Biodiversity loss: Agriculture ‘threatening 86% of at-risk species’, says major UN-backed report

The report names the shift away from animal protein as a "lever" for changing the global food system for the better

Produced by think-tank Chatham House and endorsed by the UN, the ‘Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss’ report provides a harrowing snapshot of the ways in which current land-use systems are fuelling Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction.

Building on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark report on the impact of agricultural systems, which found that food and drink production has driven 75% of deforestation to date, the new report states that agriculture is the top threat for some 86% of the 28,000+ plant and animal species known to be at risk of extinction.  

The report names the conversion of natural ecosystems for new pasture and crop farms as the single biggest driver of habitat loss globally over the past 50 years. These facilities currently cover around half of the world’s habitable land.

While acknowledging that “the impacts on wildlife differ from one farming method to another”, the report warns that the negative impacts of rapidly scaling intensive farming are outweighing the benefits of more wildlife-friendly methods on a global scale. It states that governments and the private sector are fuelling a vicious circle which prioritises the over-production of cheap food over strong environmental requirements. While this has provided an economic boost in the past, losses are likely as problems with waste and soil quality persist. One-third of all food produced worldwide each year is wasted, and this challenge comes with a climate and social footprint as well as a resource footprint.

“Politicians are still saying ‘my job is to make food cheaper for you’, no matter how toxic it is from a planetary or human health perspective,” Chatham House profession Tim Benton said. “We must stop arguing that we have to subsidise the food system in the name of the poor and instead deal with the poor by bringing them out of poverty.”

Levers for change

While the scale of the challenge is clear, the report highlights the fact that solutions are available and that there is still a window of opportunity for implementation – so long as action is taken rapidly, holistically and at scale, and that it solves the root cause of systemic problems.

It identifies three “levers” for the creation of a more sustainable food system, the first being a change in dietary patterns that reduces waste and promotes plant-based diets. The report reiterates the fact that around 80% of global farmland is used to raise animals, but that meat only accounts for 18% of the calories eaten globally. By freeing up some of this land for plants, Chatham House argues, the pressure to clear new land for crops can be alleviated and, at the same time, progress can be made on nutrition. Bodies including the Lancet and the UK’s Climate Change Committee have repeatedly iterated the role that eating less meat and more plants can play in progress on these issues.

The second level is protecting and setting land aside for nature, because “even the most wildlife-friendly farming systems are less effective at supporting biodiversity than pristine or unmanaged ecosystems are.”  Solutions posed here include farmers setting aside land specifically for nature, either by sparing land or integrating “pockets” of rich habitats like hedgerows. Other businesses and governments must, Chatham House states, also support farmers with restoration projects that carefully consider the need for native species and maximise their carbon sequestration potential.

The third and final lever is shifting to more sustainable farming methods which can tackle issues like soil degradation, the over-use of fertiliser and pesticides and water security. Farmers can be supported to either incrementally reduce their footprints, to trial regenerative methods or to switch entirely to this approach, depending on their progress to date. Regenerative farming methods are designed to mimic natural systems and often involve practices like inter-cropping, cover-cropping, rotational grazing and low-till planting.

Dasgupta review

The publication of Chatham House’s report is hot on the heels of a major review into biodiversity, which experts have said could be as influential as the Stern review on climate change.

The UK Government commissioned Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta to lead an independent, global Review on the Economics of Biodiversity in Spring 2019.  The results, published this week, back up the case for Governments to assign a monetary value to natural resources like forests and healthy soil, allowing businesses to calculate the “true cost” of their decisions. Considerations of these costs in the private sector could then, potentially, be mandated.

edie will be producing a report on biodiversity and running a webinar to complement this in April. Watch this space.

Sarah George

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