Industrial food system is at the heart of biodiversity degradation and climate change

Industrial food system is at the heart of biodiversity degradation and climate change
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The industrial food system — that we humans have designed and built — is at the heart of biodiversity degradation, climate change, diet-related diseases, rampant inequality, supply chain inefficiencies and more. But if redesigned and rebuilt, our food system can be turned on its head so that it’s the source of the climate-resilient solutions we need, especially if we embrace nature- and people-based food and agriculture. 

As we celebrate World Food Day on Oct. 16 and consider how a changing planet affects access to nutrition, food production and distribution, the need for reform is clearer than ever. Up until now, a narrow focus on energy and transportation solutions to climate, while important, has prevented us from exploring and investing in indispensable mitigation and adaptation strategies that come from land and nature, such as the rapid uptake of regenerative agriculture and agroecology, using soil as a carbon sink, reducing food waste and adopting zero-deforestation policies and commitments. 

To do so, however, requires a food systems approach with a sharp focus on a number of critical priorities — not the least of which is governance, policy and finance. The economics of the food system is a particularly urgent priority. Unless we quickly shift the economic signals and incentives away from harmful policies and towards nature- and people-based solutions, we will not achieve the radical, transformative change at scale needed at this critical juncture.

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Take public subsidies. 

Decades of subsidies in countries around the world have changed the landscape of farming and food dramatically. These incentives are, largely and unequally, enjoyed by companies that have perpetuated harmful practices such as intensive livestock farming, the excessive promotion of ultra-processed food and chemical intensive agriculture. 

Not only has this resulted in huge negative environmental impacts like water pollution and soil erosion, but the proliferation of cheap, subsidized commodities like soy and corn actively feed intensive beef production operations as well, which emit almost 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. 

At the same time, our subsidy regimes further support the increased consumption of cheap processed foods, which are compounding health inequalities and driving dramatic rates of diet-related diseases across the globe built on the promise of rock bottom prices. An urgent case for reforming food and farming systems can also be made on the grounds of protecting human health.

By continuing to heavily subsidize particular crops, mainly corn and soy, as well as the industrial methods of producing these crops, we are simply continuing to fund and incentivize the wrong things. A recent report from the Food and Land Coalition (FOLU) highlights how just 1 percent of the $700 billion (£560bn) a year given to farmers is used to benefit the environment, the rest goes toward high-emission cattle production, forest destruction and pollution from the overuse of fertilizer. 

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Reforming and redirecting public subsidies to invest in nature-based solutions would have major benefits for ecosystem health and biodiversity, people’s livelihoods and wellbeing, and climate mitigation. It would also have benefits for the future of farmers and businesses that are on the right side of history working to amplify the positive impacts of their operations and eliminate the negative. 

Markets are waking up to this opportunity: new business leaders are emerging within the food sector. Take, for example, Eosta, which is dedicated to the production and importation of sustainable, organic, and fair-trade fruits and vegetables. They have relationships with over 1,000 growers in six continents providing full traceability of their products, promoting true cost accounting, and building a sustainable market with consumers. 

We are also seeing signs that investors are shifting their position and are reexamining how their money is being put to use. Around the world, private sector capital, including philanthropic investment, is actively, creatively, and increasingly being invested in ways that offer financial, environmental, and social returns. Take, for example, how 230 institutional investors (representing USD $16.2 trillion in assets) recently called on companies to take urgent action in light of the Amazon fires. Another example is the McKnight Foundation, based in Minnesota, that is investing $5M of its philanthropic endowment in Midwestern BioAg to help both large-scale and organic producers increase yields, boost profits and improve soil health, which, in turn, restores water quality of and reduces agricultural runoff into the Mississippi River.  

World Food Day is a powerful — and optimistic — moment to highlight the need for economic reform in the name of nature- and people-based food solutions. Many activists and others recognize that the climate emergency requires a sea change in the financing of food systems — from public and private sources. 

This involves redesigning and rebuilding food systems so that they deliver nutritious food for all, climate stability, well-functioning ecosystems, prosperity of all who produce food (including smallholders) and thriving rural communities. Those threatened by climate change need special attention to ensure that healthy diets, livelihoods, communities and value chains are protected and resilient. Progress was made at the 2019 Climate Action Summit, raising awareness of the power and potential of nature-based solutions, but there’s more to be done. 

Ultimately, decision-makers recognize that food systems need to change course: more and more are ready to grasp the opportunity and make it happen. Getting all the interests to agree on the shifts needed, and align, is not easy.  Some will worry that they are going to be left behind. It is vital that they are at the table, their concerns are heeded, and they are accompanied through change. The recipe is difficult and contentious, but this is no excuse for inaction. 

Ruth Richardson is the executive director of Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

David Nabarro is a co-facilitator of the Nature-Based Solutions workstream at the UN Climate Action Summit and a professor of Global Health at Imperial College London and director of 4SD.