Food and nature: how the food system can support the natural world
The relationship between food production and planet has fractured. Industrialisation has meant that food systems have prioritised mass productivity and efficiency rather than working in a sustainable way. How can the food system better work with nature, for nature?
The food system is made up of a diverse network of stakeholders, infrastructure, businesses and processes, each playing a crucial part in the production of food. Despite their individual roles, they all rely on one connected element which allows the food system to function: nature.
Our interconnected Earth: the relationship between food and nature
We depend on connected natural systems to provide the balanced environments for our food to grow. However, after centuries of industrialisation, globalisation and increased demand, natural systems are almost at the point of no return (1). Many modern food and farming practices favour productivity, with health, biodiversity and nature being left behind as a result. Not only does food account for over 20% of global total anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (2) directly contributing to climate change, our food system has also significantly depleted natural resources, polluted land- and water-based ecosystems, and scarred landscapes across the world.
With our increasing global population, and with external shocks causing disruption to the food system such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, food system resilience and food security have never been more important. Building a more sustainable nature-positive food system will not only help to restore natural processes and biodiversity, it will also serve to embed resilience so that the food system can continue to produce healthy food, regardless of external shocks (3).
In this blog, we explore three aspects of our interconnected Earth most impacted by the food system, and highlight how their protection and restoration can help to create more resilient, healthier and sustainable food systems:
- Food and biodiversity: the value of natural ecosystems
- Food and soil health: regenerating our planet’s greatest resource
- Food and water: conserving precious water.
Food and biodiversity: the value of natural ecosystems
Industrialisation and an increasing global population mean that half of the world’s habitable land is currently used for agriculture, compared to just 4% 1,000 years ago (4). This means that we are reducing the amount of wild spaces available for natural ecosystems to flourish in as we convert them into heavily-managed food production systems.
Biodiversity is important for agriculture, but modern forms of agriculture can be harmful for biodiversity. For instance, farming practices which favour monocultures and use chemicals to remove other plants, animals, fungi and microbes from the environment, destruction of wild spaces and habitats and land degradation all contribute to the loss of biodiversity. In fact, of the 28,000 species of plants and animals currently identified as being at risk of extinction, agriculture is listed as a direct threat for 24,000 (5).
The FAO report The State of the World's Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture states that ‘biodiversity for food and agriculture is indispensable to food security, sustainable development and the supply of many vital ecosystem services.’ The report recognises that high biodiversity in agricultural systems increases resilience, improves livelihoods and supports food security and nutrition.
Sustainable farming practises which promote biodiversity are needed in order to reduce the catastrophic biodiversity loss we are currently facing, as well as increase resilience of our food systems. To encourage adoption, these approaches will also need to consider livelihoods and encourage a just transition for farmers. This will require support through education and training, funding to enable transitions to new methods and technologies, and innovations to improve the way we manage our landscapes.
Food and soil health: regenerating our planet’s greatest resource
A healthy soil is a living ecosystem full of a diverse range of organisms. These organisms convert dead and decaying matter into nutrients, control plant disease, insect and weed pests, improve soil structure thus increasing water and nutrient retention, and ultimately improve healthy crop production as a result (6). Soil also has the ability to store carbon, preventing it from entering the atmosphere as CO2 and contributing to climate change. The soil organic matter that carbon is stored within is a complex mixture of decomposing plant and animal tissue, microbes and soil minerals (7). In fact, soil is the world’s largest terrestrial carbon sink (8) and, if left undisturbed, can store carbon for thousands of years (9). However, it is estimated that the world’s cultivated soils have lost up to 75% of their original carbon stores, due to land degradation and unsustainable management (9).
As our climate changes and alters environments across the world, soil health is increasingly put at risk from extreme weather events such as flooding, droughts and storms. Exposure to these conditions results in soil erosion which impacts structural integrity, water and nutrient retention. All this impacts the ‘farmability’ of soil.
Maintaining soil health can have a direct impact on the profitability and efficiency of farms. Agricultural techniques such as regenerative agriculture which minimise mechanical tillage, maintain a protective organic cover on the soil surface, and cultivate a greater diversity of plant species can promote healthy soils (10).
Regenerative agriculture in particular, aims to improve soil health and increase biodiversity on farms by combining crop and livestock production in circular ecosystems. Instead of being sacrificed for farming, this means that land is instead optimised for farming – for both farmers and for nature. Recent research indicates that regenerative farming techniques can positively impact both the yield and nutritional value of food thanks to the regeneration of healthy soils (11).
Regenerative farming can also help to reduce nitrogen pollution which is caused when nitrogen compounds such as ammonia or nitrous oxide become too abundant within environments (12). Nitrogen pollution is often the result of synthetic fertiliser use or the build-up of animal manure in isolated areas. Excess nitrogen can have negative impacts on our climate, the environment and our health, including damaging plant species and unbalancing ecosystems (12). By promoting free-grazing livestock and natural fertiliser, regenerative farming helps to prevent nitrogen build up within agricultural environments (12).
The reduced physical labour and time needed to ‘maintain’ farmland which has healthy soil is also considered to be more profitable for farmers across the world (10). Polyculture - the growing of a variety of food on the same piece of land - is a method which is more commonly being adopted by farmers to try and increase biodiversity above and below ground (10), thus improving soil health and embedding resilience for future food production.
Food and water: conserving precious water
Water is vital for all known forms of life, from growing plants to basic animal needs. Water maintains all ecosystems, including forests, lakes and wetlands, all of which current and future generations depend on for food and nutritional security (13).
However, the food system has increasingly depleted and polluted water sources across the world and water scarcity is increasing due to anthropogenic climate change. Farming accounts for almost 70% of all freshwater withdrawals (freshwater taken from ground or surface water sources, either permanently or temporarily, and conveyed to a place of use) and is responsible for up to 78% of global ocean and freshwater pollution (13).
It is estimated that 2,000 to 5,000 litres of water are needed to produce the food consumed daily by one person (13). As the global population increases to reach 10 billion people by 2050, demand for food is expected to surge by more than 50%, suggesting that two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in water-stressed countries by 2025 if current consumption patterns continue (13). This highlights the urgent need to address water scarcity and the role of the food system in conserving freshwater and reducing water consumption.
There are many ways for the food system to address water scarcity such as transitioning to less water-intense production processes, utilising evidence-based environmental food labelling schemes on packaging, using technology on farms to optimise irrigation and reduce water-run off and cutting back on food loss and food waste. Each year, one-third of all produced food is either lost or wasted, a volume of wasted water used for agriculture that could be translated to approximately three times the volume of Lake Geneva, the largest lake in central Europe (13). By reducing this waste, the associated water which would have been used to grow, maintain and produce this food can also be saved.
Working with nature, for nature
We know that nature, health and food are all interconnected. By protecting our planet and natural resources, and by regenerating our soils, preserving our water and promoting biodiversity, food productivity will not only become more efficient, but more nutritious and plentiful for all inhabitants of our interconnected Earth. It’s imperative that our food system must work with nature, for nature.
To learn more about the solutions working to regenerate, restore and build better relationships between food and nature, find out how you can get involved with the EIT Food community here.
- WEF: 9 climate tipping points pushing Earth to the point of no return
- IPCC: Sixth Assessment Report
- European Commission: HORIZON: The EU Research and Innovation Magazine: Five key questions to answer about resilient and sustainable food systems
- Our World in Data: Half of the world’s habitable land used for agriculture
- UNEP: Our global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss
- FAO: Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production
- Ecological Society of America: Carbon sequestration in soil
- United Nations Climate Change: FAO Maps Carbon Stocks in Soil
- FAO: Recarbonization of global soils
- FAO: The future of food and agriculture: Trends and challenges
- Montgomery DR, Biklé A, Archuleta R, Brown P, Jordan J. (2022): Soil health and nutrient density: preliminary comparison of regenerative and conventional farming. PeerJ 10:e12848
- Soil Association: The impacts of nitrogen pollution
- FAO: Water Scarcity – One of the greatest challenges of our time