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Food for Thought

We are on a collision course between ecosystems and food. How we resolve this issue over the coming years will be a key to preserving biodiversity and human well-being.

This piece originally appeared in Portuguese in the Brazilian newspaper Valor.

Looking around the world, global trends do not bode well for the Earth’s continued capacity to support improved human well-being. People are drawing down natural capital at an accelerating rate, and Nature doesn’t do bailouts.

As the head of an organization that focuses on the intersection of environment and human needs, I rely on analysis and data to guide policy recommendations and decision making. The message from the data is clear: we are not winning the fight for sustainability. One key indicator is the loss of biodiversity – in the oceans, grasslands, forests – everywhere in the world and in every kind of ecosystem. As these ecosystems decline, they produce less of the “services” – from clean water to carbon storage – on which human well-being depends.

We can, however, reverse this downward trend if we accept three key principles:

1. It’s About Food

What does food supply have to do with conserving natural systems? Everything. Growing or capturing food is a factor in all five leading pressures that cause the loss of the ecosystems upon which the world’s biodiversity depends: Habitat loss, overexploitation, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.

The findings of the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment bear this out.

  • Habitats: According the UN, approximately 43 percent of tropical and subtropical forests and 45 percent of temperate forests worldwide have been converted to croplands and rangelands. Even greater shares of natural grassland have been converted to grow food.

  • Overexploitation: 70 percent of global freshwater consumption is by agriculture. This constrains water supply for the 50 percent of the global population that lives in cities.

  • Invasive species: The introduction of non-native fish species for food has led to declines in native species in many parts of the world.

  • Pollution: Only a fraction of nitrogen applied as a fertilizer is typically used by plants; the rest ends up in inland waters and coastal systems, depleting oxygen and leaving dead zones where fish and shellfish cannot survive, and fisheries collapse.

  • Climate change: Agriculture directly contributes to around 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (using 2005 data) and drives additional emissions through its role in deforestation.

Food production is an urgent human necessity, but if we are to preserve species and maintain Nature’s productive capacity, we need to find ways to grow food in a manner that does not exacerbate these pressures.

Over the next 40 years, our natural and human systems will face a huge challenge caused by the convergence of several trends that are already underway. The world’s population is hurtling toward 9 billion by 2050. Per capita income is rising and leading to more consumption that is higher on the food chain (namely more meat). This, in turn, means that it will take more land to feed each person. And, finally, this means that more natural ecosystems —- such as forests, wetlands, and grasslands -- will be converted to farms and ranches to grow food.

In fact, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Secretary General, Jacques Diouf, demand for food will double in the next 40 years. We are on a collision course between ecosystems and food. How we resolve this issue over the coming years will be a key to preserving biodiversity and human well-being.

2. “More With Less For More”

The late CK Prahalad, a world leader in innovation and business strategy, came up with the phrase “More for Less For More.” What he meant is that we need to provide food and employment opportunities for more people. But the 21st century will likely be the era of human history when we reach the boundaries of Earth’s capacity. Thus, it is a time for strategies that produce more well-being while using less of Earth’s capacity. We need more wealth with less material for more people. This will be the key business and political challenge of our generation.

As this dynamic plays out, agribusiness has a big role to play. Over the coming decades, the innovations and practices of agribusiness—both large and small—hold the key to whether people and business will rise to this challenge.

There are many ideas about how agribusiness can be part of the solution. Here are three strategies to consider: First, increase productivity on existing farmland with proven technologies and best practices. Second, restore and utilize abandoned or “degraded” lands to reduce pressure on our forests, wetlands, and other natural ecosystems. Third, manage demand for food so that we become more efficient in using our food, and increase our reliance on different sources of protein.

3. Government Must Set the Conditions

Certainly, business has an essential role to play, but it’s not the only role. There have to be local, national, and international governmental policies that set the conditions and market signals that align corporate and individual decisions with sustaining the world’s ecosystem. These signals involve tax policy reforms, new regulatory frameworks, and innovative incentives. Global climate change is a good example of how governments around the world will need to provide clear signals so business can adapt and innovate to work within the constraints of our natural systems.

If the earth were a business, we would be on the verge of bankruptcy. If we used the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as our audit, our credit rating would be so low that no sensible financier would invest in planet earth. And yet, we don’t even have a CEO to hold accountable.

Thankfully, there are enough well-informed and capable people in the world across business, academia, and government to craft and implement a winning strategy. Strong leaders, stronger institutions and aligning incentives with sustaining ecosystems and the services they provide will be the keys to carry us forward. Brazil’s strengths and innovations make it a natural leader in the search for solutions. The world would benefit from Brazil’s leadership by example in tackling the challenges of providing for human needs and economic growth, while preserving biodiversity, knowing that there’s no bailout from Mother Nature.

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