Nature today | Three for the price of one – a nature-positive food system for biodiversity, climate and food security

Last week, the World Wide Fund for Nature published the Living Planet Report 2022. The state of nature has been mapped together with almost a hundred international scientists, and the results leave nothing to the imagination.

Wildlife is declining: In less than 50 years, the population of wild animals has declined by an average of 69 percent. The report shows that the biodiversity crisis does not stand alone, but is closely linked to the climate crisis. For example, large-scale deforestation is a major cause of climate change, and heat, drought, wildfires and floods in turn have a major impact on nature and biodiversity.

Current food system at the base

Biodiversity loss and climate change are the common thread in the report, but the main cause is on our plate. The way we produce and consume food is the biggest cause of environmental loss and responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Forests and other natural areas are destroyed for the land needed for livestock farming and for the production of animal feed. And manure, fertilizers and pesticides pollute our soil, air and water. The planet’s viability is also coming under increasing pressure for us humans.

And perhaps worse, our current food system does not even do what it is intended to do: provide the world’s population with adequate and healthy food. On October 16 – World Food Day – the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations drew attention to food security. And we must come to the sad conclusion that hunger and food insecurity are not decreasing, but increasing. Currently, 345 million people in the world suffer from severe acute hunger, which is 200 million more than in 2019. Our food system therefore scores not once, not twice, but three times as unsatisfactory.

Unevenly distributed

If we dig a little deeper, we see what is at the root of this: an unequal distribution of food worldwide, both of benefits and burdens. A clear example of this is the production and consumption of meat and dairy products.

A third of arable land worldwide is used for the production of animal feed, while this land can also directly provide food for humans. No less than 36 percent of the calories from the global production of grain, soy, corn and other field crops is used as animal feed. While meat and dairy products only contribute 12 percent to the calories for human consumption. And if you look at who consumes this meat and dairy products, it is primarily the population of the rich western countries, where the average meat and dairy consumption per per capita is much higher than in the poorer southern countries. In Europe, for example, we eat twice as much meat on average as in Africa.

This reality has led to perverse situations: of the highly recognized grain agreement between Ukraine and Russia, half of the grain shipped did not go to hunger hot spots, but to rich countries. Corn used as animal feed for our meat industry. Cattle and soy farming – the latter is mainly used as animal feed – are also by far the biggest driving forces behind deforestation and nature destruction. Partly because of this, livestock farming is responsible for two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

The harsh reality is that the poorest countries are often hardest hit by the consequences of the loss of nature and a changed climate. As the recent floods in Pakistan show. At the same time, these are the countries where meat consumption is the lowest, and therefore contribute the least to nature loss and climate change due to what we eat.

Nature-positive food system: good for biodiversity and people

An important key to a fairer and more sustainable food system, and thus to solving the biodiversity, climate and food security crisis, therefore lies in the way we produce and consume food.

  1. We must stop global deforestation and the destruction of wild animals for the production of our food and especially animal feed.
  2. The current agricultural land must be used better and more fairly for the production of food for people. This is possible by no longer using grain, soy and other crops suitable for humans as animal feed.
  3. We will have to reduce the consumption of animal proteins – especially in Western countries – by choosing plant-based alternatives more often. It’s also healthier. Governments, companies, supermarkets and other parties can actively stimulate this transition by making plant-based alternatives attractive and cheap. For example, by finally introducing the abolition of VAT on fresh vegetables.

But much more is needed, such as radically changing agricultural subsidies that still perpetuate destructive livestock systems, imposing taxes on animal feed and changing trade agreements. It is also important that we become more aware that we as consumers can make an important contribution to the solution by eating differently.

Leave no one behind and take everyone with you

The theme of World Food Day is leave none behind. I would like to add: and bring everyone. The shift to a fair and nature-positive food system benefits us all. And we all have a responsibility to contribute to this. As with the climate crisis, that responsibility must primarily be taken by the countries that have the largest share in it. As a major consumer and producer of meat and dairy products and a major importer of animal feed, the Netherlands plays an important role in this.

Scientists, progressive farmers, nature organizations and consumers have a clear and unambiguous vision of what a healthy and sustainable food system could look like in the Netherlands. Let’s use the momentum and the tens of billions reserved for the transformation of agriculture and tackling the climate to show that it is possible! Like three for the price of one: a nature-positive food system for nature, climate and food security.

Text: Natasja Oerlemans, World Wildlife Fund
Photo: World Wide Fund for Nature

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