The way we produce food is destroying both soil health and biodiversity, making it harder to feed our global population. So how can we feed people well, without jeopardising our ability to grow, asks Fiona Shaw?
Did you know that 2020 marked the end of the UN’s Decade on Biodiversity, which urged us to live in harmony with nature, halt the loss of wild species and preserve and manage nature’s riches for current and future generations? Yet in that decade, extinction got worse, not better. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is running now, until 2030. And yet…
Last year’s Chatham House report Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss, supported by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Compassion in World Farming, is unequivocal in showing that the global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. Agriculture alone, it says, is the threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 species at risk of extinction. That’s 86%. But what does that mean? Unless we change the way we produce food, biodiversity loss will continue to accelerate. And why does that matter? Because healthy ecosystems keep carbon and other greenhouse gasses in balance. So the continuing destruction of our ecosystems and habitats threatens our ability to sustain human populations.
As those UNEP stats show, our global food system poses a huge risk to biodiversity loss. Biodiversity covers everything living on earth – from the smallest bacterias to the largest mammals. But it’s the relationships between these lifeforms and their habitats – the delicate system of checks and balances, that produces oxygen in the atmosphere, plants forests and food and contributes to soil chemistry. An ecosystem that helps grow our food, sustain our atmosphere and protect us. So if biodiversity is under threat – and it is collapsing – then we’re in trouble.
On one hand… we need to grow food efficiently to feed a global population. On the other: the way we’re producing food threatens the very environment that allows us to grow it. So the question remains: how do we feed people well? In ways that doesn’t destroy the planet?Ultimately, climate change has the most impact on those who have less… Tim Gore was formerly Oxfam’s Head of Policy, Advocacy and Research for Climate, Food and Land. “The main way that most people will experience climate change is through its impact on food – what they eat, how it’s grown, the price they pay for it and the availability and choice they have,” he says in Amanda Little’s book, The Fate of Food.
Industrial agriculture has allowed us to feed people better across the planet. Until it doesn’t. Soil degradation poses a severe threat to more than 40% of land on Earth, which has disastrous consequences for food security and mitigating climate change. The Chatham House report suggests three interdependent actions: changing global dietary patterns, protecting and setting aside land for nature, and farming in a more nature-friendly and biodiversity-supporting way.
Dietary patterns need to move towards more plant-heavy diets, because of the disproportionate impact of animal agriculture on biodiversity, land use and the environment. And, of course, in many parts of the world diets are far more plant-focused than in the Global North. Essentially, creating lots of grazing land to feed sheep and cattle is a really inefficient way of producing protein – and harms our biodiversity. Yet, as I wrote this feature, Henry Dimbleby, food ‘czar’ to the UK government and co-founder of the restaurant chain Leon, claimed that: “the government would fall within a fortnight if it implemented a meat tax” in an interview with the Guardian – in spite of his belief that it’s the only way for the UK to meet climate and biodiversity targets. It says a lot about our meat consumption in the global north – and the UK specifically – that meat is seen as non-negotiable in a battle to save the planet.
Shifting us to more plant-based diets – alongside a reduction in global food waste, has the power to reduce demand and the pressure on the environment and land, benefit the health of populations around the world and, says the report, help reduce the risk of pandemics, because many viruses originated in the industrial animal husbandry food chain. And this is key – the less pressure there is to produce meat and animal feed for the meat industry, the more scope we have to take on its other two recommendations.
"We’ve become stuck in what’s called a “cheaper food paradigm” – producing more food at lower costs through the use of fertilisers, pesticides, energy, land and water. It creates a vicious circle: the lower cost of food production creates a bigger demand for low-cost food, produced through more intensification and further land clearance.”
Its second proposal – setting more land aside for nature, offers potentially the greatest gains for biodiversity, bypreserving and restoring whole ecosystems. By stopping converting land for agriculture – because of those dietary shifts we’ve made – helps us preserve existing native ecosystems and restore those that have been removed or degraded. (Read Dan Ryan’s column on page 113 to find out more about restoring the Celtic rainforest.)
And, again, interrelated… we need to farm in a more nature-friendly, biodiversity-supporting way, it says. Which means limiting the use of inputs and replacing monocultures with polycultural farming practices.
We’ve become stuck in what’s called a “cheaper food paradigm” – producing more food at lower costs through the use of fertilisers, pesticides, energy, land and water. It creates a vicious circle: the lower cost of food production creates a bigger demand for low-cost food, produced through more intensification and further land clearance. But it’s not just biodiversity that suffers – this global food system accounts for around 30% of total human-produced emissions, driving climate change. And how do people experience climate change? Through increased food costs…
Susan Gardner is director of the United Nations Environmental Programme’s Ecosystems Division. She says: “Our current food system is a double edged sword – shaped by decades of the ‘cheaper food’ paradigm, aimed at producing more food, quickly and cheaply without taking into account the hidden costs to biodiversity and its life-supporting services – and to our own health. Reforming the way we produce and consume food is an urgent priority – we need to change global dietary patterns, protect and set aside land for nature and farm in a more nature-friendly and biodiversity-supporting way.”
At a time of a cost-of-living crisis here in the UK, it’s a difficult conversation to have. Data from the Office of National Statistics shows that 49% of people have already started to cut back on food – compared to 8% this time last year. Our food system is failing the planet – and that’s not just an issue for future generations: it’s failing people now. Prices rise as crops are affected by climate change.
Soil, when it’s healthy, is the largest land-based carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which prevents its release into the air, which is a leading cause of global warming. Almost half of the planet’s land mass is already cultivated, so we need to make sure that farmland, fields, orchards and pastures are managed in a way that regenerates the soil. The fertilisers, pesticides, and tilling that farms rely on eat away at soil health, driving up greenhouse gas emissions and harming the environment.
Lest we forget, soil is a living ecosystem. This network that sits below the surface is known as the soil food web – woven from the living roots of plants, from worms; from microbes and mycelium, the fungus which threads beneath the surface through it’s own root-like structure. And soil provides us with 95% of the food we eat – either directly or indirectly – according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Nonetheless, alarm at the impact of removing nutrients from the earth – and allowing carbon to escape it – has driven interest in ‘regenerative’ agriculture: an approach designed to improve soil health and, instead of simply extracting nutrients from the soil, actively builds matter and life in the soil. Its benefits include improved biodiversity, resilience, and environmental health and it’s an idea that’s long used by Indigenous, peasant and organic farmers – whilst gaining traction in the mainstream more recently.
Introducing regenerative agriculture practices means that they build up the amount of carbon in the soil – and when it’s underground, there’s less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
In online magazine Grist, Liz Carlisle, an assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Programme at the University of California, Santa Barbara (and author of three books about regenerative agriculture) – suggests that, while farmers typically get paid for what they take out of the soil, regenerative agriculture advocates are beginning to ask whether farmers should also be paid for what they put back in.
Carlisle emphasises that Indigenous, Black, Latino and Asian-American communities have longstanding traditions of regenerative agriculture; that regenerative grazing is based on practices of Indigenous North Americans; that agroforestry’s history lies in the Black diaspora. And that cover-cropping was introduced to organic farming by two scientists who’d learnt about it in India, China, Japan and Korea.
As realisation among environmental advocates of the power of indigenous practices increases, emerging research suggests that traditional techniques for growing food, controlling wildfires and conserving endangered species can help us arrest the decline of the natural world.
Siham Drissi, a programme management officer at UNEP, says: “We must preserve and strengthen indigenous practices, which contribute to sustainable environmental management and provide leadership in combating climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. It must be preserved and enhanced.
According to UNEP, the world’s indigenous population comprises some 476 million people living across 90 countries and representing 5,000 different cultures. They manage an estimated 25 per cent of Earth’s land mass, which accounts for 40 per cent of all ecologically intact landscapes; they’re often at the forefront of conservation. Many are specialists at living in fragile ecosystems and managing limited biodiversity.
Alongside ancient approaches to tending the land, modern science is also chipping in. The Land Institute, a Kansas-based research centre, has developed an experimental grain called Kernza. It’s similar to the wheat used to make bread and beer but is a perennial – which is crucial for soil health. Our food system relies on annuals because they’re high yielding. Corn, soy, wheat and rice are four staple examples which are pulled from the ground each year – as opposed to perennials, which regrow every year without having to be replanted. That means that a perennial’s root system is forever growing, drawing water and nutrients from deep below the ground; roots feed the microbes and fungi, delivering carbon into the soil. And this carbon, injected by plants, is five times more likely to remain stable than carbon worked in through compost or mulch. So Kernza both sequesters carbon in the soil and provides a wheat-like grain that can be harvested every year. Whilst trial crops remain relatively small at the moment, it’s certainly plays a part in both improving growing conditions and feeding the population.
These regenerative techniques are not just exclusive to soil. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation heralds Dr Bronner’s as an example of a business building a regenerative supply chain. In Ghana, Serendipalm is creating a regenerative alternative to palm oil, which personal care company Dr Bronner’s has supported and invested in. Palm oil, which is typically used in its soaps, toothpastes and lotions, is sourced from tropical areas yet palm oil’s supply chains have become notorious for destructive environmental practices and exploiting local communities. So, Dr Bronner’s decided to create its own alternative.
Since it began in 2007, the project has now contracted a network of over 700 smallholders, training them in regenerative cultivation methods like the application of green manures, alongside techniques like intercropping, pruning, weeding, and harvesting at the proper time. Not only does the process create more biomass and sequester more atmospheric carbon dioxide – helping mitigate the climate crisis – but the majority of Serendipalm’s staff are women; many are widows or single mothers, a particularly vulnerable demographic. Their wages are 25% higher than the local average, with free healthcare, too.
The appliance of science
And, of course, not everything we eat needs to be grown in the soil. Vertical farming has pioneered a system for growing food indoors, in tiers stretching up, rather than along. The crops are grown under LED lighting using hydroponics – its growth fuelled by liquid nutrients fed into a soil-free medium. “Well firstly, it uses a lot less water,” says Dr Paul Myers, the managing director of hydroponic grower Farm Urban. “The second one is that it’s a closed system, so the nutrients that you put in stay within the system, making it a more efficient use of resources. And then, when it comes to pesticides, you’re working in a controlled environment, which prevent pests getting into the space. So you don’t need to use them – those organophosphate chemicals – that leech into the waterways and evaporate into the atmosphere and cause the sterilisation of our soil.
“Pumping in NPK [Plants need three main nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. NPK refers to their chemical symbols] is a very narrow-minded modern, limited approach to a complex system,” he sighs.
“But it shouldn’t be used to grow everything,” he adds. “It’s part of the solution and goes hand-in-hand with regenerative soil-based agriculture. It makes a lot of sense for highly perishable crops like leafy greens, herbs, salads, kales and chards that don’t transport well. You should be growing those in close proximity to consumer. Potatoes and carrots, on the other hand – they do travel well.”
What’s the one-word description you use to tell people what you do?!
Vertical farming also creates an environment where food crops can be grown in towns, cities and urban areas, reducing food miles to the customer. 2021 saw a slew of investment in vertical farms, but the sector is still in its infancy. And there are other challenges too that it must overcome. “Energy use is a huge challenge for vertical farming, but also an opportunity,” says Myers. “It’s energy intensive, but if that’s energy that you can generate renewably it can be a clean process. That’s more reason to invest in infrastructure. At the moment, vertical farms don’t get any subsidy, as most other agriculture does. There’s a place for energy subsidies for vertical farming – leverage some of that and invest in clean energy via the subsidy. Then you’re not getting the environmental destruction and biodiversity loss. Stop subsidising the problem and start investing in the system – like has happened with wind turbines.
“There’s also huge scope for building in industrial areas – integrated, holistic, smart systems – and, of course, engineering challenges that go with it. It needs more investment and people in the space. BIG in Brussels is a rooftop aquaponics farm on top of an abattoir – it takes the heat from the refrigerant system that cools the abattoir and uses it to heat the water to grow fish and basil.”
The last two-and-a-half-years have highlighted the frailties in our supply chains. “This just-in-time model that we’ve spent the last 20-30 years perfecting is very fragile,” says Myers. “The pandemic and Brexit have showed us that. But with increasing climate and political instability, we absolutely need more robust supply chains – and shortened supply chains are inherently more robust.”
Unless we change the way we produce food, biodiversity loss will continue to accelerate. And that threatens us all. The UN estimates that we’ll lose one-in-eight – or one million species – in the next 80 years. But there’s good news, too. If we can protect at east 50%* of our land and seas by 2030, we can help avert the worst of this extinction emergency. That’s seven years. There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind, and it’s imperative that we act with urgency.
It’s difficult, at a time of rising food costs and shortages. But it’s also a warning of how difficult things could become, if biodiversity loss continues to accelerate. And, of course, it will affect people who’re most vulnerable first. We’ve all got a part to play.
*50% is the goal for land and sea – fragile ecosystems like rainforests need at least 80% protecting.
For Peat’s Sake
22-year-old George Davies is the son of an agronomist – a soil science management and crop production expert – but admits that it took him until he got to university to understand the environmental damage caused by removing peat from bogs to make compost. Peat bogs are natural carbon sinks, storing 42% of the planet’s soil carbon – a delicate balance taking hundreds of years to form. George discovered that coir – made from discarded coconut pith, that would otherwise go to waste – can be used as compost, has none of the negatives of peat but substantial
Coir is used by professional growers globally, as it creates an ideal growing environment for roots, which benefits the whole plant by reducing the impact of pests in commercial crops like strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers. An inert material, coir’s free of pests, weeds and disease and, unlike peat – which is traditionally acidic – coir has a neutral pH, helping growers maintain a soil’s pH. While peat will be banned in compost from 2024 in the UK, George is championing an innovation that will create an efficient growing environment for home growers and professionals alike.
Tree is the magic number
Organic veg box supplier Riverford has started an agroforestry project of its own, designed to enhance its regenerative approach to farming. The Devon-based farm is planting a tree each time a subscriber refers a friend to its box delivery scheme. So far, more than 1,600 perennial nut trees have been planted, which sequester carbon in the soil, help preserve healthy soil AND feed the animals grazing across the farmland.