Human Food System Impacting Nature

The natural world is headed for catastrophe unless we reduce food waste, improve our diets and diversify our calorie sources. At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, two of the key frames of discussion were how to help our planet and how to shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As entire socio-economic structures are disrupted, more cooperative approaches across sectors and geographies will be required to bridge the gaps and build a sustainable future. The food system is one global structure ripe for transformation.

For too long, we have tried to close gaps while thinking about ‘either-or’ situations. Evolving as a human race has come at a cost to nature, with it being pitted against industrialisation, technology, travel and so on. But now we need a new deal, one in which humans and the planet thrive together. Nowhere is this more true than in the food system: it must deliver nutrition while protecting biodiversity; it must utilize and protect natural resources; it must ensure both human and planetary health. Nature can no longer suffer from how we produce, consume and waste food.

The good news is recent studies have shown that if we significantly reduce food waste, improve farming practices and technologies, and shift our diets, it is possible to keep the food system within planetary boundaries. Halving food loss and waste could reduce the sector’s environmental impact by up to a sixth. Global scaling of currently available agricultural technologies could approximately halve the impacts on cropland use, freshwater extraction and fertilizer use. Of particular importance is dietary change – greenhouse gas emissions from food production could be cut by more than half if mainly plant-based diets with modest meat consumption were adopted globally.

However, this evolution of diet should not mean universally eliminating certain foodstuffs. We must always be adaptable to what is locally available and affordable. Diets are highly personal and influenced by local cultures and individual choices. We can’t become prescriptive about what people eat, but it is possible for every person on the planet to consciously choose foods with lower environmental impact – we can work together to encourage diets that are balanced and better.

When we consider balance, the first and most logical step is to get the right nutrition by ensuring we eat within national dietary guidelines. Beyond that, for the sake of our planet’s health, we can either replace foods with the heaviest environmental impact, or reduce the impacts of the foods we eat, or both. For instance, diversifying our sources of protein can help tackle land-use and emissions, while expanding the variety of plants we eat can help protect biodiversity. It might surprise some that we get more than 50% of our plant-based calories from just three crops – even though more than 5,000 crops have been used for food historically.

A balanced diet must be supplemented by ensuring that our foodstuffs are better produced – in a sustainable manner and ideally consumed seasonally and locally. If we look closely at our diets, most of us will realize plenty of our food does not fit this criteria. One of the issues consumers face is reliable traceability. In an example of how technological revolution can benefit the planet, WWF and BCG Digital Ventures have recently launched a blockchain-based initiative to make traceability easier. With just a mobile phone, consumers can track where their food came from and how it travelled to their plate.

On the subject of animal protein, meat is a source of nutrition and livelihoods, but when it is better produced it goes beyond this: it not only maintains nature, but enhances it. There are many landscapes and biomes that are either unsuitable for agriculture, or would require large-scale conversion to cropland to generate food. Some are natural grasslands that do not need to be converted for ranching. By managing them as pastures and using them for meat, we can avoid converting other areas – tropical forests, for example. At the same time, by grazing and naturally fertilizing these lands, livestock will ensure healthy grass and high-quality soil. The increased ability to store water, sequester carbon and provide habitat for biodiverse flora and fauna helps to somewhat mitigate the climate impact of enteric fermentation. Meat (like any food) will always have an environmental footprint, but these positive aspects are being increasingly recognized.

There are things we can all do to get us closer to a food system that protects nature and provides healthy, nutritious food for all. Clearly, as consumers we can make the effort to choose balanced and better diets, we can help save the third of food that is wasted by changing how we shop, cook and eat, and we can demand the same production ethics from those who grow, source and supply us our food. But businesses, governments and financers cannot afford to wait for consumer pressure to take action. The food system is the single biggest threat to the environment, so we need to act. Everyone must look beyond self-serving short-term interests to implement policies and practices that drive diversification of what is grown, a more sustainable approach to farming and ranching, and distribution and pricing structures that ensure produce is economically viable for producers and available and affordable for the masses.

As we strive for better and balanced diets, we must be realistic in how they can actually be applied in places with different eating habits. Our food system is undoubtedly globalized, but we can’t try to apply global solutions to local food cultures. Increasingly, a global diet is envisaged, but recommendations must take into account local accessibility and food cultures. Families can’t always replace high-impact foods in their diet; they need to eat what they can produce or buy locally. Their health and nutrition should be put first, but an appropriate solution would be to also help them better understand the impacts of what they eat so that they can find their own pathway to a more sustainable diet.

Like our planet, the food system is currently in the red; it is extracting more than can be sustained and we are pushing nature to the brink. Without concerted action, the environmental impact of the food system could increase by 50-90% by 2050. We can no longer think on ‘either-or’ lines – there is simply no sustainable alternative to a food system that ensures the health of people and planet.

As Sir David Attenborough reminded us during Davos, nature isn’t just nice to have. “We have to recognise that every breath of air we take, every mouthful of food we take comes from the natural world.” For our food system to prosper, the 4IR must be underpinned by a new deal for nature and people. That will be the truly revolutionary element of our progress as a species – we will be serving our planet as well as ourselves.

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