A lack of diversity is killing our farms, our people, our planet. It’s time to wake upand let new shoots take root and thrive

Duncan Rawson, EFFP Partner

Earth Overshoot Day is something I have only come across recently and is one of the most sobering bits of information I’ve read for a while. A marker put together by an international sustainability organisation called the “Global Footprint Network” and York University in Toronto, it records the day that humanity has used up all the resources that nature can sustainably supply and renew in a year. For the rest of the year, we will be living on resources borrowed from future generations.

So go on, guess what date marked Earth Overshoot Day this year? August 22nd is the answer. This leaves 131 days of the year (35%) when the planet no longer has the resources to support our lifestyle. And this is a good year. COVID-19 has caused our ecological footprint to contract, pushing the date back more than three weeks compared to last year, when Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 29th.

To me, this analysis highlights two things. Firstly, it provides hard evidence as to the severity of COVID-19; and secondly but more importantly it also gives me the confidence that with radical thinking, and, crucially, radical action, it is well within our grasp to put steps in place that will reverse the adverse environmental impact we are having on this planet.

Like it not, our food systems are one of the main contributors to the issues facing our future survival. Food production is a central driver of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. As someone who started my farming career in the early 1980s,I find this painful to admit. But it is true. We have to accept that agriculture uses a staggering 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally1, accounts for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and destroys natural habitatsand the ecosystems that support the survival of the planet2.

But we cannot just lay the blame for this at the farmers door. For years agricultural research has focused on boosting productivity at the expense of the environment – supported by governments who have encouraged this trend with financial support, regulatory standards, trade agreements, and domestic farm policies dominated by subsidies. The OECD estimates that total domestic support to agriculture across the 54 countries covered by their Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation report averaged USD 708 billion per year during 2017-2019.This support distorts markets, stifles innovation and harms the environment.

Moreover, particularly in advanced economies, our supply chains have encouraged cheap food. Fierce competition between retailers and in food service has driven a culture of low-cost production and significant pressure at farm level to meet these demands.

The double whammy here is that global food production is failing populations around the world, paradoxically in different ways. While food might be cheap, the most recent estimates show that nearly 690 million people, or 8.9 percent of the world population, are hungry-up by 10 million people in the past year and by nearly 60 million in the last five years3. All of this while 1.9 billion are suffering from the ill effects of being overweight and obese. In the last 60 years our diets have become more homogenous and increasingly dominated by staple foods that are high in energy and low in micronutrients. Three crops – rice, maize and wheat – provide more than 50% of the calories that we gain from plants4. People, particularly the poorest, do not consume enough nutrient-rich food such as fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

So, what can farmers do to correct these wrongs? And what is the role of the wider supply chain? The answer, on the face of it, is that it’s complicated. There are a multitude of agendas competing with each other – usually narrowly focused. NGOs fixated on single issues, or with a belief that they alone have the answer. Food businesses who have woken up to the fact that environmental mitigation is now a competitive issue and are subsequently jumping on a swarm of different bandwagons and initiatives. Influencers who like the sound of their own voices – or tweets – espousing narrow views. And of course, Governments developing farm policies, often ill-conceived, and creating unintended consequences in ways they didn’t foresee.

However, the more I’ve read about this, the more I talk to people, the more I have begun to appreciate the issues, whether societal, environmental or economic – it all seems to come back to a single common factor.

A lack of diversity, or in this case: biodiversity. A lack of biodiversity in our soils, in our farming systems, in the food we eat, in our supply chains; and a lack of diversity in the way we approach the challenges facing us, in the governance of our organisations, and dare I say it, a lack of diversity in our thinking.

To paraphrase the Food and Agricultural Organisation, we need to mainline biodiversity. But what does this look like in practice? In recent years, the role of biodiversity has been gaining growing global attention. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development puts biodiversity as one of the key elements for many economic activities, particularly those related to sustainable agriculture. There is a strong argument to say that food security and nutrition depends on increased biodiversity: it will make production systems and livelihoods more resilient to economic, social and environmental shocks, including climate change; it will lead to more sustainable farming businesses, turning the tide on decades of degradation; it will improve nutrient cycling, soil formation, carbon sequestration, water storage and filtration, habitat provision, and biological pest control; it will create farming systems with reduced reliance on purchased chemistry, and more reliance on biological and natural techniques, but no less profitable.

For the record, I am not advocating organic production. Organic production has its place and there is much to learn from those who excel at it, but in my view, it simply cannot support the nutritional demands of the global population. But I do believe we need a radical and wholesale change in the way that we farm. A revolution, no less, that has biodiversity at the centre of its beating heart.

So, what of the wider supply chain? Everyone involved in food and drink supply chains need to grasp this agenda. Those who supply inputs to farmers, whether pesticides, fertilisers or machines, need to tear up their current models and start to offer services, technology and equipment that encourages a reduction in chemical agriculture and an increase in biodiversity. The consultancy industry needs to shake its tree and let much of the old deadwood thinking drop away, letting new shoots take root and thrive.

Processing and manufacturing businesses, those who purchase agricultural output, have a crucial role to play. They have a system-wide role to incentivise new behaviours at farm and to promote and build the market conditions and consumer behaviours required to support biodiversity. Food and drink businesses are in a unique position. Arguably, they alone have the resources and influence to really drive tangible change back down the supply chain. But to do so they need to have the technical knowledge and understanding to develop and implement initiatives that offer true benefits to the farmers in receipt of such schemes, and that can also survive the scrutiny that the critics waiting in the wings will want to throw at them.

So how can we help? Well like I say, it is complicated. To deliver real change requires multiple disciplines. EFFP has been helping food and drink businesses develop and implement collaborative supply chains for years, and increasingly this involves back to farm sustainability initiatives. But to really achieve results and add value, we have to include a diverse set of factors:from crop and animal production, to environmental knowledge, to data systems, communication and PR, to an understanding of consumer demands, food nutrition and wellbeing, as well as expertise to help encourage behavioural change. To achieve this, EFFP has pulled together a consortium of experts in these areas–a diverse group of people you could say – who we believe are the best in the industry to help us spark this change.After all, it isn’t just the future of our industry that depends on its success at enacting this change – it’s the survival of our planet and all who live on it.

If you are interested in what we can offer, please don’t hesitate to get in touch: drawson@effp.com or 07834 337346.

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