Biodiversity loss is accelerating around the world. The global rate of species extinction today is orders of magnitude higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years.
The global food system is the primary driver of this trend. Over the past 50 years, the conversion of natural ecosystems for crop production or pasture has been the principal cause of habitat loss, in turn reducing biodiversity.Chatham House, Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss, Feb 2021
Contrary to how it might appear, we’re fully aware here at The War on Wildlife Project that in strictly relative terms the impact of foxhunting and the UK’s shooting industry on tumbling global biodiversity is minor. That doesn’t mean for a second that we’re not going to keep hammering both of them, of course: we believe that the lives of individual animals matter; that the law should apply to all of us; and what our battered wildlife does NOT need is humans chasing and killing them for entertainment.
However, clearly neither of these things are why:
- 60% of wildlife has disappeared globally (we here in the UK are living in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world);
- wild animals now make up just 4% of all mammals by weight (cows and pigs now account for around 60% of all mammals, with humans making up 36%);
- vast areas of some of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet have been destroyed to grow soya or palm oil (in the 20 years between 1980 to 2000, 42 million hectares of tropical forest in Latin America were lost to cattle ranching, while 6 million hectares were lost to palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia – that destruction has continued to accelerate);
- our annual use of more than 3 million tonnes of pesticides is causing insect populations to crash around the world (and are taking with them everything that depends on insects during their lifetimes);
- Up to 70 % of the water we take from rivers and groundwater goes into irrigation (about 10% is used in domestic applications and 20% in industry) causing enormous wetland loss, diversion or damming of almost every single major river system in the world, and massive changes to ecosystems across the globe (the Colorado River, for example, which cut the Grand Canyon into the high plateau region of northwestern Arizona, has so much water taken from it that it hasn’t reached the Pacific Ocean for more than a decade).
No, that – according to a new report by the independent policy institute Chatham House – is all down to what we eat, and how we want what we eat to be cheaper and permanently available. ‘Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss‘ “explores the role of the global food system as the principal driver of accelerating biodiversity loss” and the authors explicitly state that “food production is degrading or destroying natural habitats and contributing to species extinction“.
They go on to explain how what they term the ‘cheaper food paradigm’ “has driven the expansion of agricultural land and intensive farming. Failure to account for the environmental cost of food production has led to habitat destruction and pollution, driving wildlife loss”. Essentially, our global food system is a vicious circle of cheap food, where low costs drive a bigger demand for food and more waste. More competition then drives costs even lower through more clearing of natural land and use of polluting fertilisers and pesticides.
Agriculture is now the main threat to 86% of the 28,000 species known to be at risk of extinction.
Without change, the Report says, the loss of biodiversity will continue to accelerate and threaten the world’s ability to sustain humanity – not perhaps the priority we’d like to see highlighted, but continuing the trend of relating massive biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and the sixth mass extinction to how it might affect us humans (who have caused all these issues) rather than to wiping out the majority of non-human life on the planet. (Perhaps we should call this site The Self-inflicted War on Humanity Project and be done with it…)
So, can we do anything about these urgent and critically-important problems?
The answers are – on the surface – fairly simple, but (most of us, no doubt, suspect) will probably take far too long to be taken up by the majority of the world’s human population and have almost no chance at all of becoming official government policy (because, you know, the ‘freedom of choice’ to wipe us all out is far too important for that).
- We need to shift to plant-based diets because cattle, sheep and other livestock have the biggest impact on the environment (a switch from beef to beans by the US population would free up fields equivalent to 42% of US cropland for other uses such as rewilding or more nature-friendly farming).
- We need to farm in a less intensive and damaging way while accepting lower yields (organic yields – which use no fertilizers or pesticides – are on average still around 75% of those of intensive farming but far less harmful).
- And we need to restore native ecosystems to increase biodiversity (leading biologists have suggested that governments should protect a third of the oceans and land by 2030 and half by 2050).
For any food producer frothing at the mouth at these outrageous suggestions, it’s probably worth adding that 1) in fact enough food is already produced to feed a human population of more than ten billion (growing food solely for human consumption, without first feeding it to farmed animals, would increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional four billion people) and 2) around a staggering third of all our food is wasted before being consumed. For example:
- nearly half of all fruit & vegetables produced globally are wasted each year
- UK households waste an estimated 6.7 million tonnes of food every year (around one-third of the 21.7 million tonnes purchased).
- in Sub-Saharan Africa post-harvest food losses are estimated to be enough to feed at least 48 million people.
- China wastes 50 million tonnes of grain annually (one-tenth of the country’s total grain output).
Reducing food loss and waste by 50 per cent, according to ‘Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss‘ could reduce environmental pressures (in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, use of cropland, and use of water, nitrogen and phosphorus) by 16 per cent, taking into account the anticipated increase in food demand by 2050. Reducing food loss and waste by 75 per cent could yield a 24 per cent decline in environmental pressures. If diets were optimized to minimize their environmental footprint, the pressure on cropland could be reduced by as much as half.
On top of that, fixing the global food system would also tackle the climate crisis, the report says. Our current system causes about 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions, with more than half coming from animals. Changes to food production could also tackle the ill health of 3 billion people (almost half the world’s population), who either have too little to eat (food distribution is chaotic in many poorer countries and small-scale farmers are sometimes forced into producing food for export and have little space left to grow food for themselves) or are overweight or obese (the fifth leading risk for global death, most of the world’s population now live in countries where being overweight and obese kills far more people than being underweight).
The Chatham House Report notes in a section titled ‘Recommendations for action in 2021′:
A year of unique opportunity for food system redesign is in prospect in 2021. A series of major international forums and conferences will take place throughout the year, focusing on biodiversity, food systems, nutrition and climate change. Nature and food systems will be a common thread at each of these events. Also, in the face of a global recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic, world leaders will need to address the root causes of that crisis – both as a public health crisis arising from a zoonotic disease, and as an economic and social crisis exacerbated by the interconnected and fragile nature of food systems – and discuss options for economic recovery.
Call us cynical (many critics do), but let’s remind ourselves for example how many of the ten-year targets agreed by almost 200 governments at the 2010 UN Convention on Biological Diversity have been fully met. That would be – er, none. A United Nations report published in 2020 revealed that only six of the “Aichi targets” for 2020 were partially achieved – the other fourteen, such as eliminating subsidies that are driving biodiversity loss or halving the rate at which natural habitats are being lost, have been completely missed.
As a species we are often described as being good at pulling ourselves off the edge of the precipice, but that appears to be some sort of received wisdom rather than anything based in evidence.
The current hogging of the Covid-19 vaccines by the wealthiest countries in the world, the denials of and inertia over tackling climate change, and decades of strong warnings that we are heading towards/are beginning to enter/are now in a human-caused mass extinction falling largely on deaf ears seems to point to ‘Homo sapiens’ not being all that wise after all. We’ll just have to see if anyone is listening this time…