A new paper published today assesses the impact on biodiversity that the global food system could have if not changed. It also estimates the reduction in impact associated with changes in food production and diet. Graeme Buchanan, Head of International Conservation Science, explains more.

As international biodiversity targets are set to be updated in 2021, discussions on slowing and reversing biodiversity loss focus are well underway. In addition to discussions on the extent of site-based management, such as protected areas, and species conservation and recovery, discussions will also consider the impact of agriculture on biodiversity, and how to reduce these impacts.

This paper, published today in Nature Sustainability, describes the benefits of altering the global food system in order to reduce habitat loss across the world. It shows that we can feed an expanding human population without excessive impact if we change what we eat and how it is produced.  

Impacts on habitat and species

The study estimated how food systems would affect biodiversity at a finer spatial scale than previous research (2.25 km2), making the results more relevant to conservation action by highlighting exactly which species and landscapes are likely to be threatened.

This was achieved by linking projections of how much agricultural land each country will need with a new model that estimates where agricultural expansion and abandonment are most likely to occur, based on past changes.

The study then identified how this agricultural expansion is likely to affect about 20,000 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians. By looking at whether individual animal species can survive in farmland or not, the researchers could then estimate changes in habitat, finding that losses under business as usual were particularly severe in sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of Central and South America.

Many of the species that are likely to be most affected are not listed as threatened with extinction, and so are unlikely to be to focus of conservationists at present.

The research suggests that without big changes to food systems, millions of square kilometres of natural habitats could be lost by 2050. Nearly 1,300 species could lose at least a quarter of their remaining habitat, and hundreds could lose at least half. This makes them far more likely to go extinct.

Positive changes

The good news is that if we make ambitious changes to the food system, then we can prevent almost all these habitat losses, and ultimately species loss. The study considered whether transitions to healthy diets, reductions in food loss and waste, increases in crop yields, and international land-use planning could reduce future biodiversity losses.

This approach helps policy makers and conservationist identify which changes are likely to have the largest benefit in their country or region. For example, raising agricultural yields would likely bring huge benefits to biodiversity in Sub-Saharan Africa, but do very little in North America where yields are already high. In contrast, shifting to healthier diets would have big benefits in North America, but is less likely to have a large benefit in regions where meat consumption is low and food insecurity is high.

Ultimately, we need to change what we eat and how it is produced if we’re going to save wildlife on a global scale. We need to alter both our diets and food production methods. Importantly, we need to do all of these things - no one approach is sufficient on its own. But, with global coordination and rapid action, it should be possible to provide healthy diets for the global population in 2050 without major habitat losses.

Paper: Proactive Conservation to Prevent Habitat Losses to Agricultural Expansion

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