Biodiversity in Food Systems

As we grapple with the challenges of feeding the growing world population without destroying our planet, agendas are increasingly turning to the role of biodiversity in food systems. Biodiversity at all levels – genetic, species and ecosystems – is the basis of our food system, yet our comprehension of its role is often overlooked or undervalued. WUR delivers world-leading research in both food and biodiversity. Its food systems approach acknowledges the many interlinkages between people, agriculture, biodiversity, water, health and climate change. WUR’s ambition is to leverage the role of biodiversity in this food systems thinking, and thus provide thought leadership that contributes to transforming our food systems and bending the curve of biodiversity loss.

Appreciation of interrelatedness

When it comes to tackling the challenges of integrating biodiversity into food systems, in thought and in action, there is no single or simple solution. Biodiversity and food systems are complex topics, even more so their interrelationships. Biodiversity in the food system is characterised by unpredictability, system interactions and feedbacks across multiple scales, from the farm to fork: across fields, farms, regional rural and urban landscapes, seascapes and a myriad of national and international political boundaries. A further layer of complexity is added by actors who interact across food value chains, from primary producers through to food processors, distributors, traders, financers and consumers.

Given the many interactions and feedbacks, there is an inevitable tension between jointly achieving the goals of food security, biodiversity conservation and human well-being. Interventions used to address food insecurity may inadvertently precipitate further biodiversity declines. Likewise, efforts to address biodiversity loss in isolation from food system considerations may ultimately undermine future food security and, therefore, human well-being. There is a need for a far better appreciation of the interrelatedness of different interventions and how they affect each other. By integrating and expanding current knowledge, WUR will increase its research efforts to create the change that is needed if we are to bend the curve of biodiversity loss. 

Strategic investment into common ground

Since the 1970s, the scope of WUR’s food systems research has been steadily expanding to include the development of farming systems that embrace principles from nature and emphasise all levels of biodiversity in food systems. While research has largely been conducted in either the food or biodiversity research domains, we are now seeing increasing convergence of these two domains at WUR. There is already a fair amount of research being carried out at WUR on biodiversity for food and agriculture.

However, these research efforts are fragmented, spanning isolated groups of researchers in different science groups. The various recommendations and innovations stemming from this research can be highly complementary or even counterproductive to each other. A more strategic investment – that explicitly seeks to build common ground between different research pathways – would greatly leverage our resources and position WUR as a global leader for translating food system knowledge, innovations and experimentations into action for the common good of society and our planet.  

Food systems approach and biodiversity

At WUR, we are steadily working towards understanding the interrelatedness of different interventions in the food system by integrating fundamental knowledge from the biological, agricultural, technological, social, political and economic sciences. Recent research indicates that linking these research domains and actively seeking synergies between them is likely to leverage multiple benefits for social, ecological, economic and technological development.

WUR’s ‘food systems approach’ already encompasses whole-systems thinking, inherently emphasising the complexity of joint delivery in relation to the outcomes related to a range of SDGs, such as: 1) sufficient food for everyone, 2) ensuring a healthy diet, 3) inclusiveness and equal benefits and 4) sustainability and resilience. WUR is already experimenting with the many pathways, barriers, enablers, interactions and dependencies for making these biodiversity-positive future visions of food systems a reality. The role of biodiversity is, therefore, increasingly recognised as both an important positive driver of food system performance and a highly valued emergent property.

Transition-based research for transformative change

To strengthen this work with more targeted biodiversity-food research investment, six interdisciplinary research topics have been identified and mapped onto WUR’s food system approach, with the aim of working towards food system transformations:

  1. Improving the use of crop and livestock diversity
  2. Biodiversity-friendly sourcing of raw materials
  3. Scaling up regenerative farming approaches that strengthen biodiversity
  4. Embedding biodiversity in circular approaches, nature-based solutions and footprints
  5. Incorporating biodiversity in diversifying and shifting diets
  6. Exploring social-ecological implications of fighting food loss and food waste

The six themes also jointly emphasise different aspects across the food value chain, from production, processing and distribution to retailing and consumer behaviour. The interdisciplinary nature of the six research themes is critical. Combining diverse research perspectives from biological, agricultural, technological, social, political and economic sciences allows for a broader exploration of the complementarities and contrasts of alternative options, at multiple spatial and temporal scales. Such an approach is much more likely to deliver transition-based research that responds to the collective well-being of society, thus offering diverse alternative pathways for transformative change related to biodiversity and food[1]. This approach to transformative change – which cuts across all six research themes – will contribute a biodiversity-food perspective to the broader transformative change pillar above.

[1] IPES Food: From Uniformity to Diversity