Global experts call for measures to improve food production and distribution to reduce pressure on the natural world.
Around 60% of global biodiversity loss is linked to food, biofuels and animal feed as countries meet rising global demand by converting areas such as forests and savannahs to agricultural production.
Yet a third of all food produced is lost to waste in the journey from crop to shop.
To help improve efficiency, new research points to a range of measures, including better visibility of the supply chain to identify sources of loss, further promoting lower meat consumption for environmental and health benefits, as well as concentrating on reducing negative biodiversity impacts in corporate sustainability plans, and improving sustainability standards and certification schemes.
Researchers from the University of Sussex’s Sustainability Research Programme have shared key recommendations gathered from recent global expert forums as part of the UN Convention on Biodiversity to agree new global targets.
The new paper, published in Science Advances, assembled global research findings, and used Peru and the UK as case studies to explore opportunities to transform the food sector.
The eight actions to address biodiversity decline involve supply chain management, economics, government incentives and consumer behaviour.
Co-author Dr Anthony Alexander, Lecturer in Operations Management at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “There’s a huge opportunity for food brands and retailers to better understand their upstream supply chains and related biodiversity impacts. Corporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies could prioritise biodiversity impacts, including the target to halt deforestation in the Sustainable Development Goals.
“It is a complex challenge to balance UK consumer demand for low cost food, the livelihoods of rural communities in tropical countries, and the alarming rates of biodiversity decline. Meeting it needs actions from a wide range of actors, and a shared vision of the benefits of better management for the long term.”
Co-author Dr Joanna Smallwood, Law lecturer at the University of Sussex said: “The way we produce and consume food needs an urgent overhaul to address biodiversity loss. We have shared bold suggestions that governments, businesses and individuals can implement to transform food systems.”
Achieving a balance between biodiversity and food production requires broad-minded and creative responses.
Farmers in some developing countries can lose a significant proportion of crops simply by transporting them during hot weather.
If food sector companies could target issues such as this via their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes and help share ideas to reduce this supply chain loss it could help farmers’ incomes.
The livestock industry currently relies on low-cost soy protein from tropical countries such as Brazil, where some 20% may be associated with illegal deforestation. While dropping these suppliers could push up prices, an alternative is to continue to promote meat-free and vegan diets.
Dr Alexander explained: “We’ve seen a significant market segment open up around meat-free diets. The more this grows the better the environmental footprint for retailers. Livestock firms may also be able to push for better due diligence from suppliers regarding biodiversity impacts from deforestation, and investors can start to explore cost-effective and profitable alternative sources of protein for animal feed, such as insects or sea plants.”
Other recommendations listed in the paper include better information for consumers on the ecological footprints of food, alongside the use of ‘product lifecycle assessments’ so suppliers, retail and consumers have a greater awareness of where their food comes from and the global journey it takes – from farm to fork.
The research also recommends better reporting on levels of national food waste, accounting for the true value and costs of production by sector, the removal of incentives encouraging food production and consumption that harms biodiversity, and greater accountability around whether nations are meeting environmental targets.