Research briefing: New report says plant-based diets are critical to breaking vicious circle of cheap food

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» Research briefing: New report says plant-based diets are critical to breaking vicious circle of cheap food

A new report by Chatham House explores the role of the global food system as the principal driver of accelerating biodiversity loss and underlines how plant-based diets are critical to safeguarding the global food chain. 

The report, titled Food Systems Impacts on Biodiversity Loss, explains how food production is degrading or destroying natural habitats and contributing to species extinction. The authors outline the challenges and trade-offs involved in redesigning food systems to restore biodiversity and/or prevent further biodiversity loss, and presents recommendations for action.

Humanity must shift towards more plant-based diets...

The report, supported by the UN environment programme (UNep), highlights how agriculture is the main threat to 86% of the 28,000 species known to be at risk of extinction, underlining that without change, loss of biodiversity will continue to accelerate and threaten the world’s ability to sustain humanity. The root cause, say the report authors, is a vicious circle of cheap food, where low costs drive increased demand for food and more waste, with more competition in turn forcing costs even lower through more clearing of natural land and use of polluting fertilisers and pesticides.

The report introduces three ‘levers’ for reducing pressures on land and creating a more sustainable food system.  

  • To change dietary patterns to reduce food demand and encourage more plant-based diets. Over 80% of the world’s agricultural land is used for raising animals, which provide only 18% of the calories consumed. Reversing the upward trend in meat consumption removes the pressure to clear new land and further damage wildlife.
  • It also frees up existing land for the second 'lever': to protect and set aside land for nature, whether through re-establishing native ecosystems on spared farmland or integrating pockets of natural habitat into farmland.
  • The third lever is to shift to more sustainable farming. Land availability also underpins this solution, which is to cultivate less intensively and with less damage but accepting lower yields. Organic yields are on average about 75% of those from conventional intensive agriculture

The report underlines that all three levers will be needed for food system redesign to succeed. The authors' recommendations for action are based around a series of major summits and conferences on food systems, climate, biological diversity, nutrition and related areas scheduled in 2021. These offer a unique opportunity for a ‘food systems approach’ to become embedded in international policy processes and come in the same week as the landmark review on the Economics of Diversity by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta. This independent, global review concluded that a fundamental change in how we think about and approach economics is needed if we are to reverse biodiversity loss and protect and enhance our prosperity.

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