Food production is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, but with the adoption of planet-based diets and by taking an integrated approach, there is much we can do to tackle food insecurity, climate change and the loss of nature
The world is in a state of flux and we are at the crossroads for our future. We face many challenges. Exacerbated by conflict and a pandemic, we are in the grip of long-standing food security, climate change and nature-loss crises. The reality is that these issues – often treated separately – are in fact fully integrated. We can only achieve human and environmental health for all if we address the challenges together. Transforming food systems is perhaps our biggest chance to do so.
What we are eating and producing is healthy for neither people nor the planet. More than 2 billion people are obese or overweight and food-related diseases are the leading cause of premature mortality. At the other end of the spectrum, more than 820 million people go hungry every day. Yet we are destroying our planet to maintain these inefficient, unequal food systems. Food production is the primary driver of biodiversity loss (approximately 70% on land and 50% in freshwater) and the biggest cause of deforestation and conversion (approximately 80%), and it is responsible for around 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps most worryingly, perpetuating this destructive approach actually decreases food security further. In a warmer world, we are forecast to have less productive land, shorter growing seasons, lower yields and food of lower nutritional density. So we will have less food and it will be of poorer quality.
Recipe for success
This is a stark reality. But the good news is that food can be part of the solution – not just to reducing premature mortality and nourishing people, but also to limiting climate change and restoring nature. Food systems can provide benefits to people and planet if we adopt nature-positive production practices at scale, shift to healthier and more sustainable diets, and radically reduce the amount of food lost or wasted, because currently 40% of all food produced goes uneaten. For instance, if everyone adopted planet-based diets (which consist of a wide variety of foods all produced with nature-positive practices, a higher proportion of plants than animals, and as many fresh, low-processed foods as possible), we could reduce food-based greenhouse gas emissions by at least 30%, food-based biodiversity loss by up to 46%, agricultural land use by at least 41% and premature mortality by at least 20%. And because diets rely on local contexts and cultures, the development of local food systems can lead to community resilience by absorbing short-term shocks when global food supplies are disrupted – as happened recently with the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Success lies in taking a full food systems approach to help resolve the interconnected crises of food insecurity, climate change and nature loss. This means that we need to transform the three parts of the food system: production, consumption, and loss and waste. Tackling just one part of the system will not deliver environmental and human health for all.
One size doesn’t fit all
That said, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The Sustainable Development Goals and Rio Conventions provide global targets for human and environmental health. But when it comes to food, these must be downscaled to local contexts to enable the development of national pathways for food systems transformation. Every country is unique and national food systems exist in different cultural, culinary and social contexts. Countries need to gather evidence as to which levers across production, consumption and loss and waste have the most potential to deliver impact – for local environmental, public health and social goals.
By and large, actions that are good for human health are good for environmental health. But in some instances, there will be trade-offs. Shifts in consumption could lead to challenges for farmers; economic impacts for countries and shifts in traditional values. It is imperative that such trade-offs are identified and impacts minimised and mitigated, with those affected supported through transitions. This can only be done by exploring solutions at a national and even sub-national level.
It is impossible to consider human and environmental health separately. Each is driven by the other, and significantly affected by food security, climate change and nature loss. Transforming food systems provides us with the biggest opportunity to concurrently address the triple challenge of nourishing everyone within planetary boundaries, limiting global warming to 1.5°C and restoring nature to historic levels. Health for all depends on a transformed food system that works for people as much as it does for the planet.