Food-system reform is crucial, but controversial, piece of biodiversity deal

Heading into the UN Biodiversity Conference, currently underway in Montreal, the hope was that the gathering would be a “Paris moment” for biodiversity — an event that would draw attention to the one million species at risk of extinction and galvanize efforts to reverse biodiversity loss, much as the Paris agreements helped focus the fight against climate change. 

Nine days into the conference, delegates from 196 countries are trying to craft a plan to reverse the loss of biodiversity by 2030. And food production, which is responsible for 70 percent of terrestrial biodiversity loss and half of the loss of freshwater species, is proving to be a key but contentious variable in fulfilling that goal.  

Issues related to food production — from land use to pesticides to agricultural subsidies — are threaded throughout the draft agreement, called the Global Biodiversity Framework. But negotiations have been tense and slow. There is still no agreement, for instance, on where funding to help poor countries reorient their economies and food systems to be more protective of nature will come from. Even the flagship 30×30 goal, a plan to protect 30 percent of land and sea by the end of the decade, is still being debated, with particular resistance to the idea of protecting marine environments.

And while the draft under negotiation calls for the halving of humanity’s ecological footprint and the elimination of subsidies that enable environmental destruction (such as those for pesticide and fertilizer use), it’s not clear that these elements will be included in the final version. 

“We are stuck,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF International), on Thursday. “Ambitions have been diluted across the board.” 

But the negotiations are only part of the picture. In parallel, environmental groups, researchers, Indigenous groups, and corporations have organized dozens of events and meetings. And these spaces offer a preview of the strategies and priorities that will shape the broader movement to reverse biodiversity loss in coming years.   

Despite his concern about the difficult negotiations, Lambertini said the idea that food systems are central to addressing both climate change and biodiversity loss is becoming mainstream. “Finally, finally food has landed on the climate and biodiversity agenda,” he said. (Food production also figured prominently at the COP 27 climate change conference in Egypt last month, and the United Arab Emirates, the host for next year’s COP 28, has signaled that food systems will be even more central.) 

Speaking at Food Day, a series of panel discussions on Wednesday that were organized by WWF and other international environmental groups, Maria Helena Semedo, deputy director general for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said recognizing the connection between biodiversity and food security is also critical. 

She noted that 1.3 billion people around the world suffer from malnutrition, and that the lack of access to a healthy, diverse diet is to blame. Globally, 70 percent of the calories humans consume come from 12 plant and five animal species. Diverse diets depend on biodiversity, including soil microbes and pollinators and genetic diversity. Industrial agriculture, through its pesticide use and destruction of pollinator habitat, threatens that biodiversity. “Our food and biodiversity are linked,” said Semedo. 

Indigenous groups and small-farmer organizations have also expressed concerns that they’re being left out of discussions of such sweeping issues as increasing the amount of protected land and transforming food systems. “Small-scale farmers are the first victims of our industrial food systems,” said Mariann Bassey, a representative of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. But she said any solutions would need to come from small-scale fishers, farmers, and herders, not be imposed on them. 

“Where are the farmers? Where are the fisherfolk? I don’t see them on this panel,” said Bassey. She said it was inappropriate for Food Day conversations to feature so few small-scale producers, particularly while including international conservation groups, the fertilizer company YARA, and the Bezos Earth Fund. 

For its part, the Bezos fund recently announced that it will start work on food systems, and has committed $1 billion to the cause. The fund has already put a billion dollars behind the 30×30 effort, and in Montreal it announced that it, along with 11 other companies, is raising $5 billion more for the effort. 

Another increasingly influential idea is the need to redirect the $1.8 trillion in subsidies that abet the destruction of nature. If governments didn’t subsidize farmers just to produce food but instead incentivized protecting clean water, storing carbon, and preserving biodiversity, it would both help fund these critical transitions and stop the damage to ecosystems. 

But Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Japan, and India reportedly are pushing back against language in the draft agreement that encourages eliminating or reducing these subsidies. 

João Campari, the food lead for WWF, underscored the urgency of action, noting that there are only seven harvests left before 2030. “Nature is not just there patiently waiting,” he said. “It’s being destroyed.”