors.

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As the global population grows, diets become more westernized, and climate change impacts increase, the world will need to produce more food on less land, in less stable conditions. Yet it is a false dichotomy to choose between producing food and protecting biodiversity. Thriving ecosystems enable us to grow food, while greater genetic diversity in the crops we grow can increase yields and even improve the nutritional quality of foods.

Governments should integrate biodiversity into dietary guidelines and land-use policy regulations. This would include, for example, engaging in the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project; reforming unfavorable regulations in forestry, farming, and rural codes; and supporting the transition to sustainable agricultural practices with farmers and the global community.

At the same time, businesses can diversify their ingredients and agricultural processes by, for example, mainstreaming indigenous grains, deploying their marketing expertise to inform consumers about the importance of sustainable production and diverse diets, and integrating both conservation and sustainable agricultural practices into their supply chains.

Yet the world has the means to conserve and sustainably use the services and resources offered by biodiversity to feed future generations.

Let’s start with crop diversification. Just four crops — wheat, maize, rice, and soybean — make up two-thirds of the world’s food supply. A wider range of crops could support more diverse diets, increasing access to the full range of nutrients essential to human health.

Today, tens of thousands of crops remain underutilized, offering the potential to make our food system more nutritious and our farm systems more sustainable and resilient to climate change.

There is also scope to diversify the way we grow our food. Trees provide services such as fixing nitrogen and increasing carbon in soils, regulating water, and controlling erosion, which can increase crop resilience and productivity. Preserving forests while also utilizing them for food is possible.

Rwanda has grasped the multiple benefits offered by agroforestry: The government has cited the technique as one of the key means to achieve its target of restoring 2 million hectares of land by 2030.

Meanwhile, businesses are increasingly combining production with protection. For example, France’s Groupe Michelin and Indonesia’s PT Barito Pacific have launched the joint venture PT Royal Lestari Utama, which aims to finance a sustainable rubber plantation using less than half of the project’s 88,000-hectare degraded forest for rubber, leaving the rest for conservation, restoration, and community programs.

What role for development actors in global food system overhaul?

Scientists have charted an ambitious new plan to transform the global food system by 2050. For the plan to succeed, the development community will need to join governments, businesses, and consumers.

Similarly, a wide range of regenerative practices such as crop rotation, cover crops, reducing or eliminating tillage, and using natural predators to manage pests can help nourish crops and avoid disease with lower impacts on the environment.

Finally, reducing global meat consumption is one of the most effective ways to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. As diets westernize, global meat consumption is forecast to increase 76 percent by 2050. Yet many people in developing countries suffer from protein deficiencies.

While poorly managed aquaculture can disrupt ocean ecosystems and damage biodiversity, fish and seafood are healthy sources of protein; combined with other measures, including more plant-based diets, sustainably farmed fish can contribute to meeting our nutritional needs.

Biodiversity underpins our agricultural systems, and there are increasing examples of farming practices that leverage natural capital to grow yields, increase resilience, and improve farmer livelihoods. The Aichi Biodiversity Targets provide a framework for action across systems: agreed to by the world’s governments in 2010, they set out 20 time-bound measurable biodiversity targets to be met by 2020. Actors from across sectors must act now to scale up and replicate successful farming models to meet the demands of a growing population sustainably.

These measures are not only aligned with our global commitments for sustainable development but with the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition, which provides governments with an opportunity to play a leadership role in harnessing biodiversity for healthier, more sustainable, and resilient sustainable food systems.

We have the knowledge and the tools to produce enough nutritious, diverse food for a growing population while protecting the nature on which our systems depend. We now need the will to do so.

About the author

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    Cristiana Pasca Palmer

    Cristiana Pasca Palmer is executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity and ambassador to the Food & Land Use Coalition. She is former vice-president of the UN Environmental Assembly’s Bureau.