Food and Water

How our food system is eating away at nature, and our future

Mexican farm workers carry crates of freshly picked avocados.

Draining aquifers … Mexican farm workers carry crates of freshly picked avocados. Image: REUTERS/Alan Ortega

João Campari
Global Practice Leader, Food, WWF International
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As you eat your next meal, ask yourself if you really know what you’re eating – not just the ingredients or where they came from, but what has gone into them. How much land was needed? How much water was used? How much energy was required? We need to ask ourselves these questions, because how we produce, consume and, sadly, waste food poses a massive threat to our future.

The 2018 edition of WWF’s Living Planet Report has just been published, and the news isn’t good. The Living Planet Index shows an average decline of 60% in population sizes of vertebrate species between 1970 and 2014. The dominant cause, along with overexploitation of our resources, is the food system.

The food system is Earth’s biggest user of land, taking up 34% of the planet. Our unrelenting quest for more food is hampering our planet’s ability to sustain itself. The production of crops such as sugar cane, soybean and palm oil has led directly to the clearing of 40% of the world’s once-forested land. The food system also uses 69% of all freshwater. The pursuit of popular commodities is draining aquifers and depriving communities of traditional water sources, such as in Petorca, Chile, where avocado farming has exploded to meet overseas demand. The food system is also the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, producing around 25%.

Our food footprint grows, while we squander a third of all we produce. Yes, one-third of the food we grow is never eaten. It is lost on farms and in the supply chain, or simply thrown away. It’s not just nutrients or money that goes in the bin, but also the water, energy and land that went into producing the food.

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With land being converted from its natural state and adversely affected by climate change, 75% of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems are seriously impacted by land degradation. Within that, cropland makes up 18% of already degraded land and 20% of degrading land. And because the land we already use for agriculture is underperforming, we’re increasing the pressure to convert more habitats.

Tied to degraded land, the health of our soil is a bigger threat than most would realize. Approximately one-quarter of all life on Earth exists underneath our feet. But poor agricultural practices and climate change are damaging this vital resource. Over-tillage, lack of crop rotation and unsustainable agri-inputs have combined to ensure we’ve lost 30% of our topsoil in the past 150 years. Not only does this erosion represent a vanishing home for numerous species, it also exacerbates climate change. The depletion of soil organic carbon has resulted in the release of as much as 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. In a vicious circle, the rising temperatures we’re experiencing further dry and degrade soils, and leave them simply to blow away in the wind.

Soil erosion isn’t the only way in which our food system is cannibalizing itself. Bees and other pollinators critical to global food security are also under increasing threat. Although 75% of global food crops benefit from pollination, intensive agricultural practices, along with climate change and invasive species, have dramatically impacted the abundance, diversity and health of pollinators.

Likewise with fish. FAO has estimated that fisheries and aquaculture alone assure the livelihoods of 10-12% of the world’s population, and that 4.3 billion people are reliant on fish for 15% of their animal protein intake. But overfishing is decimating our fish stocks, 93% of which are overfished or at critical limits.

This paints a bleak picture. But there is hope. We have the opportunity to transform our food system. We can evolve to a new way of producing, consuming and valuing food: Food 2.0.

Wildlife populations under pressure Image: WWF Living Planet Index 2018

Firstly, as consumers, we can influence the way food is produced by changing the way we eat. This involves moving to “balanced and better” diets, in which we eat a broad range of sustainably produced foods. It will look different in different parts of the world, as it’s impacted by what’s available. The focus must be on nutritious, fresh and local produce. Eating within national dietary guidelines is a largely achievable goal. It’s not only better for people, but also likely better for the planet.

We must also allow nothing to go to waste. That means shopping, cooking and serving more smartly. This applies to businesses too. Research from Champions 12.3 has shown that there is a business case for private sector transformation: for every $1 invested in preventing food waste, businesses can enjoy up to $14 of savings. More businesses are rectifying their wasteful approaches, including by using the WWF Hotel Kitchen methodology of “measure-prevent-divert”.

Looking at our food system from “planet to plate” calls for improving technical approaches at the farm level. By managing existing farmland better, we can restore soil quality, optimize productivity and bring disused land back into production. This reduces the need to convert forests, savannahs and mangroves. Working with the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund, an impact investment fund that blends resources from the private, public and philanthropic sectors, WWF is currently identifying projects with the potential for most impact on productivity and reducing pressures. We’re also working hand-in-hand with farmers, from Paraguay to Zambia to Indonesia, to introduce climate-smart agriculture with diversification of produce, crop rotation and sustainable inputs. This improves more than just soil health –it also improves food security and livelihoods.

To protect biodiversity, we must adopt landscape and seascape-scale planning and management to improve habitat variety and connectivity. The inclusion of non-agricultural habitats within land management plans can minimize species loss, boost populations and improve ecosystem services. WWF is working in several key landscapes and seascapes, including the Cerrado in Brazil, which is home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity.

Right now, the food system is eating up our world. We must make the changes that get us back to where the food system nourishes us all – people and planet. If we don’t transform the system, we won’t be able to feed everyone. Worse still, we may not have a planet. We must aim higher. Stakeholders must come together and work more closely across sectors, and with greater urgency, to integrate decision-making that will protect our planet and achieve a new deal for nature and people.

The 14th Conference of Parties (COP14) to the UN Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt in November could be our chance. More than 190 countries are meeting at what is being seen as the most important conference for nature. This offers us an unparalleled opportunity. From now until 2020 may be a decisive period in history. The time to act is now.

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Related topics:
Food and WaterIndustries in DepthSustainable DevelopmentNature and Biodiversity
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