While restaurants in cities around the world offer a tremendous variety of dishes, our global diet as a whole—what people actually eat—is becoming more homogenized. Rice, one the world’s top staple foods, vividly illustrates this paradox: of the 90,000 varieties of rice stored in gene banks, only 40,000 are being cultivated, and perhaps no more than a dozen can be found on your regular supermarket shelf. Combined with high-yield, intensive agriculture, the choices are bound to drastically decline over time. This is worrying from the point of view of sustainability, food security, biodiversity and health.
Our food systems, nutrition, health, clean air, climate, and freshwater depend on biodiversity and healthy ecosystems—an interdependent web of animal, plant, fungal and bacterial life. For instance, without pollinators—insects, birds and other animals who are pushed out of agricultural lands through the use of pesticides and insecticides—many of the foods we know and love would disappear.
And as a recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) shows, the human impact on the natural world is accelerating: entire populations of species are being lost faster than ever before—one million species are being driven to extinction, the report says.
“Unprecedented human appropriation of the Earth is underpinned by a set of demographic and economic indirect drivers that have risen in scale and that interact with each other in complex ways…”
And we’re not doing enough in terms of fiscal policy to turn things around.
“There has been little progress at the global scale towards eliminating or phasing out subsidies harmful to biodiversity,” it notes, citing among others the case of prices of commodities and industrial goods that often do not reflect environmental and social costs.
Large-scale industrialization has caused widespread fragmentation of natural landscapes around the globe. Habitats that were once continuous are now compartmentalized and isolated, causing a spiralling decline of some species as they can no longer disperse to find food or mates, says UN Environment’s Frontiers 2018/19 report on ecological connectivity.
Shrinking biodiversity in agriculture, food systems and diets
In the last hundred years, more than 90 per cent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers' fields. Half of the breeds of many domestic animals have been lost, and all the world's 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished at or above their sustainable limits. Such developments have environmental, cultural and health impacts.
Locally varied food production systems, which are more resilient to climate change, are under threat; agrobiodiversity is disappearing and, along with it, knowledge of traditional medicine and local foods.
“This needs to change,” says UN Environment biodiversity expert Marieta Sakalian.
“The sustainable management of biodiversity in agricultural landscapes and seascapes can support the transition towards healthy diets, and more sustainable consumption and production patterns, in changing climate conditions.”
The loss of diverse diets is directly linked to diseases or health risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity and malnutrition, and has a direct impact on the availability of traditional medicines.
Thousands of plant species exist on farms and in the wild; among them are millions of varieties, many of which are nutrient-rich and well adapted to local ecosystems.
The United Nations Environment Assembly, in its March 2019 resolution entitled Innovation on biodiversity and land degradation, “encourages Member States to strengthen commitments and step up their efforts to prevent the loss of biological diversity and the degradation of land and soil, including through their conservation and sustainable use and appropriate policies and innovative measures such as partnership arrangements, mutually agreed transfer of technology, and financing mechanisms.” It further urges governments and all other stakeholders to take biodiversity into account in all sectors of society and participate in the process leading to the 2020 Biodiversity Conference in Kunming.
We need the diverse contribution of all living beings, even the smallest of all, to ensure that we continue to enjoy healthy, sustainable diets in a food-secure future. In the January 2019 Foresight brief, We are losing the “little things that run the world”, UN environment experts remind us that, although they may be tiny, the importance of insects for our planet’s survival is enormous.
Working with partners
UN Environment has produced a comprehensive set of advocacy materials on “a new deal for nature” and is collaborating with a wide range of partners to promote biodiversity. Projects include:
- Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition—a joint programme with Biodiversity International, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the governments of Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey
- UN Environment’s TEEBAgriFood initiative
- The Great Apes Survival Partnership and the Wild for Life campaign
- Support to National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plans
- The UN Biodiversity Lab—a platform sponsored by United Nations Development Programme, UN Environment and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre that provides high-quality spatial data needed for national reporting against global biodiversity commitments
- The Global Peatlands Initiative