Our food system is advancing the destruction of the natural world; but food businesses have the power to reverse it. By Nick Hughes.
Delegates of a fatalistic disposition will have come away from October’s Extinction and Livestock conference in London feeling even more despondent about the state of our planet.
The shocking statistics about the precipitous state of the natural world came thick and fast.
Species populations of vertebrate animals have decreased by 58% in the past 40 years.
Every two months we are losing an area the size of Greater London in the Brazilian savannah known as the Cerrado.
We heard that bees are declining, soils are eroding and rivers are being polluted with all manner of chemicals.
The common denominator, if you hadn’t already guessed, is food.
Philip Lymbery, the chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, which co-hosted the conference along with WWF, opened proceedings by declaring forcefully: “Much of current biodiversity loss is driven by the way we produce food across the planet.”
Identifying the link between our current food system and the degradation of the natural world is one thing; decoupling the two is quite another. Speak to food businesses and they generally understand the need to reduce energy and water use in their own operations, the need to serve healthier food and to prevent food waste. But talk to them about biodiversity loss and for many the connection is not immediately apparent.
For businesses that sit at the consumer end of the supply chain, talk of biodiversity can feel too distant and abstract a concept, and something over which they believe they have little or no control.
But what emerged strongly from the conference is that the power to reverse biodiversity loss rests with all of us – consumers, retailers, caterers, suppliers and farmers, not to mention politicians and financiers. Fail to act, on the other hand, and we will all suffer the consequences through a lack of choice and availability of foods we currently take for granted.
The loss of global biodiversity is arguably the most critical issue faced by humankind yet it is one that receives precious little public attention. Halt biodiversity loss, delegates were told, and you start solving some of the other interconnected, and more high-profile challenges on climate change, water scarcity and malnutrition that are linked with intensive and unsustainable food production.
For those still unconvinced that businesses should care about biodiversity, Duncan Williamson, the food policy manager of WWF, had a killer statistic. Williamson revealed that the biggest driver of biodiversity loss is animal feed, soy in particular. This makes almost every business that sells meat to the end consumer – knowingly or otherwise – complicit in a system that is leading to the destruction of much of the natural world.
A report launched at the conference by WWF – the imaginatively named “Appetite for Destruction” – showed that the UK food supply alone is directly linked to the extinction of an estimated 33 species at home and abroad.
The message from the report is clear: the more animal products we eat, the more feed we need to produce, the more rainforests and other delicate ecosystems on the other side of the world we will destroy. Only by reducing our consumption of animal protein and producing feeds with lower resource requirements can we secure enough nutritionally complete and environmentally sustainable food for everyone on Earth.
And the impact is not just felt overseas. Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex, warned that bee populations are declining due to disease, habitat loss and use of pesticides with species such as the great yellow bumblebee now extinct in England and Wales.
Goulson explained that this should matter to anyone who eats or trades in food – in other words all of us. “These declines should worry us because 75% of crop varieties grown in the world benefit from being pollinated by some kind of insect [wind pollination accounts for the remainder]. If you take out pollinators you wouldn’t have strawberries, courgettes, chocolate or coffee. It would be really hard to feed the world without pollination.”
It’s important to acknowledge that there is a counter-narrative here: that the loss of biodiversity is the inevitable price of progress and that over time technology will put right much of the damage. These arguments, however, are becoming increasingly marginalised. You need only look at the growing emphasis being placed on sourcing sustainable commodities in company corporate social responsibility plans to realise that few businesses are willing to line up behind the technophiles, and at the very least a hybrid solution to the problem will be required.
For some businesses there may be a moral imperative behind preserving the world’s biodiversity, but it is the business case that is likely to prove more persuasive. As the leading environmentalist Tony Juniper put it starkly: “We’re seeing the decline of services that underpin the human economy.”
Some environmentalists balk at the concept of placing a monetary value on nature’s services, but in a market-based economy where financial metrics are still the benchmark for success such figures bear repeating as a means of engaging a wider audience. Peter Stevenson, the chief policy adviser of Compassion in World Farming, was the man to repeat them. The current rate of soil loss costs £400 billion a year globally, said Stevenson. The rate of biodiversity loss is reducing global GDP by 3% every year, while the global value of pollination is $153 billion (£116 billion) a year.
If money talks, the statistics are screaming off the page.
But change is coming, albeit slowly. The investment community, in particular, is waking up to the long-term crisis facing the natural world and the consequent threat to the human economy.
Maria Lettini is a director of the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) initiative, part of the Jeremy Coller Foundation, which aims to highlight the material investment risks and opportunities connected with intensive livestock farming and poor animal welfare standards and to support investors to assess these issues as part of their investment processes.
She said that initiatives such as FAIRR can fill the gap the public sector isn’t going to fill by engaging investors with high-level risks of intensive animal production that threaten human health, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, endanger food security and consume scarce resources.
“There’s a destruction of value that can occur if you’re not engaging with and mitigating those risks,” warned Lettini.
Martin Palmer, the secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), put it even more bluntly when discussing the huge value of religious investment based on environmental and sustainability standards. “We can’t buy out the baddies,” he said. “So why not fund the alternatives?”
Some of those alternatives took to the stage in London. Seth Goldman is the brains behind the Beyond Meat burger, billed as the world’s first plant-based burger that looks, cooks and tastes like beef. The product is 100% vegan and contains no soy, yet it sits within the meat category alongside beef and chicken protein. The burger has generated huge publicity and won rave reviews for its taste, yet Goldman conceded: “It is not easy to commercialise plant protein and convince those people with an evolutionary bias for animal protein to make the switch.”
His view echoed that of the Quorn CEO, Kevin Brennan, who was realistic about the challenge of reducing meat consumption despite Quorn’s sales being on a long-term upward trajectory. “It will take decades for that to have a genuine effect on the food supply chain,” Brennan said.
Speakers agreed that changing eating habits alone will not be enough. “If we want to rely on consumer attitudes to change the system we won’t respond to the urgency demanded by planet Earth,” warned Karl Falkenberg, a former senior adviser for sustainable development in the European Policy Strategy Centre.
Lymbery suggested that company commitments on “zero deforestation” meat could act as a bridge to more sustainable diets. Last week, 23 global companies including McDonald’s, Tesco and Unilever committed to working with local and international stakeholders to halt deforestation and native vegetation loss in the Cerrado.
Perhaps the greatest hopes, however, rest with a shift to alternative protein sources that entirely remove the need to create more agricultural land. WWF notes that a number of innovative options are being considered as potential feed ingredients to replace terrestrial crops such as soy and maize, including microalgae and macroalgae found in seaweed, and integrated multitrophic aquaculture (IMTA), which uses the waste products from one species to provide feed or fertiliser for another.
Using flies, crickets and other insects as food and feed for livestock could also reduce the mounting pressure on land and biodiversity. This is an area of research which is already capturing the attention of businesses such as McDonald’s, whose senior director for global sustainable sourcing, Ignacio Blanco-Traba, reported that the fast food chain is involved in research on insects for chicken feed as an alternative protein to soy.
As encouraging as such talk is, Lymbery’s ultimate ambition – of a global agreement to replace factory farming with a sustainable food system that fuses food, farming and nature – feels a long way off right now. It relies on being able to shift a food system that, for all its flaws, has produced consistent supplies of cheap, uniform, largely safe food over many decades, and made many people very wealthy in the process.
What the event did achieve was to make an explicit and persuasive link between biodiversity loss and our current food system.
It showed too that current business models will be critically undermined if we don’t act quickly and decisively to halt the decline.