Chapter 3 Diets and the planet: an unsustainable relationship

Key messages

Humanity is facing an unparalleled  crisis relating to the planet’s  health. This is in addition to the  policy challenges posed by the  ongoing human health crisis linked  to poor diets., and strengthens  further the case for urgent reform of food systems.

Planetary and dietary crises are  fundamentally inter-linked and  must be addressed in a coordinated  way. The climate crisis, soil degradation,  rising ocean levels, biodiversity loss,  pollution of air, water and land, and  depletion of freshwater resources all  pose risks to, and are partly driven by,  the way food systems work.

Climate change, in particular, will  influence the quality and quantity  of food which can be produced and  our ability to distribute it equitably.  Climate change and a compromised  natural environment threaten food  production due to drought, flooding,  desertification, or any number of unseasonal climatic anomalies.  If more than one environmental  effect occurs at the same time,  the risks are amplified. Climate change is already having significant  impacts on agricultural production.

There is also a real risk of rapidly  escalating humanitarian need.  This could lead to a projected  doubling in the number of people requiring aid from around 110 million  in 2018 to over 200 million by 2050.  This will push humanitarian funding  requirements after climate-related  disasters to US$20 billion annually by 2030.

The most severe economic and  food system impacts on crop  yields and fisheries will be borne  disproportionately by low-income  countries. The reliance of many low- and middle-income countries  (LMICs) on food imports is also at risk  from simultaneous harvest failures in breadbasket countries, leading to  potential supply constraints and food  price increases on global markets.

At the same time, the global food  system is transgressing multiple  planetary boundaries and may be  a major contributor to greenhouse  gas (GHG) emissions, producing  up to 30% of global GHGs. It is  essential that the global food system  be transformed alongside changes in  the energy industry and other sectors,  if critical targets such as keeping the  average global temperature increase  below 1.5 degrees are to be met.

The environmental costs of food  systems are strongly affected both  by agricultural inefficiencies that  permeate food systems, and also by  dietary choices around the world.
In the case of the latter, animal-sourced  foods in particular, generally require high  inputs in terms of land and feed quality,  generate relatively high GHG emissions,  and are one of the major contributors  to natural resource degradation.

The coronavirus pandemic offers  an important opportunity for  all countries to assess the links between dietary choices and health  outcomes. It has caused multiple  shocks simultaneously throughout  the global food system.

Three urgent priorities to mitigate  these effects are:

1.Ensure that nutritional needs of all  citizens are met.

2.Protect, enhance, and buffer  stakeholders across entire food  value chains.

3.Invest in local food systems so that  they are more resilient to shocks of all  kinds, and able to deliver sustainable,  healthy diets to 9.5 billion people.

It is essential that policymakers  address these multiple, inter-linked crises by transforming food systems,  but they are in an increasingly  constrained operating space. This is  partly because of existing shifts in dietary  patterns that may not be aligned with  improving diet quality and sustainability.  Also constraining are the headwinds  generated by climate change, and a host  of non-food factors affecting water and  land scarcity, pollution, and biodiversity  loss – all of which threaten the quality and  quantity of the food which can produced.

Moving forward, a key aim should  also be to reverse the ‘vicious’ cycles  which currently operate between the  food system and the environment. It is possible to promote both human  and planetary health simultaneously,  through actions discussed in detail in  Part II of this report –influencing dietary  choices and technology adoption being  particularly important.

A transformed food system would  be able to feed a projected future  population of almost 10 billion. Continuing with the current food  system would only allow one third  of this total to be fed.

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As if the policy challenges posed by our  growing diet-related health crisis were  not enough, humanity also faces a second  crisis deriving from the planet’s ill-health.  Climate change, soil degradation, rising  ocean levels, biodiversity loss, pollution  of air, water and land, and depletion of  freshwater resources all pose risks to, and  are significantly impacted by, the way our food systems work. Policymakers are  therefore faced with a complex challenge:  how to increase the supply of diverse and safe nutrient-rich foods which are  affordable and desirable to all, but in  ways that are sustainable.

There are many known, innovative, and emerging  technologies to be explored, from production (scaled up integrated pest management, agroforestry designed to  include carbon sequestration, a focus on output of nuts and  seeds for enhanced diets, and cost-effective conservation  agriculture that enhances the use and protection of natural resources) through processing (enhanced food processing and packaging).

The food system is complex and dynamic, composed of many  interlocking sub-systems across agricultural production, markets  and trade, retail, and consumer demand and purchasing power. 1

Besides those components which relate to human health, there  are also key economic, political and social dimensions to food.

In addition, there are the environmental systems which support  the global food supply, and which are the focus of this chapter.  These systems are also the focus of current planet-wide concerns  about issues such as the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and  natural resource degradation. Diets must be viewed as the end  point of the food system (what people eat or throw away as  waste), but the diets that people want can also act as a major  driver of how the food system responds.

What individuals eat and what farmers produce are both  heavily influenced by interactions between prices and incomes,  opportunity costs of time (for shopping, food preparation and  cooking – particularly for women), access to established and promising technologies, effective information flows, market access,  and cultural norms. This chapter explores the diet-environment  links, particularly the negative impacts of current food production,  food processing and consumption patterns on diverse dimensions  of what can broadly be called ‘the environment’. 2 It also considers  how the deteriorating state of the planet’s environmental systems threaten the effective functioning of food systems (see Box 3.1 for  a full explanation of what is meant by ‘sustainable food systems’  in this report). This assessment sets up the deeper elaboration, in Part Two of this report, of key actions needed across the global  food system to manage a transition toward a transformed food  system which generates positive outcomes for human health  and the environment, rather than negative ones.

 

Box 3.1: Sustainable food systems and planetary boundaries

For the purposes of this report, the term ‘sustainable food  system’ is used if the contribution of any food system (which  delivers locally produced but also imported and marketed  foods) can be continued without undermining the ability of the natural environment to function in the long term.  In other words, the system does not drive biodiversity loss,  pollution, soil degradation, or climate change. If the system can sustain the production and distribution of the diversity,  quantity and quality of foods needed to support healthy  diets for all, then a win-win has been achieved (see Box 1.1).

The Global Panel’s premise of “maintaining the food system within planetary boundaries" 3 4 assumes that there is a range  of environmental and biophysical thresholds below which  the planet can maintain environmental integrity, but above  which it cannot. While these thresholds apply globally, their  impacts manifest locally. In other words, a sustainable food  system is one that can continue without undermining the  ability of the natural environment to function. For LMICs,  sustainability represents a development agenda, not just a few actions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Food systems are non-linear in that they incorporate  feedback loops, direct and indirect, with positive and  negative effects. All activities across the food system – whether production, processing, retail, or food  preparation – have impacts on the environment.  Processing, transport, and retail require energy, water,  roads, and other inputs such as packaging. Pollution  comes from chemical usage and disposal (e.g. from  fertilisers, pesticides, industrial processes, and through  greenhouse gas emissions), as well as from disposal of plastics and other packaging.

Planetary boundaries include limits in terms of greenhouse  gas emissions (and climate change), bio-geochemical  cycles (particularly nitrogen and phosphate), loss of  biodiversity and arable land, the acidification of the oceans,  atmospheric aerosol loading, and so on. The global food  system must be seen as ‘unsustainable’ if it contributes  significantly to crossing one or all of these planetary  boundaries, but ‘sustainable’ if it enables these thresholds  not to be crossed. 5 6 7 8

3.1 Negative feedback loops between diets and environment

Different food commodities put very different demands on the earth’s natural systems depending on how and where  they are produced. This means dietary patterns in one country  versus another have very different implications in terms of  GHGs and natural resource degradation. A recent study sets out  the very different ‘environmental footprints’ of different foods  depending on the outcomes measured (see Figure 3.1). 9 For  example, animal products (meat, eggs, dairy, or fish) contribute  the highest amount of GHGs, and this is projected to increase  almost two-fold by 2050. On the other hand, production of  staple foods requires large quantities of land and water usage, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus application.

It is also becoming clearer that different production techniques  have different environmental impacts for the same type of food (i.e. the impact of the food-ecosystem relationship is not static  but can change if certain products are produced differently). For  example, the environmental impacts of aquaculture depend on  “the species, and increasingly the strain, farmed due to varying  feed requirements, differences in growing method, production  intensity, input sourcing, and farm management practices”. 10

The same may well be true of various processing approaches,  product innovations and novel technologies used along the  value chain after production, but there is as yet limited empirical  evidence of such potential gains.

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A key question therefore arises: by encouraging shifts in diet  composition (i.e. the foods that individuals include in their diets),  and adopting alternative approaches to producing, processing  and transporting foods, is it possible to improve human health  and the sustainability of food systems simultaneously?

It is not just individual foods that matter, but how foods are  used together to make up a dietary pattern. Different forms of diets, in diverse geographies, have quite different implications  in terms of resource and climate impacts according to their  water and soil nutrient usage under prevailing production  practices (see Figure 3.2). 12

For example, one study modelled the GHG and water footprint  impacts of various diets for 151 countries (see Figure 3.3).

It showed that dietary choices vary considerably across  countries, largely due to prevailing farm technologies,  agriculture-led deforestation, and the intensity of farmed  aquaculture. Importantly, diets that included animal products in one meal each day produced fewer GHG-emissions  than vegetarian diets (which allow dairy and eggs but no meat at all). This was because of the GHG-intensity and water  demands of dairy production. These results demonstrate the  importance of taking a nuanced approach to keeping emissions  to a minimum. 13 This study also reported that the increased  farm production that would be needed to ensure minimum  intakes of calories and protein among today’s chronically  undernourished people would result in net increases in GHG  and water footprints that would need to be factored into  sustainability targets.

The diet-related social cost of greenhouse gas emissions associated with current dietary patterns is estimated to be more than US$1.7 trillion per year by 2030

FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO (2020)

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Dietary patterns also have positive or negative feedback loops  in terms of environmental impacts throughout the food  system and dietary choice influences the strength of those  feedback loops (see Figure 3.4). When there is dysfunction in  both environmental and food systems, negative feedback loops  can create interlocking vicious circles. For example, certain  modes of agricultural intensification can result in soil depletion,  which causes a decline in yields, driving up the need for yet  further intensification. Similarly, monocropping can exacerbate  biodiversity loss relating, for example, to pollinators. 17 The  consequential reductions in yield can then encourage further  intensification, with for example, increasing emphasis on  monocropping. These illustrations show how understanding  these feedback loops is essential to identifying effective  intervention points for policy and business interventions.

Investment in increasing agricultural productivity, coupled with  competition for commodities through the liberalisation of trade,  has long been the central pillar of strategies aimed at feeding  people at least cost. 18 The reduction of food prices has two  nominal public goods outcomes:

  1. it increases the availability and economic access to food, and  therefore contributes to food security (locally and globally); and
  2. by reducing the share of household spending on food,  income is freed up for consumption growth in other goods  and services which fuels economic activity in other sectors.

However, as rising incomes do not automatically improve  the quality of diets (see Section 2.4), increasing food supply  and reducing food prices through conventional approaches comes with unintended consequences (see Figure 3.4). A drive  towards productivity leads to increasing the intensity and scale  of land use, with consequences for soils, air and water quality,  appropriation of water and biodiversity loss. The benefits of  global markets, and reliance on competitive advantage that  rewards economies of scale geared towards monocropping,  has led to a global concentration of food into a handful of  commodity crops, grown in a few breadbasket regions, traded  by a small number of global companies. Grain is sufficiently  cheap that large volumes are allocated as livestock feed,  supporting growth in the global stock.

As prices reduce, more food is often wasted, creating additional  environmental issues. And, as per capita availability of food,  including meat, increases, the GHG emissions from the food  system (including the impact of deforestation to produce more  commodity crops) increases (now around 30% of total human emissions), driving climate change. Climate change then negatively  affects yields and their nutritional quality, creating further pressures  to intensify by way of compensation, or to expand land use to  produce more food, feed, and fibre. Furthermore, as emissions  grow, there is a growing need for land-based mitigation, including  biomass production for biomass, energy with carbon capture  and storage (BECCS) or afforestation. Thus, by driving climate  change, consumption growth drives competition for land, as well as reducing the efficacy of agriculture.

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Recent research suggests that the current global food system  may already be transgressing multiple planetary boundaries  relating to climate change, soil degradation, rising ocean levels,  biodiversity loss, pollution of air, water and land, and depletion  of freshwater resources. Without changing our food system  (i.e. maintaining ‘business as usual’ production, but making  the planetary boundaries real constraints), there would only  be enough food for about 44% of the current population (3.4 billion people). However, estimates indicate that a  transformed food system that was efficient and minimised  waste could sustain over 10 billion people and still operate  within planetary boundaries. 19

The GHGs and other environmental and climate impacts of  dietary choice can be traced directly through to individual types  of foods. The link between household diets and environmental  impacts has been illustrated by a study in the United States  which showed that those households which generated the  highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions through their dietary  choices, spent a “significantly larger share of their food budget on protein foods” (i.e. meat and dairy products) than households  with the lowest levels of emissions. 20

Consumer choice can therefore play a key role in reducing  negative impacts on particular natural resources and on  the climate, by influencing demand for foods with different environmental footprints. For example, influencing demand  for ruminant meat can affect GHGs, and the same applies to  monocropping-grown staples and their impact on biodiversity,  or the ways in which fish are caught in the oceans, or how fruit  is produced (in terms of water uptake).

What, then, are the characteristics of an efficient and low-waste  food system which could operate within planetary boundaries  while providing healthy diets for all?

This key question is  addressed in the remainder of this chapter, while the later chapters in Part II of the report turn their attention to the  specific actions needed to realise this goal.

3.2 The impacts of diets and food systems on climate and natural resources

Two important factors influence the environmental costs of  food systems. The first is already well recognised and concerns  the many inefficiencies that permeate food systems, including:  loss and waste through the food chain, from production through  to consumption; inappropriate farming practices and soil  management; and inefficient use of agricultural inputs, such as fresh water and pesticides.

But this report also highlights a second factor: the dietary choices made in LMICs as well as in high-income countries (HICs).  Consumption patterns around the world largely drive the kinds  of food and products produced, the number and type of animals  that are raised, and the fish that are harvested from the oceans  or farmed in ponds on land. Since each of these has a different  environmental footprint, our dietary choices profoundly affect  the environment. Thus, both human and planetary health  depend in part on our dietary choices.

From a dietary point of view, there are three universal challenges: obesity, undernutrition and climate change

Bradfield et al. (2020) 21

The agriculture sector is not the only human sector of activity  responsible for natural resource degradation and harmful  emissions. As noted, agricultural practices (all farming activities,  including livestock production and associated land use activities)  are thought to contribute roughly a quarter of all greenhouse  gas emissions. When production is coupled with pre-planting  activities (such as industrial production of fertiliser) and post-  harvest operations (including down-stream activities in food  transportation, processing, storage, retail, and reduced food loss and waste), global emissions due to food system functions are  estimated at a third of the total (roughly 25% from agriculture  and the rest from down-stream activities of the food system. 22


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Given this important contribution, reducing the impact of  agriculture and attendant food system functions will be crucially  important to global climate change goals, namely keeping  warming to below 1.5C. That goal was set before more recent  studies suggested that a doubling of atmospheric carbon  dioxide from pre-industrial levels has a 66% chance of heating  the planet by at least 2.6C, and possibly as high as 3.9C. 25 The  baseline level in pre-industrial times was 280 parts per million  (ppm); by May 2020 it had risen to 417 ppm. In other words,  the urgency of taking action to minimise future emissions and warming cannot be emphasised enough. And emissions  reductions will only be achieved if changes are made across the food system alongside changes made in the energy, industry  and other emitting sectors. 26

The long-term viability of food systems depends on the  transformative change that can mitigate the negative impacts  of the climate crisis as well as those associated with natural  resource degradation. There are many multi-directional links  among climate, weather patterns, natural disasters, and resource  availability, on the one side, and the food systems influenced by  dietary patterns, on the other. The following section explores a  selection of critical feedback loops to highlight the scale of the challenges faced.

The rest of Section 3.2 considers the extent to  which agriculture impacts climate and natural resources. Section 3.3 then discusses how climate and loss of natural resources  impact food system functions.

3.2.1 Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  estimates that the food system is responsible for roughly  28% of GHGs 27 (see Figure 3.5). According to the IPCC,  between 2007 and 2016, within the global food system,  agriculture emitted on average 6.2±1.4 Gt of CO2eq yearly  (of which two-thirds comes from methane and one-third  from nitrous oxide (NOx) compounds). 28 Most of the CO2  was emitted from clearing land to expand agriculture, with  slightly less emitted from other food-related sectors (e.g. the  manufacture of inorganic inputs, transport, manufacturing, processing, and retail of food). In total, the food system emits  approximately 14.7 (likely range 10.7-19.1) Gt of CO2 equivalent,  against a global emission of 52.0 Gt, equivalent to about 28%  (as suggested by other analyses). 29

Diets are the main determinant of GHG emissions.

Theurl (2020) 30

Rising food demand has led to farm expansion at a rate of 10 million hectare (ha) per year for the last decade, including  rainforest clearance, which creates emissions from land-use  change. 31 Also, besides carbon dioxide there are other significant  GHG emissions to be concerned about because of their  atmospheric effects, including nitrous oxide from fertilisers  (synthetic and manure), and methane. 32

There has been a significant rise in atmospheric methane since  2000, with the highest ever levels recorded in 2017. 33 Importantly,  it is estimated that agriculture and food waste contributed 60% of the increase in methane, fossil fuels contributed much  of the remaining 40%, and that the largest increases were  seen in these world regions: Africa and the Middle East, then  China, and South Asia and Oceania. 34 Significant quantities of  methane are produced when paddy fields are flooded for rice  due to their soils becoming anaerobic, and by ruminants (less  so from pigs and poultry), which further illustrates how diet  patterns influence the environmental footprint, and therefore  sustainability, of food systems.  35This growing problem also highlights the fact that food system actions must be prioritised  in tropical low- and middle-income countries, not just in high-  income countries lying in temperate geographies. 36

The food system causes emissions which are approximately  equal to all personal travel (including domestic car and aircraft  journeys), all lighting, heating and air conditioning, and all  washing machines. 37 On an aggregate basis, nearly half of the  emissions from agri-food are related to the livestock sector. 38

Governments around the world are challenged by a vicious  cycle: the global food system generates GHGs which contribute  significantly to climate change, which in turn impacts the food  system. Climate change may adversely affect crop yields and  the nutrient content of some crop varieties (especially through  higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as well as higher night-time average temperatures), especially in the  middle latitudes (see Section 3.3). Reductions in yields then lead  to more land required for agriculture, or more intensification to  compensate, in turn driving climate change.

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3.2.2 Land use and misuse

In 2014, roughly five billion hectares of the world’s land was  used for agriculture, equivalent to around 38% of the total  land area. 39 While there is a “looming land shortage” 40 globally  (in terms of productive land needed to meet projected food  needs based on current patterns of demand), there is some  scope for the expansion of food production. However, the  extent to which this is possible is contested due to differing  views on the value of land for other purposes, most notably  climate change mitigation and the generation of non-food  crops such as bioenergy, alcohol, textiles, and the manufacture  of commodities and materials. 41 Most additional land for  expansion will require deforestation, resulting in substantial  costs to the climate and the environment. 42

The single greatest cause of extinction risk is the habitat destruction that occurs when new cropland and pasture are created.

Tilman and Frumkin (2020) 43

The limited availability of ‘new’ land, the cost of converting forests to agricultural land for agriculture, and increasing competition  for land, have all led many commentators to assume (implicitly  or explicitly) that the land footprint of agriculture is unlikely to  change. 44 For example, a recent in-depth analysis of the scope for  agricultural expansion concluded:  45

…first that there is substantially less potential additional cropland than
is generally assumed once constraints and trade-offs are taken into account, and secondly that converting land is always associated with significant social and ecological costs. Future expansion of agricultural production will encounter a complex landscape of competing demands and trade-offs.

Lambin et al. (2013) 46

In other words, to ensure production meets anticipated  needs that mirror past trends, the emphasis will have to be on increasing overall system efficiency leading to higher yields from  available land through intensification (see Box 3.2). The choice  of food (or other agricultural commodity) produced on a given  area of land also needs careful consideration, because this can  also affect the land carbon footprint, as well as the quantity of  calories and diverse nutrients produced overall (see Section 3.1).

Box 3.2: Past agricultural production and crop yield developments

Global agricultural output has risen enormously since the  1960s. From 1961-2005, the world’s population increased more  than two-fold while cereal production rose nearly 2.5-fold (see  Figure 3.6b), and meat production 3.6-fold. 47 During that same  period, the number of livestock increased four-fold (from seven  billion to 28 billion, mainly through more chickens – see Figure  3.6c). 48 The rate of growth in cereals output was faster in low-  and middle-income countries than in high-income settings.

As the land used for agriculture increased only by around 10%  globally during that period (see Figure 3.6a), the output-growth  rose primarily through intensification with a five-fold increase in  fertiliser use from 1961-2014 and a 3.5-fold increase in pesticide  usage from the mid-1980s (see Figure 3.6d). Intensification  arises from a range of factors including new varieties bred for increased yield, density of planting, mechanisation and

scale, use of inputs (fertiliser, pesticides, liming of soils,  concentrated nutrition for livestock, antimicrobials in  the livestock sector), and irrigation technologies.

The intensification of agriculture has not been uniform across  the globe, reflecting variable access to inputs, technologies, and  markets. One way of expressing the productivity of agriculture  is by the size of the gap between the best achievable yield and  that achieved in a given place. This ‘yield gap’ (see Figure 3.7)  reflects factors related to technology (including genetics,  inputs, weed control, management, harvesting, water  management etc.). Improving productivity has two potential  components: raising the achievable yield (the ‘yield ceiling’) and  closing the yield gap. In many parts of the world, the yield gap  is substantial. However, there are interventions in LMICs that  offer insight into how yield gaps can be reduced or closed. 49


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To sustain further yield gains will likely require fine-tuning many different factors in the field: better understanding of genetic potential, improving soil quality, relaxing biotechnology regulation and improving the sustainability of cropping systems.

Editorial comment, Nature Food (2020) 51

Box 3.2 continued


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One way to increase efficiency is via economies of  scale, which also lead to concentration of production in  areas that support the scale – the ‘breadbaskets’. From  a farming perspective, large-scale operations create efficiency, but they also create homogeneity and therefore  increase the risk of pests and diseases. For example, the  World Organisation for Animal Health has estimated that 20% of global livestock production is lost to animal  diseases (at US$300 billion per year), while the World Bank  puts the economic losses caused by just six international  incidents of animal disease in the first decade of the 21st century at US$80 billion. 53 Animal diseases can also  affect humans: over 60% of human diseases originate in  animals and the expansion and globalisation of livestock  agriculture creates risks of newly emerging diseases. 54

The need for careful consideration of how national agriculture,  trade and price policies influence what is grown where and how  are particularly pressing for LMICs in semi-arid or mountainous  regions, many of which are structurally in food deficit. Spreading  agriculture into marginal or forested lands and/or pursuing  unsustainable intensification are short-term solutions with only  short-term gain, but they carry long-term threats to the natural  resource base and to the climate. Indeed, soils need to be treated  and managed as a scarce and fragile non-renewable resource. For  example, across China the yield penalty due to soil degradation  varies from 4-25% in different areas. 55 Nutrient depletion and  broader organic loss (including carbon, potassium, nitrogen and  phosphorous) occurs through leaching, over-intensification, and uptake by crops without adequate replacement by manure  and/or fertiliser. Rising temperatures and carbon dioxide  concentrations may deplete the density of certain micronutrients  in some grain crops, which would have important implications in LMICs where those effects would be most felt and where the  affected crops play a significant role in local food systems. 56

In resource-constrained contexts there are large benefits to be  had from supporting new technology adoption, working with  regional and donor partners to boost investment in value chain  innovations, and consciously shaping incentives for commercial  activities which support enhanced efficiency of activities across  the entire food system rather than relying on traditional supply-  side maximisation strategies.

3.2.3 Loss of biodiversity

The scale and intensity of agriculture in many countries creates  homogenous landscapes and reduces non-cropped areas for wildlife habitats, with a major impact on biodiversity. 57  Agricultural inputs are also important: for example, recent  studies highlight the potential role of neonicotinoid pesticides  in the recent declines of honey bee and wild bee populations. 58  The loss of biodiversity from land-use change is also significant,  including forest loss driven by market demand for livestock and  its feed (soya) or for plantation-based palm oil.

Already the population sizes of mammals, birds, reptiles,  amphibians, and fish have declined by over 50% since 1970,  and an estimated one million species now face extinction, many within decades. 59

On average across the world, species  diversity is estimated to have declined by 14% and total  abundance by around 11% compared with estimates modelled  without human activity (see Figure 3.8). The economic costs of  biodiversity loss are massive: the global annual loss of pollinating  insects alone is estimated to cost US$235-577 billion. 60 Equally  important is the growing realisation that biodiversity loss linked  to resource depletion and climate change will increase the negative  impacts of both over time, and that diet quality may well suffer  as a result of lost agroforestry, aquatic and other biospheres.

3.2.4 Loss of pollinators

A study using data from 200 countries found that fruit,  vegetable or seed production for 87 of the leading global food  crops depends on pollinators, and that 35% of global calorie supply derives from pollinator-dependent crops. 61 The loss of  pollination services also affects global health because pollinator-  dependent crops contribute a disproportionate share of critical  micronutrients in the diet, including vitamin A, folate, calcium,  and many others. 62


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Dietary patterns modelled across the populations of 152  countries showed that a 50% reduction in pollination services  could lead to 700,000 excess deaths annually from micronutrient  deficiencies and increased mortality from heart disease, strokes,  and certain cancers. 67 By experimentally increasing wild  pollinator density and richness, investigators were able to close  this yield gap by 24% on average. 68 These findings, replicated  across many different crop systems and geographical regions,  suggest that the globe is already suffering from a ‘pollinator gap’  that reduces the yields of nutritionally important food crops. Biodiversity also has a crucial role in enhancing crop yields  through the effect of soil biodiversity on soil fertility, and the  ‘natural enemies’ that control pests.

3.2.5 Water and air quality

Over recent decades, the impact of pollution from rainfall  runoff carrying fertilisers (nitrates and phosphates), biocides and  herbicides, and veterinary antibiotics, has become much more  apparent. 69 These have an adverse effect on the natural aquatic  environment. Toxic algal blooms are widespread in many rivers,  including in LMICs (see Figure 3.9).

Poor management of land and soil increases sediment loads to rivers and reservoirs, reducing carrying and storage capacity,  respectively. It also speeds up runoff, and increases flood risk,  for example, by reducing vegetation cover and compacting  soil. Low water retention in soils from intensive agriculture and loss of topsoil also reduces summer flows, and where  compaction occurs, or hard pans are formed, groundwater  recharge is reduced.

Antibiotics discharged from municipal wastewater treatment  works, and excreted from treated livestock, are a growing  threat and run the risk of increasing resistance in bacteria in the environment and transferring resistant genes to humans.  For every person on the planet in 2016 (7.5 billion), FAOSTAT  data indicates on average the use of 284g of active ingredients  of pesticides. Excessive use of pesticides clearly has implications  not only for biodiversity, but for contamination of land, water, and human health. Another area of growing concern is the use of antibiotics in livestock. 70 These are used as growth  promoters and prophylactically for maintaining herd health in  some intensive farming systems. The global usage of antibiotics  in livestock farming in 2010 was 63,151 ± 1,560 tons, which is the same as 9g per person across the world: equivalent to a standard course of antibiotics. The use of antimicrobials in  livestock production is projected to increase by 67% between  2010 and 2030, to 105,596 ± 3,605 tonnes. 71 This may contribute  to emerging antimicrobial resistance, with huge implications for  human disease treatments. 72


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3.2.6 Aquatic food resources and the  ocean environment

The warming of oceans associated with climate change  is having important impacts not only on the viability of  coral reefs, but on the stock and quality of many species  of fish globally. 75 This has significant implications for the diets of many millions of people, as well as for the livelihoods  of those involved in fish production or catch. Although  climate effects are wide-ranging depending on location,  water temperature and quality (especially acidification) are  expected to cause significant changes in stock productivity, which will affect potential yields and profits. This will also affect  the geographic distribution of that stock (which determines  where fish can be caught and who can benefit from such catch).

Depending on the underlying assumptions of various climate  models, between 40% and 91% of the stocks of some species  could disappear (become extinct), even if other species would  benefit and increase. 76

Today, 31% of commercially important assessed marine fish stocks worldwide are overfished... At risk are hundreds of millions of people who depend on fisheries
and aquaculture for their livelihoods,
food security and nutrition

FAO (2016) 77

One assessment of potential revenue loss in global fisheries  associated with a high CO2 emission scenario suggests that  revenues would drop 35% more than the projected decrease  in catches even by 2050. 78 This would come on top of the  falling catch and revenues already seen in recent decades. Wild  catch of fish peaked in 1992 and has been falling by 1%/year  on average ever since. Roughly 90% of monitored fisheries are being exploited up to, or beyond, maximum sustainable yields. 79 Warming ocean temperatures add an additional challenge, and are expected to drive smaller fish sizes, smaller fisheries,  and significant migration of fisheries away from the tropics  and toward the poles. 80 The loss of many nutrients (not just  protein or omega 3 fatty acids) would be critical for large  numbers of people in LMICs where so much production  takes place. 81

3.3 Climate crisis and environmental impacts on food systems

Climate change and a compromised natural environment can  result in a heightened threat to food production due to drought,  floods, desertification, or any number of unseasonal climatic  anomalies. Also, if more than one environmental effect occurs at the same time, the risks are amplified. 82 Climate change is  already having significant impacts on agricultural production. 83  For example, some regions, mainly in the tropics and sub-tropics,  continue to experience deteriorating land quality, loss of topsoil,  loss of soil nutrients and loss of organic matter. The highest levels  of land degradation are manifest in the lowest-income countries  which already have relatively low agricultural productivity and  are often chronically food-deficit countries (see Figure 3.7).

3.3.1 Climate change and food production

The world is not only recording global temperature increases –  with dry areas getting drier and wet areas getting wetter – but  local weather patterns and associated agroecological conditions  are also changing. Extremes are becoming more extreme in  many locations, causing increasingly unprecedented weather  conditions, such as extreme heat, drought, rainfall and storm  intensity, especially in LMICs.

As the climate crisis unfolds in coming decades, these factors  will influence the yield and volatility of food production  globally. 84 Figure 3.10 illustrates the possible effects on crop  yields if 3C of warming were to occur. 85 A convergence of  recent modelling suggests that “human-caused climate change  will influence the quality and quantity of food we produce  and our ability to distribute it equitably”. 86 There is a real risk of rapidly escalating humanitarian need, leading to a projected  doubling in the number of people in need of aid from around 110 million in 2018 to over 200 million by 2050. Humanitarian  funding requirements after climate-related disasters could  increase from between US$3.5-12 billion to US$20 billion  annually by 2030. 87

Climate change is already reshaping our food systems by redistributing crop and fishery potential and through extreme event disturbances.

Gephart et al. (2020) 88

These economic losses are manifest largely through impacts  on agriculture and related food systems. For example, one  meta-analysis considered more than 1,000 studies focusing on future productivity of wheat, maize, and rice under various  climate change scenarios. It found that average yields would  decline, particularly yields of wheat and maize, which were  predicted to fall by 1-2% per decade. 89 This may be a realistic  assessment given other recent research which looked back at  the effects of changing climate on global agriculture since 1961;  that work showed that anthropogenic climate change reduced  productivity in agriculture by roughly 21% since the early 1960s,  a slowdown that is equivalent to losing all of the productivity  growth since 2011 up to the present day. 90 The conclusion is  that agriculture has already grown more vulnerable to climate  change, and that this will likely get worse in future.

While the negative effects of climate change will be felt all over  the globe, the most severe economic and food system impacts  will be borne disproportionately by people in low-income  countries, particularly in the tropics and Southern Hemisphere  subtropics which are “projected to experience the largest  impacts on economic growth due to climate change”. 91 Indeed,  the above study on past climate change impacts on productivity  in agriculture 92 found those negative effects to be much more  severe (a reduction of roughly one-third in productivity growth)  in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean. 93

Climate-driven reductions in fisheries production and alterations in fish-species composition will subsequently increase the vulnerability of tropical countries.

Lam et al. (2020) 94

The disproportionate impacts on crop yields will be exacerbated  by equally skewed impacts of ocean warming on fisheries, with  steep reductions in wild-harvested fish projected in the tropics  and increased fish catch closer to the poles. At the same time,  many LMICs rely on food imports to meet local demand, but  climate change is projected to increase the risk of multiple  simultaneous harvest failures in breadbasket countries, which  would lead to important supply constraints and food price hikes  on global markets for which LMICs are ill-prepared. 95 Building  the resilience of food systems in these contexts will be a key facet  of national and global actions to ensure healthy diets for all.


96

A further study has estimated that such effects will broadly  equate to 1% global GDP loss per year for each 1C increase in global temperatures, but with increasing economic impacts  above a 3C rise. 97 Others have posited a range from less than 1% to over 5% GDP per annum losses depending on the scenario – although low-income countries suffer the most damaging  outcomes in all models. 98 For example, reporting International  Monetary Fund calculations, the World Meteorological  Organization notes that a low-income country with an annual  average temperature today of 25C will see a fall in national  economic growth (Gross Domestic Product) of 1.2% for each  1C increase in temperature. 99

The mainly tropical and sub-tropical low-income countries whose  economies are most likely to be significantly impacted in this way  accounted for only 20% of global GDP in 2016; but these same  countries are expected to be home to around 75% of the world’s  population by the end of the century. 100 Similarly, FAO finds that  LMICs in tropical areas would bear the brunt of climate impacts  on crop yields, while HICs in temperate zones could benefit. 101

Resilience is more than just a buzz word; it has real implications for development and policy making

Hence the paradox “food production shifting to the poles just  as food consumers are concentrating near the equators”. 103

3.3.2 Pests and pathogens

Warming temperatures will increase the winter survival of insect  pests which impact crops and livestock, not just those directly  affecting human health. 104

One modelling study suggests that  rising population growth and metabolic rates among insect  pests would increase yield losses of rice, maize, and wheat by 10-25% per degree Celsius of warming. 105

Changing temperatures will also shift the geographic range of crop pests and pathogens. Among 612 species of pests and  pathogens, investigators have observed an average poleward  shift of 2.7km per year since 1960. 106 Crops often lack defences  against non-native pests and pathogens that are moving into  their non-traditional agroecological range. Ongoing breeding  and management efforts are therefore needed to address  new threats.

An oft-ignored potential negative associated with climate change  is the likely spread of food-borne diseases, including aflatoxins  across the food supply. 107 While the World Health Organization  notes that biological pathogens are the biggest drivers of food-  borne disease, the significant role of aflatoxins in poor birth  outcomes and impaired child growth in LMICs is only now being  fully recognised through recent studies. 108

Aflatoxins are naturally occurring toxins which occur through mould growth on a wide range of food crops in the field or in storage, mainly  in tropical countries. Consumed at high levels or for long  periods of time, aflatoxins are known to be carcinogenic, but are now also acknowledged to contribute to undernutrition via  babies being born small for their gestational age or stunted at  birth. 109 The role of poor diet quality in exposure to aflatoxins is  increasingly of concern to LMIC governments, such as Nepal. 110


111

Expected shifts in agroecological conditions associated with  climate change are likely to increase the rates and coverage of  contamination into temperate regions. For example, modelling  of aflatoxin contamination in maize and wheat crops across  Europe under a +2C and +5C climate change scenario has  predicted that aflatoxin will become a food safety issue in  maize in Europe, especially in the +2C scenario (which is the  most probable scenario of climate change expected for the  next few years) (see Figure 3.11).112 In tropical LMICs, where  most consumers are already widely exposed to aflatoxins, the incidence of high intake with potential for increased  acute public health crises are both likely to rise. 113

3.3.3 Emerging zoonotic diseases

Climate change, and changing land-use patterns, have been linked  with the geographical expansion of zoonotic diseases (ones that  affect human health but originate from wild animals), and the  emergence new ones. 114 A long-standing estimate is that around  60% of emerging human pathogens have animal origin. 115 The  complex interface of human-animal interactions that lead to  zoonoses is strongly influenced by the effects of climate change 116  and the natural environment more generally. For example,  increased risk of transmission of rodent-borne diseases has been  identified in South-East Asia as a result of biodiversity loss and  agricultural intensification. 117

At the same time, it has been argued  that since climate change is a driver of shifts in agricultural systems across the Tropics, there is a real danger

photo311

that new emerging  diseases will be “deadly in impoverished and immunosuppressed  societies undergoing rapid growth in degraded environments”,  as is found in much of sub-Saharan Africa. 118

The most notable recent global zoonotic disease outbreak  has been COVID-19 (see Box 3.3). At the time of writing, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic continues to have significant  repercussions for national and global food systems. While  the coronavirus is only the latest zoonotic disease outbreak  to cause havoc to the world’s economic outlook and to its  food systems, its impacts have been far reaching. 119 Swine flu and bird flu pandemics in recent years were also linked to  patterns of dietary choice and to weak regulations associated  with wild meat hunting and sales, and food safety in open  informal markets. 120 As such, the coronavirus experience offers  an important opportunity for all countries to carefully assess  the links between dietary choices (and the retail of live animals)  and health outcomes. The renewed focus of attention on food  system functions should include a critical rethinking of how  such systems are designed and managed in relation to intended  (and unintended) outcomes.

Box 3.3: The coronavirus pandemic: safeguarding food systems and nutrition

A sharp shock to food systems. Epidemics are not new, but  the recent pandemic has been distinguished by its potential  to cause multiple shocks simultaneously throughout the  global food system. Governments closed down formal and  informal retail outlets for food; the movement of agricultural  workers was severely restricted; food processing, transport  and trade have all been affected, and many people had access  to food seriously impaired over weeks and months. The  knock-on effects to diets and nutrition are of major concern,  particularly for the nutritionally vulnerable. The many  negative effects exposed the fragility of current food systems.  In some countries, the reaction has been, as it was during the  world food price crisis of 2007/08, to restrict or ban exports  of foods, which disrupts trade and price signals and makes  measured collaborative action aimed at keeping trade open  very difficult. It is the poorest consumer who suffers most.

Three urgent priorities to mitigate the effects of the  pandemic on food systems and diet quality are:

  1. Ensure that nutritional needs of all people are met.  Social protection measures (e.g. cash transfers, small loans,  voucher programmes and more) should be designed,  funded, and implemented in ways that protect the  poorest and most nutritionally vulnerable. All protection  measures should seek to ensure that benefits are sufficient  to allow for access to diets which include nutrient-rich  fresh produce. Effective behaviour messaging is needed to promote exclusive breastfeeding and appropriate infant  and young child feeding. Institutional and other in-kind  feeding activities must include demand for adequate  nutrient-rich foods (i.e. not just starchy staples or grains).  People should be informed and encouraged to consume  foods which are key to healthy diets, and to moderate  intake of ultra-processed products and foods high in  unhealthy fats, sugar, and salt. Tackling misinformation is important; governments should swiftly prosecute the  purveyors of products falsely claiming protection against  COVID-19, counter unproven claims that certain foods  can treat the virus, and refute hoax claims that some fresh  foods are implicated in its spread.
  2. Protect, enhance, and buffer stakeholders across  entire food value chains. Farms, food transporters,  traders, wholesalers, processors, and retailers are at risk  of collapse across the food system. Rapid government and business interventions are needed to buffer demand,  bolster food-related employment, open lines of credit to  food-related small- and medium-enterprises (SMEs), use  institutional procurement to avoid food loss and waste  until markets are functional, and ensure the supply of  agricultural inputs for the next production season. The  food system has not broken down, but its functioning is damaged. Food sector SMEs in LMICs are particularly  fragile and vulnerable to disruptions in markets and consumer spending. They need to be supported with  access to loans, information, and digital technologies.
  1. Kick-start the transition and make food systems  function better than before. Policymakers need an eye  on the future, and life after the pandemic. Food systems  must be financed and managed in ways that make them  more resilient to shocks of all kinds, able to deliver healthy  diets to 9.5 billion people in ways that are sustainable in  the long run by being less damaging to the planet in the  short and medium-term. Just like the coronavirus, climate  threats, economic threats and natural resource shortages  all cut across borders. So must the solutions to the linked  crises of human health and planetary health. Trade in  food must be made more friction-free, the public goods  benefits of agricultural research and development (R&D) and technology innovation should be accessible to all, and  the best science and lessons from practice must be openly accessed, discussed and applied regardless of geography.

This crisis presents an opportunity to better understand  and intervene to correct the flashpoints that have made food systems buckle under pressure: inequities in purchasing  power, limited physical access to healthy diets for millions of people, political impulses that lean towards traditional  trade protectionism, supply chains susceptible to disruption,  natural resource depletion making a supply response to higher prices difficult, and a lack of pre-existing social  protection mechanisms designed to protect the diets of  the poor. Now is the time to initiate steps in a transition  towards sustainable, healthy diets.

photo3112

3.4 From challenges to solutions

Policymakers are finding themselves in an increasingly  constrained operating space defined by:

  1. Rapidly rising global demand for nutrient-rich diets;
  2. The need to sharply reduce the ecological impacts  of producing these diets; and
  3. The headwinds generated by climate change, water and  land scarcity, pollution, and biodiversity loss, all of which  threaten the quality and quantity of the food that can be  produced. Producing more nutrient-rich food with much  greater efficiency becomes imperative.

A combination of dietary choices and food production  approaches can together influence the quantity and type of  emissions produced, as well as the environmental footprint in  a given setting. Low efficiency in production systems coupled with a degrading production base leads to predictable negative  outcomes: yield or productivity constraints; periodic large-scale  losses of food harvest/output; depletion of natural resources  with further acceleration of the degradation; potential impacts  on the vitamin and mineral content of certain cultivars under  conditions of higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the  atmosphere; water acidification leading to loss of fish and other  aquatic outputs, and more. 121 122 123

The first three chapters of this report (Part I) have spelled out  the challenges and made the case for why appropriate public  sector and commercial actions must be taken urgently for the  sake of both human and planetary health. Part II of this report  spells out what needs to be done. The following four chapters address four critical domains of the food system:

  • Making more of the right foods available to support sustainable, healthy diets for all. This means being able to supply enough of the diversity of nutrient-rich foods that  can populate diverse dietary patterns around the world (see

Chapter 4). As highlighted previously, insufficient nutrient-rich  foods are currently produced globally to supply the needs of  everyone today, let alone future demand.

 

  • Making sustainable, healthy diets accessible to all. It is not  enough for the world to produce enough food to provide  healthy and sustainable diets for everyone. Those foods must  also be accessible (within reach) of all citizens of all countries  (see Chapter 5). That means that the physical distance  between producers and consumers has to be overcome,  nutrients have to be protected as they move through the  food system, food loss and waste must be significantly  reduced along all value chains, seasonality appropriately  managed, and retail systems enhanced.
  • Making sustainable, healthy diets affordable to all. Diets of a high quality are today unaffordable to many people around the world. Even minimally adequate diets (in nutrient  terms) are out of reach economically for billions of people.  The challenge is to make sustainable, healthy diets affordable  to all (see Chapter 6). This requires a rebalancing of relative  prices across foods, reducing the cost of delivering nutrient-  rich foods to all markets (optimising efficiencies across the  entire food chain), and increasing incomes and purchasing  power, especially of the poor.
  • Making nutrient-rich sustainably produced foods  desirable. It is not enough to make sustainable, healthy  diets available, accessible, and affordable. It is also important  to promote and inspire the desirability of such a diet (see  Chapter 7). People need to be persuaded to choose them. But if they do, consumers themselves can become a key driver  of change through food systems, and across the commercial  activities of food industry stakeholders.

These four sets of required actions are inter-linked to a greater  or lesser degree, and actions in one domain must take account  of actions and outcomes in the others. What is needed is an  integrated and coherent approach for achieving these goals  individually and collectively.

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