Pandemics. An accelerating climate crisis. Forest fires and massive biodiversity loss. These are just some of the realities we are living with in 2020. According to the latest data from WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020, released last month, on average we have seen a 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016. This downward trend is a warning sign for our planet because species populations are a measure of overall ecosystem health. The outlook may seem bleak, but we can and must turn these trends around, and the best place to start is with — FOOD.
Not everyone is passionate about whales, tigers, or rare birds, but there is one reason every person on this planet should care about the decline in biodiversity — we all need FOOD to survive. Our food system is dependent upon maintaining healthy ecosystems, and by failing to address how food production impacts biodiversity, we are risking our future ability to feed 8–10 billion people.
Our expanding agricultural footprint is responsible for 80% of global habitat loss and 70% of all our freshwater use. What’s shocking is after using so many of our planet’s finite resources to create food, we waste an estimated one-third of the food we produce globally. This wasted food represents a waste of the energy, water, forests, grasslands, and biodiversity that was sacrificed to fill our plates. To make matters worse, most of this food waste typically gets dumped into landfills contributing to high levels of methane emissions — a potent greenhouse gas that exacerbates climate change. But as insurmountable as this problem may seem, food waste is a problem that we can address, and it would make a huge difference if we did.
We have reached a breaking point. We must limit the impact food production has on land, freshwater, and oceans if we are to save space for nature. We must now make more food available from our existing footprint and rethink how we produce, consume, and distribute food — which includes reducing loss and waste in addition to producing food through more regenerative methods and adopting healthy diets that consider environmental impacts. These actions combined can relieve pressure on our land, ocean and water resources while providing communities with more access to nutritious food.
Countries that have seen the highest reductions in food waste, like the UK and Denmark, have created partnerships between governments and private sector food businesses that have a shared commitment to Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, on halving food loss and waste. The foundation of these commitments is establishing credible measurement and industry baselines. With measurement established, interventions can be tested and scaled, and results can be quantified. Measurement must happen across the entire supply chain with data anonymized and aggregated. In the US, WWF is collaborating with several organizations and government agencies on one of the largest regional public-private partnerships to reduce food loss and waste through the Pacific Coast Collaborative. The Pacific Coast of North America represents the world’s fifth-largest economy and this partnership is an opportunity for food companies to lead the way in diverting food from landfills, while fighting both food insecurity and climate change.
Multi-stakeholder partnerships are also required to design systems that invest in efficiency and improve production through regenerative agriculture practices, rather than through expansion and conversion of more land. In developing countries, food is often grown via small-holder farming on marginal lands in water scarce areas. Often these areas see high levels of food loss because of poor growing conditions with little investment made on post-harvest loss prevention. Rather than continue to invest in marginal production practices, it may be more effective to invest into roads and refrigeration so that food can be traded and distributed from growing regions with higher levels of resource efficiency and lower post-harvest loss. This is a tricky balance because expansion of local agriculture, specifically higher value crops, can help lift people out of poverty. But if this comes at the expense of further land conversion and high post-harvest loss rates, it creates an unsustainable system.
Humans must get food production and consumption patterns in balance with nature. Achieving that balance requires we recognize our own dependence on biodiversity as an integral piece of our food system. It also requires collaboration and transparency at a scale that has not previously been achieved. Food is a powerful lever in the mission to halt and reverse nature loss, because it involves behaviors we can all individually change. These seemingly small individual changes can lead to big systemic transformation. Reducing food loss and waste is essential to achieving a balance with nature, and we have no time to lose.