OPINION: More biodiverse food systems will help address climate and nature crises

Sunday, 29 August 2021 17:37 GMT

Francisca (L) serves plates with food to pupils during class recess at Sao Jose school in Morro Do Veridiano, Belagua Municipality, Maranhao state, Brazil, October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

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

The ways we feed ourselves - through just a few crops and animals - are unsustainable for people and planet

João Campari is global food practice leader at WWF, and Juan-Lucas Restrepo is global director for partnerships & advocacy with agricultural research network CGIAR, and director general at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT.

As you read this, representatives from 196 nations are negotiating a global framework for nature that the world will adopt at COP15, a key United Nations’ summit on biodiversity, due to end in May.

Known as the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, it is expected to do what the 2015 Paris agreement did for climate – set targets that nations must meet to ensure global warming does not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius.

For the Framework to succeed, we must address one area that continues to be ignored: our food systems. That is how we produce, process, distribute and consume food.

Our climate, biodiversity and food systems are inextricably linked. Food systems cause huge biodiversity losses, account for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, and leave 2 billion people with unhealthy diets, even as 40% of all food produced goes uneaten. The ways we feed ourselves – through just a few crops and animals – are unsustainable for people and planet.

Major upcoming forums, such as the UN conferences on biodiversity (COP15), climate (COP26), and food (UN Food Systems Summit), provide an opportunity to align top-level priorities and global commitments. Although preparations for the Food Systems Summit have highlighted the urgency in integrating food, climate and nature, food systems are not a priority in other forums.

We must remedy this and integrate food targets in climate and biodiversity agreements, to make food systems nature-positive, with net-zero emissions, by 2030.

Targets can go further

The existing draft of the Framework includes a target to ensure that all food-producing areas are managed sustainably and ecosystems are protected and restored. But it can go further to advocate for nature-based solutions such as agroecology, agroforestry, regenerative agriculture practices and diversification.

These solutions can rival monoculture activities in producing calories and nutrients for human consumption, and support healthier soils and waterways. Evidence shows these practices can also benefit the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, who are disproportionately hit by climate and food crises.

Addressing the way we produce is critical - but we must also address how we consume food. The draft text of the agreement targets encouraging responsible consumer choices, halving food waste, and reducing overconsumption. Again, the Framework must go further.

Nations must halve the footprint of their diets by transitioning to healthier, more sustainable patterns of consumption. This transition alone can reduce agricultural land use by at least 41% and wildlife loss by up to 46%, and reduce premature deaths by at least 20%.

Transforming food systems is central to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, but it is also the right thing to do for people, national budgets and the economy. A new WWF report shows transitioning to sustainable models of production and consumption can create millions of new nature-positive jobs; provide health benefits, including reducing the risk of future pandemics; and enhance food security.

Solutions that work

Of course, targets are not enough - we must promote real action. The Framework must set up clear delivery and accountability mechanisms, with robust multi-stakeholder processes at national, regional and global levels.

Examples of how integrated action can deliver benefits for people, climate and nature already exist. In recent years, CGIAR worked with Brazil, Kenya and Sri Lanka to reintroduce neglected and underutilized crops by including them in school meals and public procurement policies, updating food-based dietary guidelines, and promoting sustainable gastronomy. After seeing marked improvements in human and environmental health, the Brazilian and Kenyan Governments approved national policies to promote conservation and sustainable use of food biodiversity.

In Paraguay, WWF worked with a cooperative of female landowners to revitalize parts of the Atlantic Forest, one of the world’s top five biodiversity hotspots. To combat deforestation driven by the expansion of soy plantations and livestock production, hundreds of thousands of native Yerba Mate trees were planted to prevent soil erosion, provide alternative nutritious crops, and alleviate poverty.

Superfoods from the trees provided the women with access to new markets domestically and overseas, while planting community gardens alongside them afforded access to nutritious foods - all while helping protect nature and climate.

Such work needs funding and support. Upcoming forums will be crucial in catalysing action and unlocking funding that enable policymakers to translate frameworks and development goals into solid work on the ground.