The global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss and species extinction, and a shift to plant based diets is needed to curb the damage being done to nature, according to a new report.
Biodiversity, which is crucial to both human well-being and a healthy planet, is declining faster than at any time in human history, the report from think tank Chatham House said.
Agriculture is driving this destruction, threatening 86% of the 28,000 species at risk of extinction, researchers said in a report launched Wednesday with the UN’s environment program.
Cheap food is at the center of this devastation, researchers said: Low cost food is reliant on our use of fertilizer, pesticides, energy, land and water, and use of unsustainable farming methods.
But the low cost of food production creates a “vicious circle,” creating a demand for further cheap food, which must be produced through intense and harmful methods, researchers warn.
“The more we drive food production, the cheaper food becomes, and the more our diets become dominated by a smaller number of crops grown intensively and at scale,” Tim Benton, Chatham House’s research director in emerging risks and one of the report’s authors, told CNN in an email.
Intensified agricultural production also degrades soils and ecosystems, rendering land less productive and requiring even more intensive methods of farming to keep up with demand.
“As we grow more food, it becomes economically rational to waste it, over eat the calories and feed grain to livestock so we can eat more meat. Fueling demand further leads to the expectation that supply will grow and prices will fall, leading to more land conversion and more intensification,” he said.
The way we produce food isn’t only threatening the Earth’s biodiversity, researchers warn. Accounting for around 30% of human-produced emissions, our food systems are also driving climate change.
The planet needs more ‘plant-heavy’ diets
In order to counter biodiversity loss, researchers say that we need to shift towards plant-heavy diets because of the disproportionate impact that animal agriculture has on biodiversity, land use and the environment.
“Eating healthily is about eating the right amount of the right foods,” Benton said, adding that a healthy diet is rich in plants like fruit, vegetables, leafy greens and pulses, whole grains, and limited livestock produce and low in ultra processed fats, sugars and starches.
“With under 50% of the world a healthy weight, and overweight and obesity becoming the main determinants of long term health, eating less on average reduces the land footprint of diets.
“Eating more plant protein reduces it further,” he said, adding that 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of tofu takes on average 1/75th the land to produce than 100 grams of beef.
The researchers also said that more land should be preserved for nature, and protected from use for agriculture.
Farming must be done in a way that supports biodiversity, experts said, moving away monoculture practices – creating areas that are covered by a single crop – and limiting inputs.
Almost a third of the Earth will need to be protected by 2030 and pollution cut by half to save our remaining wildlife, as we enter the planet’s sixth era of mass extinction, a United Nations agency has warned.
Time and again, scientists, experts and environmentalists have warned that the Earth has reached a crucial tipping point – recent research from the World Wildlife Fund found the world’s wildlife populations have fallen by an average of 68% in just over four decades, with human consumption behind the devastating decline.
In 2010, leaders from 196 countries gathered in Japan and agreed on a list of biodiversity targets designed to save the Earth – but in September, 10 years later, a UN panel concluded that the world had collectively failed to fully achieve a single target.
“Biodiversity provides an enormous range of things upon which we depend in subtle and not so subtle ways. From the way soil microbes break down organic matter and build soil fertility, to natural enemies eating pests or pollinators enabling much of our fruit and veg supply; trees generating oxygen and sucking up carbon dioxide,” Benton said.
“Biodiversity also is important for mental well-being, as lockdown has emphasized: the sound of birdsong is enough to lift our moods.”