Why food manufacturers should take biodiversity seriously

Sensemaking / Why food manufacturers should take biodiversity seriously

Without vibrant ecosystems, our food system will become less diverse and less resilient, says Andrew Kuyk.  

16 Feb 2012

Without vibrant ecosystems, our food system will become less diverse and less resilient, says Andrew Kuyk

Why should the number of other species on the planet be an issue for food manufacturers? After all, the fossil record tells us that there have been five previous waves of mass extinction, including the dinosaurs – and if it wasn’t for these wipe-outs, we might never have evolved! So why worry now, if a few birds and insects are going the same way…?

Because the habitats and resources around us are ultimately as vital to our survival as they are to that of many other species currently under threat. And because that threat is largely the result of our own actions. To some extent, we can use technology to insulate ourselves – and other life-forms – from the more immediate consequences of our behaviour. We can pollinate plants without the aid of insects, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere without rainforests, and purify water without healthy soils…

But we won’t be able to stand in for all of these ‘ecosystem services’. They rely on the interaction of myriad plants, animals and micro-organisms: it’s not a one-man job. And without them, our food system will become less diverse and less resilient. As climate conditions change, it’s increasingly important that we have a biodiverse world: a sort of genetic reserve on which we will almost certainly need to draw to cope with the challenges ahead.

We have no way of knowing which species we can ‘afford’ to squander 

The problem is that we have no way of knowing now which species we can ‘afford’ to squander, or what the unintended consequences might be of allowing small but vital parts of larger systems to be lost. In the words of Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. Or, as John Beddington, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, put it in the Foresight Report: “The implications of failing to act [to protect biodiversity] are grave and potentially irreversible, not least for the global food system”.

This is why food manufacturers should take the question of biodiversity seriously, and consider it integral to the food security debate. Cereal company Jordans is a great example of a business that has fully incorporated its commitment to biodiversity into its operations. For over 25 years, it has worked only with grain farmers who dedicate 10% of their land to wildlife habitats.

On a much smaller scale, Nestlé’s award-winning butterfly meadow at Fawden, Newcastle Upon Tyne, demonstrates how to raise awareness and engage employees. The meadow aims to encourage indigenous wildlife, including Large White and Red Admiral butterflies, to an area where there had been little focus on natural habitat.

However, translating awareness into wider action is a challenge. Not only do market mechanisms currently fail to capture the costs of environmental impacts: they often appear to incentivise habitat destruction, by rewarding an increase in cultivable land, or the overuse of chemicals to increase yields.

Buying from certified sustainable sources frequently involves a price premium, reflecting not only the more limited pool of supply, but also the additional costs of segregation and identity preservation. For many global commodities, the impacts will vary enormously according to where, when and how they are grown and what the alternative land uses might be.

It’s an issue the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) recently addressed in a workshop in collaboration with Forum for the Future, which looked at the practical implications for sourcing wheat. This followed another workshop with WWF, which set out the rationale for food manufacturers to act on supply chain and biodiversity issues.

The supply chain has been a key focus for FDF in the past year, following a review of our Five-fold Environmental Ambition, which has also been effective in cutting waste and reducing the emissions of UK food manufacturers.

Now, we are working on guidance for our members to ensure their environmental performance continues to improve, so that they can feed those seven billion, and counting…

Andrew Kuyk is Director of Sustainability and Competitiveness, Food and Drink Federation.

Food and Drink Federation is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo: John Brackenbury / Science Photo Library

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