Lucy Garrett & Katie McCoy - Jul 20 2020
Our Food System is Broken: Will COVID-19 Force Us to Rethink Our Relationship with Nature?

COVID-19 has cast a spotlight on the need for more resilient food systems in times of crisis. The good news is that there doesn’t need to be a trade-off between economic growth and investing in low-carbon, resilient systems that support decent livelihoods and biodiversity. By eating healthier diets, reducing food waste, producing food with greater resource efficiency, and avoiding unnecessary land conversion, by 2050 we can turn the tide on biodiversity loss and free up to 1.2 billion hectares of agriculture land to make space for forest restoration and sustainable land use. This will take us far in meeting climate and sustainable development targets and can generate more than £400 billion of business opportunities over the next ten years.

We need to fix our relationship with nature

The current pandemic is in part a symptom of our dysfunctional relationship with nature. When our food production displaces wild habitats, it creates opportunities for pathogens to pass to livestock and humans – and industrial agriculture that packs livestock shoulder to shoulder in tight spaces creates a perfect breeding ground for the spread of disease. Simply put, unsustainable human activities drive zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.

As we displace nature and forests for food, not only do we put ourselves at risk of new diseases, we also reduce the resilience of the food systems we depend upon. Our food supply chains depend on the ecosystem services provided by nature – be it pollinators or the water cycle. Pollination by bees and insects, for example, delivers between USD 235 and 577 billion worth of annual global food production. Yet, bee populations are falling at an alarming rate, driven by intensive farming practices, land-use change, mono-cropping, pesticides, and higher temperatures associated with climate change.

We all have a role to play

Feeding the world whilst leaving space for nature requires multidisciplinary collaboration and individual and collective action. The UN’s One Health approach emphasises that to ensure food safety and control zoonotic diseases, governments must prioritise programmes, policies, and legislation in which multiple sectors collaborate to achieve better public health outcomes.

In the UK, the government must recognise the opportunities and complexities of redirecting our food production and relationship with nature. We need collaboration between government departments, civil society, and business, to seize the moment for reform that COVID-19 represents and design policies, programs and partnerships that promote sustainable food production and healthy ecosystems.

"More than two fifths of UK species have seen significant declines in recent decades, driven in large part by intensive agriculture."

Transforming the food system in the UK

The British food and farming sector is of critical importance to the UK economy – it is valued at over GBP 120 billion – and provides 61% of the food eaten in the country. Yet, Brexit and COVID-19 have revealed the precariousness of domestic food production – a shortage of farm labourers, for instance, means that unpicked fruit and vegetables may go to waste. And many of the UK’s farming practices are hurting nature - more than two fifths of UK species have seen significant declines in recent decades, driven in large part by intensive agriculture.

The UK government must seize the opportunity to align agricultural subsidies under Brexit towards conservation outcomes and measures to increase ecosystem resilience. The post-Brexit Environmental Land Management scheme that is being developed has the potential to transform nature conservation in the UK by providing funding for things such as flood prevention and biodiversity enhancement. The government can also support smaller scale producers and local food systems, to reverse the shift towards consolidation within the sector, because having a more diverse farming sector builds greater resilience into our food system.

A better deal for global smallholders, producers, and communities

Beyond the UK’s borders, the world's tropical forests are under threat from unsustainable agricultural commodity production. As the world’s sixth largest economy, the UK is a major importer and consumer of seven commodities linked with deforestation: beef and leather, cocoa, palm oil, pulp and paper, rubber, soy, and timber. To supply annual British demand for these commodities between 2016 and 2018, an area equivalent to 88% of the UK’s total entire landmass was required, and more than 28% of this was in countries at high risk of deforestation.

The UK government, businesses, and civil society must urgently heed the advice of expert calls for action, including the Global Resource Initiative (GRI) Taskforce. GRI has recommended 14 measures to ensure that production, trade, and consumption of agricultural and forestry products have a positive impact on people and the planet. One of these recommendations is for the UK government to introduce a mandatory due diligence obligation for companies that import products that contribute to deforestation overseas. Decades of inaction on voluntary commitments shows us that such legal, binding frameworks are essential to transform our supply chains.

Another priority for the UK government is to provide more blended finance to de-risk emerging sustainable business models and provide support to pioneering project developers. There are already examples where such initiatives are successfully creating change. For instance, in Ghana, with International Climate Finance support, Palladium’s partner Benso Oil Palm Plantation (BOPP) is contributing to the production sustainable palm oil. As well as ensuring palm oil is produced without deforestation, the initiative is allocating community plots to female farmers to address gender inequalities.

Related: Sustainable Palm Oil is Possible

In Brazil, Palladium has partnered with the COOPAVAM cooperative to lead on the sustainable collection and commercialisation of Brazil nuts, to protect forests and improve livelihoods in the Amazon. COOPAVAM works with 4000 local people to bring 1.4 million hectares of land into sustainable use.

The food system is broken, but there are opportunities to fix it that can benefit people, the planet and business. Everyone must play their part – be that through individual consumption choices or radical policy development and truly green business that can drive collective change at scale. The UK can lead the way, both domestically and internationally.

Partnerships for Forests (P4F) catalyses investments in which the private sector, public sector and communities can achieve shared value from sustainable forests and sustainable land use. P4F is managed by Palladium in partnership with SYSTEMIQ. P4F is funded with UK aid from the British people.

To continue the conversation please join our webinar ‘We Need Nature: building resilience through nature-positive investment’ on 28 July 2020’.