What does a food systems perspective tell us about the food-biodiversity nexus?

By Joern Fischer

This morning, John Ingram gave an interesting presentation on food systems, food security and biodiversity. To start with, he highlighted that – perhaps surprisingly – the common definition of food security did not include anything about agriculture, nor about production. What many people thus automatically think of when thinking about food security, is not necessarily always central to it.

That said, John explained, agriculture very much sits at the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation. It is, after all, the single most important driver of terrestrial biodiversity decline. Other human activities related to food also are to the detriment of biodiversity, including bushmeat hunting and fisheries.

An alternative approach to jumping straight to agriculture, however, was to think about food systems as a whole. Looking at that suggests that other parts of the food system (not just agriculture) also affect biodiveristy. For example, food processing and packaging can cause problems to biodiversity through their use of raw materials and generation of waste and effluents. John showed images, for example, of how the world’s oceans are filling up with more and more plastic. The transportation of food, too, has a wide range of negative effects on biodiversity – amongst the less recognised ones, perhaps, is the fact that ballast water from the shipping industry massively contributes to the spread of invasive species. Moreover, different types of food system also generate impacts on biodiveristy through their emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. Finally –last but not least? – the consumption side of food systems is a major driver of un-sustainability.

Moving on more specifically to food security, John highlighted the importance, first of all, of food affordability. This measure accounts for the amount of exposable income that people have, which very much differs between countries. As a result, price spikes make a much bigger difference to poor people than to wealthy ones. Moreover, poor communities are typically more directly affected by problems related to food storage and food distribution – but also to food safety related aspects that result from an interaction of biodiversity changes and other global changes (such as climate change).

John then posed the question “So why do we need to change things”? Clearly, planetary boundaries are a problem, but at the same time about a billion people are chronically malnourished, two billion have micronutrient deficiencies, and over two billin are overweight. It would seem, therefore, that actually a minority of people are served well by the current global food system.

Sustainable food security, then, can be conceptualised as the result of constraints on consumers, ‘post-farm gate’ food system activities, and activities directly related to production. Retaining productive and biodiverse production systems thus was the foundation of all other variables influencing food security – but improvements are necessary and possible in all areas of the food system, including production, but also storage, transport, consumption, processing, and distribution.

To conclude, John emphasised the problem of over-consumption. While this was “uncomfortable territory”, John highlighted that we still needed to address this issue. He showed a very telling graph, drawing on data from the past, which suggested that producing more and more may well lead to increased over-consumption in the future, but to a lesser extent to alleviating the food shortages faced by the world’s poor. Simply meeting demand therefore will have major negative ramifications for biodiversity; will have massive health costs related to increasing obesity; and would have major economic costs related to obesity-related illnesses.

A big thumbs up from me for this excellent contribution by John!

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3 thoughts on “What does a food systems perspective tell us about the food-biodiversity nexus?

  1. Thanks, Joern. One minor point of clarification: “malnourished” means badly nourished (i.e. too much as well as too little), so I use under-nourished for too little. John

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