Biodiversity, which is crucial to both human well-being and a healthy planet, is declining faster than at any time in human history, the report from think tank Chatham House said.
Cheap food is at the center of this devastation, researchers said: Low cost food is reliant on our use of fertilizer, pesticides, energy, land and water, and use of unsustainable farming methods.
But the low cost of food production creates a “vicious circle,” creating a demand for further cheap food, which must be produced through intense and harmful methods, researchers warn.
“The more we drive food production, the cheaper food becomes, and the more our diets become dominated by a smaller number of crops grown intensively and at scale,” Tim Benton, Chatham House’s research director in emerging risks and one of the report’s authors, told CNN in an email.
Intensified agricultural production also degrades soils and ecosystems, rendering land less productive and requiring even more intensive methods of farming to keep up with demand.
“As we grow more food, it becomes economically rational to waste it, over eat the calories and feed grain to livestock so we can eat more meat. Fueling demand further leads to the expectation that supply will grow and prices will fall, leading to more land conversion and more intensification,” he said.
The way we produce food isn’t only threatening the Earth’s biodiversity, researchers warn. Accounting for around 30% of human-produced emissions, our food systems are also driving climate change.
The planet needs more ‘plant-heavy’ diets
In order to counter biodiversity loss, researchers say that we need to shift towards plant-heavy diets because of the disproportionate impact that animal agriculture has on biodiversity, land use and the environment.
“Eating healthily is about eating the right amount of the right foods,” Benton said, adding that a healthy diet is rich in plants like fruit, vegetables, leafy greens and pulses, whole grains, and limited livestock produce and low in ultra processed fats, sugars and starches.
“With under 50% of the world a healthy weight, and overweight and obesity becoming the main determinants of long term health, eating less on average reduces the land footprint of diets.
“Eating more plant protein reduces it further,” he said, adding that 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of tofu takes on average 1/75th the land to produce than 100 grams of beef.
The researchers also said that more land should be preserved for nature, and protected from use for agriculture.
Farming must be done in a way that supports biodiversity, experts said, moving away monoculture practices — creating areas that are covered by a single crop — and limiting inputs.
“Biodiversity provides an enormous range of things upon which we depend in subtle and not so subtle ways. From the way soil microbes break down organic matter and build soil fertility, to natural enemies eating pests or pollinators enabling much of our fruit and veg supply; trees generating oxygen and sucking up carbon dioxide,” Benton said. “Biodiversity also is important for mental well-being, as lockdown has emphasized: the sound of birdsong is enough to lift our moods.”