Climate change is dramatically reducing the biodiversity and functioning of our ecosystems. At the same time, this biodiversity loss reduces the ability of ecosystems to regulate climate. Food systems are caught in the middle of these two global crises, being both a key driver and major victim. “Shifting to nature-positive food systems offers us an enormous opportunity to address these global crises while also improving the health, nutrition and resilience of our food systems,” says Jeanne Nel, programme leader Biodiverse Environment.
Currently, the food system is the single largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, accounting for a third of all emissions. Agriculture is also responsible for 80% of global deforestation and accounts for 70% and 50% of terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity loss. “But we can turn this negative spiral around if our food systems become nature-positive,” Jeanne Nel proposes. “This is entirely feasible if we think systemically about the global challenges we face”, says Nel. According to Wageningen University & Research (WUR) researchers, there are some key entry points to achieving this.
How? A critical entry point includes bringing diversity back in fields, farms, landscapes and seascapes. WUR invests in agroecology and how to apply it in farms and fields. For example, strip cropping, diversification of crops and breeding programmes, nature-inclusive farming, agroforestry and earning models based on farmer performance. Nel: “We want a mixture of different kinds of land use, based on what the ecosystem allows in a specific area and what people need. A patchwork landscape of for example greenhouses, or nature corridors or dairy farming. As long as we get rid of this monoculture mentality.”
Another entry point is for consumers to have a better understanding of how and where our food is produced. “Our food choices need to change if we are to journey towards a net-zero and nature-positive future. Food is a powerful connector – we all have to eat. Switching to a planetary diet is urgently needed to address both climate change and biodiversity loss”, says Nel.
A more sustainable planetary diet includes less meat, more plant-based proteins, fruits, vegetables and nuts. “Healthy food environments can drive the demand for nature-positive food by ensuring it is the affordable and most convenient option. For example in schools, shopping aisles and along busy transit routes.”
Inclusive finance and trade
But that’s only a part of the solution. Nel stresses: “So many measures that attempt to change food systems target where we see the problem: the farmers and consumers. But I feel that this is shifting the attention from where the power really is concentrated: the ‘hidden middle’ of the food chain. Small changes in this hidden middle – by investors, lenders, processors, retailers, branders – could have a huge influence on the journey towards nature-positive food systems.”
Researchers can also play a role by identifying the most relevant and most influential players in the food system. They can test scenarios of proposed interventions to understand whether these may shift negative effects to vulnerable people if implemented, or have unintended negative outcomes for nature. Nel: “Researchers should be part of the discussions to find ways to measure and evaluate nature-related risks to finance and trade. What practices are causing undue harm to nature and present systemic risks to the financial sector? And how can these be included in investment portfolios?”
There’s also the question of how to make everyone’s voices heard. “What’s missing from the EU Farm to Fork strategy and EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 are processes to connect communities. So you just get more and more polarisation as power becomes more concentrated. People with different perspectives need to come into a dialogue, make sense of things and be able to influence decisions that are being made in the food system. It’s a central role that government has to play in bringing together different voices into decision-making, beyond the usual suspects and siloes. Inclusive decision-making helps to break the concentrations of power. Bring in voices that have values that are aligned to nature and people.”
Though the challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change are immense, there is no need to feel absolutely powerless, according to Nel. “You can become an active food citizen. Join local initiatives, for example shop at local markets, get to know your producers, or join a cooking club that experiments with nature-positive foods. Buy deforestation-free products, because stopping deforestation alone would be a massive leap forward on the nature-positive journey. Stop accepting the unhealthy food environment we were raised in.”
Because after all: “There is still time to turn the tide, if we work together. The food system can be saved. What we need now is to turn these promising words into specific collective actions and address the central role that public policy can play in supporting more inclusive decision-making – this is what our side event in COP27 will tackle.”