World Conservation Congress takes aim at agriculture as key to addressing the biodiversity and climate crises

The urgent need for systemic change in order to avoid biodiversity collapse and further climate catastrophe echoed across the opening weekend of the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille, France. In a speech to kick off the congress on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the importance of addressing both biodiversity and climate change in an integrated way, saying, “There is no vaccine for a sick planet.”

Organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the meeting, which was delayed for a year by the Covid-19 pandemic, is the largest international event devoted to biodiversity, and will help shape the conservation agenda for the next decade. The gathering runs through Sept. 11.

But how do we balance protecting nature while meeting human needs—particularly the need for food? Agriculture is a key driver of biodiversity loss, responsible for up to 80 percent of the species loss that has occurred so far, according to the IUCN. Cristelle Pratt, the assistant secretary general for environment and climate action at the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, warned that meeting the food needs of a “bulging population” is likely to increase pressure on both land and marine ecosystems, many of which are already degraded.

Pratt called for a holistic approach that moves away from high-yield plantation systems to an agroecological model. “We need to transform our food systems if we are really to meet human needs while conserving biodiversity and halting the climate crisis,” she said.

Later in the day, James Dalton, the head of the IUCN’s Global Water Program, outlined how the organization intends to spur that transformation. The IUCN is a relative newcomer to food and agriculture issues, Dalton noted. Since its founding, in 1948, the group has focused largely on traditional conservation concerns like wilderness preservation and saving endangered species. Farming was considered to be inherently destructive. “We spent 70 years wagging our fingers at the agriculture sector and blaming it for all the problems,” he said.

But over the last dozen years, the IUCN has become more active in agriculture-related issues, with projects underway in at least 35 countries, mostly in Asia and East Africa. Earlier this year, the group launched a new program focused on agriculture and land health, which aims to “mainstream” sustainable agriculture.

Dalton spoke about the farm sector in a conciliatory tone, noting that, over the last 50 years, farmers have managed to feed a population that has increased 150 percent. At the same time, the footprint of agricultural land has only increased 15 percent, he said. This intensification has led to important gains in food security. In 1960, one in three people worldwide were food insecure; today, one in 10 are. “One in ten is still far too much,” Dalton said, “But we’ve made a massive improvement not just in growing food but in being able to provide it to the people who need it most and move it around the world to where people are willing to pay for it.”

And yet, these gains have come at a cost. In addition to driving biodiversity loss through water pollution, deforestation and habitat destruction, farmland itself is a victim of its own success. Over 40 percent of the planet’s agricultural lands are showing signs of degradation and decreased soil biodiversity.

As the IUCN develops its Agriculture and Land Health initiative, it is seeking input from the public over the coming year. To that end, workshop participants—who came from a range of international NGOS, research institutions and conservation groups—were asked to share ideas about what the congress should include on its policy, research and action agendas. One group suggested the policy work should be guided by a focus on the true cost and quality of food, to account for externalities to food production like pollution, diet-related disease, deforestation and soil degradation.

Other suggestions included helping to coordinate the many other sustainable farming initiatives instead of duplicating work in an already cluttered field; developing metrics to measure land health on farms; and researching the social dimensions of transitioning to sustainable agriculture, since most existing research focuses on environmental and economic questions.

The overarching message, though, was unavoidable: time to make effective change is running out. Environmental activist Harvey Locke offered the conservationists, policy makers and scientists a blunt summation of the converging crises facing our planet: “We now have ourselves a biodiversity crisis. We have ourselves a climate crisis. We’ve been humbled by a global pandemic that taught us that the world is not here to serve us, but rather that we live on the world,” he said.

This summer, Locke watched glaciers melting in 104-degree heat in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, where he lives, and kept his windows shut against wildfire smoke. Days ago, he texted his son in New Jersey to see if he was safe from the rains unleashed by Ida. “We reap what we sow.”