How can the food system help to reduce the loss of natural landscapes?
Crucial ecosystems such as forests and wetlands are being converted to make way for agriculture and food production. Here we explore some of the ways that the food system can reduce its impact on these important natural landscapes.
For centuries, humans have cleared and converted natural landscapes in order to make way for intensive livestock and crop production. In the early 1700s the global population started to boom, and processes such as deforestation began to spread rapidly as demand for food increased (1). Today, approximately 10 million hectares of forest are cut down each year, primarily for agricultural purposes or urban development (2). This has resulted in one third of global forests being lost due to deforestation (1), half of which has occurred in the last century alone (2).
Forests and other natural landscapes such as wetlands are important ecosystems that carry out essential services and functions to support all life on Earth. These ecosystem services include maintaining huge levels of biodiversity and providing crucial habitats, and many people and communities depending on them for their livelihoods and cultures (2). They also act as a carbon sink, preventing harmful greenhouse gases (GHG) from entering the atmosphere. Peatlands, for example, cover just 3% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface area but contain twice as much sequestered carbon as all of the world’s forest biomass combined (3). Removing these landscapes disrupts the cycle of carbon sequestration and releases stored carbon into the atmosphere (2), contributing to global temperature increase.
What can the European food system do to help reduce the loss of these crucial natural landscapes?
Food system solutions to reduce the loss of natural landscapes:
Localising sustainable food production
Agricultural commodities are traded across the world, with the EU importing approximately 138 million tonnes and exporting 140 million tonnes of agricultural products each year (4). By bringing sustainable food production processes closer to home and ensuring they meet standards that conserve natural landscapes and promote biodiversity, the negative impacts on nature will be reduced.
Local controlled environments agriculture (CEA) methods can also reduce the impact on natural landscapes. Whether in urban or rural areas, CEA enables people to grow food on land in a more diverse range of locations, including in indoor environments such as vertical farms. This opportunity to use existing spaces for food production eliminates the need for more natural landscapes to be converted into agricultural land, meaning it can be left to nature.
Advantages of CEA systems compared to traditional outdoor production include (5):
- Can grow produce ‘out of season’, reducing the need for imports
- Takes pressure off systems that produce intensively and degrade soils
- Can grow near consumers, shortening supply chains and reducing CO2 emissions
- Can allow former field production sites to be used for alternate purposes such as ecosystem restoration.
Regenerative agriculture and agroforestry
We need to ensure that we are looking after our agricultural land, so it is able to remain healthy and productive, reducing the need to convert further wild spaces for food production. If the land we have for farming is managed for biodiversity, this could provide additional habitats for a range of organisms and increase the resilience of landscapes and ecosystems. Farming methods such as regenerative agriculture aim to do this by combining livestock and crop production to improve biodiversity above and below ground as well as restore soil health.
Agroforestry often forms part of regenerative agriculture, with perennials such as trees and shrubs deliberately used on the same land-management units as agricultural crops and/or animals. By integrating trees on farms in this way, there can be social, economic and environmental benefits for local wildlife and land users at all levels, particularly for smallholder farms as it can enhance their food supply, income and crop health (6).
Technology and innovation
Technology and innovation are supporting local food production, providing solutions for producers to increase yield, crop variation and profit. EIT Food RisingFoodStar Computonics GmbH, for example, has created a machine learning system to help farmers optimise crop traits and offer insights about adapting crops for different environments and climates. This means that crops that are usually produced in very specific climates can now be grown in more regions worldwide, reducing the need to convert natural landscapes for agriculture in other parts of the world and keeping food production closer to home.
Innovation that is increasing the diversity of protein could also help. By increasing consumer acceptance and awareness of plant-based proteins as well as novel foods such as cultured meat, the demand for traditional livestock agriculture could decrease and, as agriculture is one of the most common causes of deforestation (2), reduce the need for natural land conversion.
Policy and regulation
Policy and regulation play an important role in shaping the future of food production. The European Commission, for example, is proposing new regulations to help reduce deforestation. The regulations set rules for operators which place specific commodities on the EU market that are associated with deforestation and forest degradation to ensure that only ‘deforestation-free’ products are allowed on the EU food system market. With the aim to increase transparency, operators will be required to collect information about where commodities were produced and report on their journey, from farm to fork.
By implementing food system solutions that respect and conserve natural landscapes for their vital ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration we can have a huge impact on the future. Our population is on track to reach almost 10 billion by 2050 (7) and, as demand for food increases, we must now work together to scale and support nature-friendly solutions in the food system and beyond. Stay up to date on the latest agrifood innovations and projects and join the EIT Food community here.
Why not also take a look at some of our relevant online courses?
- Explore How Farmers Produce Food Sustainably: Gain an understanding of sustainable food production and the challenges that farmers face to offer a sustainable food supply.
- Farm to Fork: Sustainable Food Production in a Changing Environment: Understand how food goes from farm to fork: explore food security, supply chains, food production and agriculture.
- Innovation in Arable Farming: Technologies for Sustainable Farming Systems: Explore how innovative, digital technologies can help achieve sustainable intensification of arable farming systems.
- Our World in Data: Deforestation and forest loss
- FAO: The state of the world’s forests 2022
- Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust: Climate change and wetlands
- Eurostat: Extra-EU trade in agricultural goods
- EIT Food: Report on controlled environment agriculture
- FAO: Agroforestry
- UN: World population projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100