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OPINION: Why our broken food system is overshooting the Earth's planetary boundaries

Thursday, 29 July 2021 09:17 GMT

A dairy cow of the Holstein breed stands in a field in Montitier, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, near Le Mont-Saint-Michel, France April 18, 2020. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The global food system is the main driver of the ecological and climate crises pushing natural systems beyond the boundaries of a safe operating space for humanity

Jeremy Coller is chair of the $40-trillion FAIRR investor network, Johan Rockström is professor at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam, and Dr. Gunhild Stordalen is founder and executive chair of EAT.

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date in the year when the annual capacity of our planet to regenerate what we take from it is used up. Beyond this point, we eat into our planet's natural capital. That day comes earlier every year, and our food systems are at the heart of this.

We are fast depleting the Earth’s planetary resources that provide the basis for human wellbeing, development, and resilience against shocks. Many of these systems, from forests to coral reef systems, took millennia to establish.

Worryingly, this summer has seen a series of mega-extreme events: from record heat in British Columbia and Siberia to unprecedented flooding in Western Europe, China and India.

Food systems shape societies and determine economic opportunity, but also drive the rapid spread of diet-related illness and threaten the vital ecosystem services - including clean air, fresh water, soil formation, pollination and climate stability - that make possible equitable prosperity and human existence itself.

A safe operating space for humanity

The global food system is the single largest cause of the ecological and climate crises pushing Earth systems beyond the boundaries of a safe operating space for humanity.

There are nine planetary boundaries that define the planet’s biological and physical systems. Of these, four have been transgressed. The impact is clear in the rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and infectious disease spillover from wildlife whose own safe habitats are disappearing - COVID-19 being one example.

Animal agriculture plays an oversized role, with livestock using up nearly 80% of agricultural land. Beef requires 20 times more land and releases 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per gramme of edible protein than common plant proteins, making agriculture responsible for a staggering 25% of global emissions.

Agriculture is the leading cause of biodiversity loss, driving 80% of global deforestation between 2000 and 2010. Moreover, nutrient pollution affecting marine ecosystems across the world is caused primarily by the overuse of chemical fertilisers.

The risks for the financial sector are huge. One study found that the global food sector is actually generating more in hidden costs like environmental damage, malnutrition and disease ($12 trillion) than it generates in market value ($10 trillion).

Pandemic risks are rising

As pressure on nature increases due to agricultural expansion, the risk of new and potentially far more dangerous pandemics than COVID-19 is growing. FAIRR's research found that over 70% of the world’s largest protein-producing companies are ranked as ‘high risk’ on pandemic risk factors.

The cost of the current pandemic could set back the global economy by as much as $82 trillion in the next five years.

There will be no protection from pandemics until we build a resilient planet by fixing our broken food system. The G20 must move toward a coordinated action agenda - recognising the One Health standard - that encompasses the wellbeing of ecosystems as essential to human health.

How sustainable finance can offer solutions

Hidden costs driven by industrial food systems pose a devastating threat to human health, the health of nature and the viability of our entire financial system and the wider economy.

The Dasgupta Review highlights that our future prosperity is reliant on our natural ecosystems. It calls for public and private financial flows that enhance natural assets, whilst phasing out those that degrade ecosystems.

We are now so late in correcting course that new investment must shift to climate-smart priorities to maximise return on investment. Many investors already recognise ESG risks in current food systems and the need to shift to a more sustainable model - and the urgency of improving overall value creation presents the biggest financial opportunity in history.

Its time for food to join the race to net-zero

We have roughly one generation in which to turn the tide. Nations, banks and funds will rise and fall based on whether the crossing of planetary boundaries can be addressed.

To do this, we must make sure the way we produce food is aligned with environmental goals, for instance by cutting methane emissions from livestock and preventing the expansion of agriculture into natural ecosystems. 

Research also shows that a global shift to plant-rich diets and sustainable protein products will improve public health and help stabilise the climate.

National commitments to curbing climate change and reversing biodiversity loss are impossible to achieve without transforming the world’s food system.

Its time for food to join the race to net-zero emissions by mid-century - to protect global food security and the health of people and ecosystems for generations to come.