Biodiversity Summit Must Tackle Destructive Impacts of Food Production

Governments from around the world will arrive in Nagoya, Japan next week for the [high level ministerial segment of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting. Their task is daunting. Even the modest target set in 2002 of reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 has proved beyond reach using current strategies. But rather than wringing their hands over the tide of species losses that has swept the planet, delegates should turn their attention to the root cause of the problem: the ways in which we meet our need for food.

What does food supply have to do with conserving species? Everything. It is a leading factor in the five principal pressures causing biodiversity loss: habitat change, overexploitation, invasive species, pollution, and climate change.

Ironically, while producing food relies on harvesting nature’s bounty, food production often degrades the very ecosystems it depends on. The Brazilian Amazon, for example, provides critical water and climate regulation services that the region’s agricultural sector depends upon for its survival. Yet one fifth of the Brazilian Amazon has been deforested, primarily by farmers, and ranchers.

The Policymaker’s Paradox

Delegates at the conference face a paradox. Dramatic increases in food production over the past 50 years have supported significant improvements in human wellbeing, but at the same time have diminished Earth’s diversity and capacity to provide ecosystem services (including fish, food, freshwater, pollination, and water regulation). Scientists worry that this results from a time lag between the degradation of ecosystems and the resulting effects on human well-being.

The Amazon, for example, could reach a tipping point due to deforestation beyond which it experiences widespread dieback and transitions into savanna-like vegetation. The reductions in rainfall would devastate efforts to raise crops and cattle in the region.

Upping the challenge, population growth and rising per capita incomes are expected to double the demand for food in the next 40 years, according to the UN’s food and agriculture chief, Jacques Diouf. To devise a successful new strategy to preserve the diversity of life on Earth, the CBD needs to take a quantum leap in its partnership with food producers, to change how the world achieves food security, before ecosystems reach critical tipping points in the face of ever growing demands for food and climate change.

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