We’ve previously blogged reports regarding food supply and food health. Most sustainability-related articles in the mainstream media focus on energy, fossil fuels, climate change, etc. But, on the physical side of sustainability, nothing is as important to our future as a supply of healthful food. Here’s a new UN research report, based on data from 91 countries. While I steer away from fear-based scare tactics, we do need to be aware of this problem, so we have time to take corrective measures.
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World’s food supply under ‘severe threat’ from loss of biodiversity
Plants, insects and organisms crucial to
food production in steep decline, says UN
Global environment editor
21 Feb 2019
The world’s capacity to produce food is being undermined by humanity’s failure to protect biodiversity, according to the first UN study of the plants, animals and micro-organisms that help to put meals on our plates.
The stark warning was issued by the Food and Agriculture Organisation after scientists found evidence the natural support systems that underpin the human diet are deteriorating around the world as farms, cities and factories gobble up land and pump out chemicals.
Over the last two decades, approximately 20% of the earth’s vegetated surface has become less productive, said the report, launched on Friday.
It noted a “debilitating” loss of soil biodiversity, forests, grasslands, coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds and genetic diversity in crop and livestock species. In the oceans, a third of fishing areas are being overharvested.
Many species that are indirectly involved in food production, such as birds that eat crop pests and mangrove trees that help to purify water, are less abundant than in the past, noted the study, which collated global data, academic papers and reports by the governments of 91 countries.
The species most frequently reported to be under threat are plants, birds, and fish and fungi. Pollinators, which provide essential services to three-quarters of the world’s crops, are under threat. As well as the well-documented decline of bees and other insects, the report noted that 17% of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats and birds, were threatened with extinction.
Once lost, the species that are critical to our food systems cannot be recovered, it said.
“This places the future of our food and
the environment under severe threat.”
Graziano da Silva, the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, wrote, in an introduction to the study …
“The foundations of our food systems are be-
ing undermined. Parts of the global report
make sombre reading. It is deeply concern-
ing that in so many production systems
in so many countries, biodiversity for food
and agriculture and the ecosystem services
it provides are reported to be in decline.”
Agriculture was often to blame, he said, due to land-use changes and unsustainable management practices, such as over-exploitation of the soil and a reliance on pesticides, herbicides and other agro-chemicals.
Most countries said the main driver for biodiversity loss was land conversion, as forests were cut down for farm fields, and meadows covered in concrete for cities, factories and roads. Other causes include overexploitation of water supplies, pollution, over-harvesting, the spread of invasive species and climate change.
The trend is towards uniformity. Although the world is producing more food than in the past, it is relying on ever-expanding monocultures.
Two-thirds of crop production comes from just nine species (sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet and cassava), while many of the remaining 6,000 cultivated plant species are in decline and wild food sources are becoming harder to find.
Although consumers did not yet notice any impact when they went shopping, the authors of the report said that could change. Julie Bélanger, the coordinator of the report, warned:
“The supermarkets are full of food, but
it is mostly imports from other countries
And there are not many varieties. The
reliance on a small number of species
means they are more susceptible to
disease outbreaks and climate change.
It renders food production less resilient.”
As examples, the report noted how overdependence on a narrow range of species was a major factor in the famine caused by potato blight in Ireland in the 1840s, cereal crop failures in the US in the 20th century, and losses of taro production in Samoa in the 1990s. Bélanger said …
“There is an urgent need to change
the way food is produced and ensure
that biodiversity is not something
that is swept aside but is treated as
an irreplaceable resource and a key
part of management strategies.”
There is no legal definition in the UK of a mega farm, but in the US concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are defined as those housing 125,000 broiler chickens, 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs or 700 dairy or 1,000 beef cattle. These are the biggest of the intensive farms, which in the UK need permits if they house more than 40,000 chickens, 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows. There are now 789 mega farms in the UK, and the number of intensive farms has risen by more than a quarter in six years, from 1,332 in 2011 to 1,674 last year.
Why are they controversial?
Mega farms and intensive farms are controversial because they require keeping tens of thousands of animals in a small space, which campaigners and independent experts say can hamper their ability to express natural behaviours, such as nesting. The animals are often kept indoors throughout their lives, though on some farms they are allowed access to outdoor areas at least part of the time. There are also concerns that animals on mega farms may be over-medicated, as if one gets sick the whole herd is generally required to be treated.
Why do some people believe we need them?
Mega farms and intensive farms take up much less space than traditional farms, and they allow animals to be kept securely, away from predators and potential carriers of disease, such as badgers. Their conditions are tightly controlled, allowing farmers to monitor the amount of daylight, water and feed for the animals, and if disease develops the livestock can be treated quickly. They are much cheaper to run than traditional farms.
The report found evidence that attitudes and practices were slowly changing. In recent years, there has been a greater uptake in sustainable forest management, ecosystem approaches to fisheries, aquaponics and polyculture. But the authors said there had been insufficient progress. Organic agriculture, for example, now covers 58m hectares (143m acres) worldwide, but this is only 1% of global farmland.
The report signaled a heightened interest by governments in biodiversity, a subject that rarely gets the same attention as climate change. Many states reported economic losses caused by disappearing or shifting ecosystems. Ireland, Norway, Poland and Switzerland noted shrinking bumblebee populations. Egypt was concerned that its fishing industry would suffer because fish were migrating northwards due to rising ocean temperatures. Gambia said communities were being forced to buy expensive industrially-produced products because free wild food sources were becoming scarcer.
The biodiversity crisis is set to rise up the global agenda, with discussion on the topic at the next G7 in April, a World Conservation Congress in June, and then a major UN conference in Beijing next year. Ireland’s president, Michael Higgins, said at a biodiversity conference in Dublin on Thursday:
“Around the world, the library of life
that has evolved over billions of years
– our biodiversity – is being destroyed,
poisoned, polluted, invaded, frag-
mented, plundered, drained and
burned at a rate not seen in human
history. If we were coal miners we’d
be up to our waists in dead canaries.”
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While the issue of food supply is global, and while I don’t run the world, and while those who do have led us into this dilemma, I have to ask myself what I can do about it, personally. Here are a few suggestions:
- Buy organic, heirloom foods.
If you live in a city and don’t have a vegetable garden – or a “green thumb” and interest in growing your own foods – then buy foods from sources that feature organic foods – especially those who use heirloom seeds. (Heirloom seeds contribute to biodiversity.) Supermarkets such as Whole Foods offer such food products, and label them both as organic and as grown from heirloom seeds.
A second source for such food products is a Farmers’ Market. Not all farmers grow organic food, but they’re usually honest is stating whether or not their foods are organic … as well as telling you whether or not they’re using heirloom seeds.
As more and more people seek out and buy such foods, the market demand – which begins with each of us – will oblige growers and supermarkets to change. Not too long ago, only specialty stores carried organic foods. Now, most supermarkets have a larger and larger amount of such foods.
- Grow foods with heirloom seeds.
Regardless of the community in which you live, if you do enjoy having your own vegetable garden, then be sure to buy seeds – or plants – that are labeled “heirloom.” Heirloom seed producers always label their product as such.
- Include plants that attract bees.
Finally, if you do have your own garden, include plants whose flowers attract bees. While most flowers will attract bees or other pollinators, such as hummingbirds or butterflies, some of the flowers pollinators seem to love most are: Zinnias; Buddleias; Salvias; or the flowers produced by any of the vegetables you’re growing. need to come before we take positive action?”If there’s no downside to taking corrective action now, then sooner is better.
How urgent is this issue?
When we’re told that a major storm is coming, we can predict when that event will happen – plus or minus a few hours or days. The erosion of biodiversity and threat to our food supply doesn’t have a specific date forecast, so we don’t feel the same sense of urgency to act, as we do with a storm forecast. And that leaves us vulnerable. If we were to lose our food supply, as described in this research report, growing and distributing a new supply of food would take far too long to satisfy the need. Sometimes I ask myself:
“How close to the edge of the cliff do we
need to come before we take positive action?”
If there’s no downside to taking corrective action now, then sooner is better.