Why Boosting Nature-Positive Food Production Makes Economic Sense


2 July 2021 (UNEP)* — The world’s first-ever international Food Systems Summit is slated for September 2021 and seeks to galvanize a global commitment and action to transform our food systems.

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©FAO/Maxim Zmeyev

With almost 690 million people going hungry in 2019, and most current farming practices driving biodiversity loss and global heating, there is an urgent need to take stock and change direction.

The Summit has five key objectives: to ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all; to shift to sustainable consumption patterns; to advance equitable livelihoods; to build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress; and to boost nature-positive production.

We asked Salman Hussain, who heads the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which seeks to make the value of nature visible in agricultural systems, to explain the economic case for boosting nature-positive food production.

Game-changing actions to boost nature-positive food production include solutions that have positive effects on ensuring equitable livelihood opportunities, advance human health, and regenerate environmental integrity.

Salman Hussain, head of TEEB

What do we mean by nature-positive food production?

Salman Hussain (SH)Intensive agriculture has environmental and economic downsides. These include nutrient pollution from fertilizer run-off, increased risks of animal and human disease spread, biodiversity loss due to monoculture and the removal of trees and hedgerows, soil degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions.

UNEP’s Making Peace with Nature report finds the loss of pollinators such as bees and other insects threatens annual global crop output worth between $235 billion and $577 billion.

Nature-positive food production is about rethinking how we evaluate and then transform food systems to incentivize a shift away from these often-hidden negative impacts and promote food systems that provide hidden positive benefits.

Globally, there is no shortage of food, and worldwide obesity has tripled since 1975. The agri-food sector continues to provide employment and income opportunities, and the absolute level of hunger has – until 2015 – been on a downward trend. So why do we need a Food Summit to boost nature-positive food production?

(SH): There is a common singular focus on yield per hectare on-farm, and while this does indeed link to avoiding hunger and income, if this is the only thing we measure and optimize, then we systematically neglect ecological and social impacts arising from unsustainable on-farm production and also are blind to effects beyond the farm gate – to processing, distribution, consumption and waste disposal.

Game-changing actions to boost nature-positive food production include solutions that ensure equitable livelihood opportunities, advance human health, and regenerate environmental integrity.

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These actions also need to be implementable at a sufficient scale to reach a large portion of the population with clear, timely and verifiable outcomes that produce significant impacts by 2030.

Feeding humanity, ensuring water and energy security, and enhancing the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of nature are complementary and interdependent Sustainable Development Goals.

Achieving these goals requires food systems that work with nature, reduce waste, and are adaptive to change and resilient to shocks.

What is TEEB proposing?

(SH): We propose a measurement framework under TEEB for Agriculture and Food that includes the myriad of positive and negative impacts and dependencies that the food system has on nature (and vice-versa) and brings to light trade-offs that are typically invisible.

Where it is possible and appropriate to do so, we estimate the value of these impacts and dependencies in monetary terms, which often drives decision-making. But we try to ensure that other (non-monetary) valuations are also included.

Farmer in Senegal
Photo: PNUD/Aude Rossignol 2017

How will the TEEB evaluation framework help farmers and consumers?

(SH): Boosting nature-positive production, evaluated through the lens of such a framework, will help make the most efficient use of environmental resources in food production, processing and distribution, and reduce biodiversity loss, pollution, water use, soil degradation and greenhouse gas emissions.

Produced capital and human capital, such as roads and skills, have increased by 13 per cent since the early 1990s. But this has come at the expense of natural capital – the planet’s stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources – which has declined nearly 40 per cent over the same period. If we don’t change direction farmers and consumers will both lose out.

How will the myriad smallholder farmers benefit from the framework?

(SH): The Food Systems Summit’s objective to boost nature-positive production seeks to deepen understanding of the constraints and opportunities facing smallholder farmers and small-scale enterprises along the food value chain.

Farmers can benefit by doing agriculture more sustainably, but only if the food system’s incentives and structures reward this.

Deliberations ahead of the Summit will explore how we can mobilize key cross-cutting levers of change such as human rights, finance, innovation, and the empowerment of women and young people to achieve nature-positive food production.

Huge amounts of food are being lost or wasted. How will nature-positive food production reduce such losses?

(SH): Indeed, UNEP’s Food Waste Index Report finds an estimated 931 million tonnes of food, or 17 per cent of total food available, went into the waste bins of households, retailers, and food service outlets in 2019.

At UNEP, we are working to support food system governance that realigns incentives to reduce food losses and other negative environmental impacts.

For instance, by including food loss and waste and sustainable diets in revised climate plans, policymakers can improve their mitigation and adaptation from food systems by as much as 25 per cent.

Envisaging a global transformation, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will convene the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021.

Supporting the transition towards food systems that provide net positive impacts on nutrition, the environment and livelihoods, UNEP is a contributor to the One Planet Network Sustainable Food Systems Programme, leading the development of a guideline for collaborative policymaking and improved governance; and a member of the Transformative Partnership Platform, informing donors and policymakers and fostering innovation.

UNEP is also the custodian of the food waste element of Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, committing member States to halve their per capita food waste at the consumer retail level; and is currently developing the Food Waste Index, a global food waste databank enabling countries to track their progress towards the Goal.

*SOURCE: UNEP. Go to ORIGINAL.

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