The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food supply chains and the ensuing implications for food availability are becoming more widely understood. In light of that, food is being increasingly perceived beyond providing us with physical sustenance: it is a livelihood for farmers, a reason to leave home and be with friends, a way to connect with our families and our traditions (albeit mostly virtually these days). It is also a means of mental and creative nourishment as we spend time in our kitchens transforming ingredients into delicious meals. All of the above have become more evident as we cross these turbulent times.
Although the impact of the food we eat on our health is well understood, how our diets affect the health of the planet, nature and biodiversity, is not. Healthy people and a healthy planet are inextricably connected. Today, in the lead-up to International Biodiversity Day, we can reflect on that connection. It is also World Bee Day, and perhaps the fate of our pollinators is one of the best case studies of how our relationship with nature impacts both human and planetary health.
Bees and other pollinators are vital parts of our food system — three out of four food crops depend, at least in part, on them, meaning animal pollinators alone are estimated to be responsible for between US$235 and US$577 billion worth of crops every year.Without them, our economy, food supply and ecological balance would suffer tremendously: farmers would lose their livelihoods, we would lose the majority of fruits and vegetables available in supermarkets today, not to mention the impact this would have further along the food chain. And yet, the very system which they support is currently posing threats to their existence. More than 20,000 species of pollinators are threatened by agricultural expansion, as their natural homes are converted, they are exposed to agro-chemicals and climate change continues apace. For instance, every year, we are losing 64 million acres of forests, an area equivalent to the size of the UK, and in many places conversion rates are increasing — deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon over the past 12 months has reached the highest level since monthly tracking began in 2007. Without a redesign of the food system, we risk dramatically reducing the number of bees — and risk being able to produce the food on which we rely. Less fresh food will decrease the quality of the average diet, leading to increased malnourishment, growing from the 821 million who are currently hungry and the 1.9 billion who are obese or overweight. Without a healthy planet, we are unlikely to see healthy people.
When we think of healthy people, currently the focus is naturally on COVID-19. But this is also closely connected to our food system and our relationship with nature. Zoonotic transfer of diseases has and will increase as humans, wildlife and domestic animals produced for food all come into closer contact. The three biggest drivers of emerging zoonotic diseases are: deforestation and conversion of which agriculture is the biggest driver; increased unregulated wildlife trade, much of which is for consumption; and the intensification of domestic animal farming and intensive feeding operations. In short, the growing global demand for animal protein and animal-based foods is a major driver in the emergence of infectious diseases.
To reduce the likelihood of future pandemics, we need to redesign our food system. It is important that as we tackle the impacts of COVID-19 that we do not invest in and restore a system that was already unstable. Instead, we must invest in sustainable solutions that change the way we consume and produce food, resulting in a more resilient food system for healthy people and planet.
For bees and other pollinators, wildlife species, and our own health, we need to stop converting natural habitats and begin to restore the ones that are degraded. We can do this by first halting the conversion of nature and, in the case of food, eliminating it from food supply chains. We must then also restore degraded areas of farmland, both by reforesting and by restoring them to production, so that we can continue to meet growing demands for food in line with a population that is increasing in size and affluence. Lastly, we must ensure that the lands used for production are managed sustainably by adopting agroecological approaches to food production. These measures will help build resilient food-producing landscapes.
There are already great examples from which we can learn. While conversion of the Amazon is increasing, efforts such as those of Environmental Promoters in Colombia help stop land grabbers in the buffer zone around Chiribiquete National Park, the largest tropical forest protected area in the world, from deforesting areas for livestock and cattle ranch expansion. WWF-Colombia works with this group of local farmers and community leaders to protect and restore the remaining forest, and help provide an alternative sustainable livelihood to local people in the region. Meanwhile, in the Atlantic Forest in Paraguay, WWF-Paraguay has worked to restore degraded forests by working with communities to plant yerba mate, a tree which enriches soil and ecosystem services, while also producing a nutritious and valuable superfood. Women in the villages have played a key role in turning the mate into a product which is now being sold locally and overseas.
In the recent past, just a few people have truly understood the relationship of the food they eat and nature which produces it. Consumers at the end of long supply chains have often been disconnected from how their food is produced and sourced, while those who are food insecure are concerned more about availability than sustainability. Although for many years our food system has been broken, the emergence of COVID-19 and the subsequent impacts on the food system bring into focus the connection between our health and our food — and the plight of species like bees. We rely on nature and biodiversity for healthy and nutritious foods, but the system is eroding its own foundations. The food system and our health are faced with many challenges, oftentimes as a direct result of the degradation of our planet. Conversely, what that means is that our solutions are in nature. By improving our relationship with nature and working towards a healthy planet, we will take great steps towards sustainable and resilient food systems and healthy people everywhere.
Our food system must be transformed to become a solution for people and nature as we recover from the pandemics. Let´s be smart about how we move it forward into the next normal. A system that works for bees is the same that works for us.