Achieving Sustainable Food Systems: How can we balance biodiversity conservation and food production?

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In this SDG Learncast episode, we delved into the challenges of achieving sustainable food systems and the balance needed between biodiversity conservation and nutrition.

Achieving Sustainable Food Systems: How can we balance biodiversity conservation and food production? 

Paulyn Duman: Welcome to the SDG Learncast with me Paulyn Duman. In every episode, I bring insightful conversations around the subject of sustainable development and learning, helping us all to achieve a sustainable future. 

In this episode of the SDG Learncast, we will discuss achieving healthy diets for all while halting diversity loss, and global warming. I am joined by two experts in the field, Dr. Sarah Jones, a scientist at the Alliance of Biodiversity International and International Center for Tropical Agriculture and Dr. Aline Mosnier, the Scientific Director at Sustainable Development Solutions Network or SDSN. 

We are facing this global problem where millions of people do not have access to enough food or adequate nutrition, and by 2050 we need to feed 9 billion people, but at the same time, Food production is a major driver of biodiversity loss and green gas emissions that contribute to global warming. 

Welcome to the SDG Learncast Sarah and Aline. Can you tell us about yourself and about your organization?  

Dr. Sarah Jones: Thanks, Paulyn! Really happy to be here with you. So I’m a scientist at the Alliance of Biodiversity International, and I work on the intersection between food production and biodiversity conservation, trying to understand how these influence each other and what types of farm and landscape management options can provide nutritious food while restoring biodiversity. We focus particularly on agricultural biodiversity and how it can be better used and conserved to close nutritional gaps, enhance natural ecosystem processes, and reduce the need for chemical inputs and intensive farming. 

Dr. Aline Mosnier: So I am Aline Mosnier, so I work at SDSN. My background is more in modelling, economic modelling and environmental modelling. I develop models, tools now as the service of FABLE, this consortium that will talk a bit later on and I try to support this development of these tools in countries so we can achieve also long-term targets by 2050. 

Paulyn Duman: Sarah, maybe you could tell us about the relationship between the food that we eat and biodiversity conservation? 

Dr. Sarah Jones: This is really close to my heart, a topic that we’ve worked a lot on over the last few years. And the reason why we work on it is because food production and biodiversity conservation are really closely interrelated. 

So biodiversity here means the animals and plants and fungi like mushrooms that we eat, as well as those that are non-domesticated.  

The World Wildlife Foundation estimated in their living planet report, that 68% of mammals, birds, fish, and other vertebrate species were lost between 1970 and 2016. That’s huge. Agricultural expansion and intensification are major drivers of these losses, and the problem has a profound effect on our food systems because biodiversity plays such a central role in them. 

Crops, fish and livestocks provide us with many different foods and flavors that we enjoy eating. But species that live in soils like earthworms, fungi, and bacteria, which are less visible are equally important because they help to keep soils healthy and make sure plants get essential nutrients that eventually end up on our plates. 

Growing a diversity of annual perennial plants is also really essential because different types of plants, particularly including woody and non-woody species health, prevent soil erosion, maintain soil moisture, regulate water quality and supply, which are all things that are really critical for sustainable agricultural production. 

There’s also pollinators like bees that ensure that fertilized flowers later turn into fruits and vegetables and seeds that we enjoy eating. And for all these reasons, it will be very difficult, if not impossible to achieve sufficient nutritious food production in the long term without maintaining biodiversity in agricultural landscapes. 

At the same time, it will be very hard to halt biodiversity loss without making our agricultural production systems less harmful to biodiversity. 

Paulyn Duman: We are experiencing this huge biodiversity loss but at the same time, we are also seeing that agricultural expansion and intensification are major drivers of these biodiversity losses.  

Aline, could you tell us about the diets that we have now? What is the world’s current diet? And what are the current trends that you are seeing in your research? 

Dr. Aline Mosnier: Current diets are failing to provide everyone everywhere with adequate nutrition, so that’s the major problem. Of course, it varies a lot across the planet, but globally what we observe is, first of all, after a steady decline for decades, world hunger is now on the rise again. So we estimate that it affects about 10% of the people globally and the explanation for this rise are conflicts.  

So there has been a rise in number of conflicts and it’s quite clear that it is a major cause of hunger. We have also more climate related shocks, so already the climate change impacts start to be felt and it creates some shortage of production somewhere and increase in food prices. 

We have also economic crisis. So the world has been hit by COVID, and some countries also of course, feel the effect of that on the economy.  

Hunger is still a problem, but accessibility is really the biggest problem. It’s less a production than an accessibility problem.  

Then second, we also have obesity, which is on the rise everywhere in the world. It’s not a problem of rich countries anymore. In fact, even in low income countries, we observe this double burden of malnutrition. So we have coexistence of hunger and obesity or overnutrition at the same time.  

Urbanization also, there has been a big factor to explain this double burden where we had a lot of people moving from the rural areas to cities changing their lifestyles, having less activity, and at the same time also having higher access to cheap, high fat processed food.  

Globally, we observe that this western diet, which is really not healthy because it contains really highly processed foods, red meat, high fat, high sugar food, and also a lot of pre-packaged food is spreading across the world. One of the issues is that it’s often cheaper than healthier or more sustainable. 

We really need more diverse diets across the world. Higher share of consumption of foods and vegetables. Also to ensure more diverse food systems.  

Paulyn Duman: So you mentioned all of these challenges—world hunger is on the rise again, but at the same time we have higher access to cheap, highly processed food. We also see that we need more diverse diets across the world and this will result in higher diversity and higher resilience to shocks. 

Can you let us know how can we contribute to finding solutions to all of these global challenges that you mentioned? 

Dr. Aline Mosnier: What I can highlight now is a bit how we, Sarah and I, and also our people working together in this FABLE Consortium, try to at least help to find some of those solutions for these global issues. 

So FABLE, it stands for The Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land-Use, and Energy (FABLE). This is a global network of researchers. We think that in order to find the solutions to these problems, we need, first of all, that there is really those countries and people in the countries are at the center because these solutions are diverse, they are very much context-specific. There is not one solution fits all, and very often in the countries, there is a lack of capacity to understand these complex issues.  

First of all, the scale, the fact that we all, the countries are interconnected through trade, so that makes things a bit difficult. 

The different sectors are connected, the agricultural sector, the forestry sector, and all the processing, part or connected and have an impact on this Food and land system sustainability.  

So we include in our global network researchers from 88 National Research Institutes, currently mostly in 20 country teams. 

We develop tools that they can use to inform the policies in their country. So we saw models, but look at the time horizon, which is quite long until 2050, and we are trying to test through this models, possible actions, possible policy interventions, and so on, and see what would be the best mix to achieve the sustainable goals at both country level and global level by aggregating this sum of country actions. 

So we compare then also how it matched global targets such as, for example, the Paris climate agreement that you might have heard of, which sets really clear targets to limit global warming.  

Nowadays, there are a lot of discussions ongoing to discuss the future biodiversity targets for the next 30 years for the Convention of Biological Diversity. 

So FABLE is really about identifying the pathways for food and land use to satisfy human needs but also take care of the planet.  

Paulyn Duman: Both of you are looking at the different targets in the sustainable development goals. You are looking at climate targets, food targets, and biodiversity targets. 

Is there a way that we can achieve food targets without affecting biodiversity losses? In short, is it possible to feed everyone but also achieve biodiversity?   

Dr. Sarah Jones: So the problem is that agriculture now covers 40% of terrestrial land and actually much more than this in some countries. So it has a major impact on biodiversity as well as many other sectors because it dominates so much land. 

Our research, the modeling work that Aline was just explaining has shown that it’s going to be impossible to meet global biodiversity targets if current trends in food consumption and the way food systems are managed continue. But the good news is if actions are taken now in line with more ambitious policies, then we can move away from these current trends and achieve much better outcomes for Biodiversity. 

and this will require actions like changing diets in places where overconsumption is a problem, increasing the amount of food that we get per unit of agricultural land, reducing food waste, which is a major issue, reducing deforestation rates and restoring more land to natural vegetation. And when we model what happens when these types of actions are taken, we found that it would be possible to meet one of the global biodiversity targets, which are currently under discussion for adoption later this year by governments to achieve by 2030, and that is an increase in the amount of the area of natural land by 5% by 2030. And we can meet that with the actions that I was just mentioning, if they’re taken in some countries around. 

We would nearly be able to meet two other biodiversity targets, the first to increase natural land by 15% by 2050, and the second to hold losses of existing natural land by 2030. We can’t quite meet these targets, and so it shows that actually even though the modeling that we did integrated, many of the ambitious actions that are currently in policies stronger and additional actions are going to be needed to make sure. 

Those biodiversity targets, which scientists, governments, and other stakeholders have been negotiating, and it’s what they think is necessary to hold biodiversity loss and to get us back on track to having a safe and sustainable planet. So what this means in practice is, for example, countries, the plan to lower over consumption of food, where an increasing number of people are overweight or obese, which as Aline mentioned, is affecting actually nearly all countries now around the world, but to different. 

They may need to do those, take those actions sooner for it to cascade into reductions in the area of land that’s needed for food production and cascade equally into positive outcomes for biodiversity. It also means that countries that have not yet taken put into place policies to halt deforestation or restored land to nature or increase land productivity, need to reconsider this and see how they could take those to contribute to biodiversity at a global scale.  

Paulyn Duman: I really like that you highlighted how much agriculture is using so much of our land, and of course how that is affecting biodiversity. But however, I can also imagine people saying, let’s just prioritize food production and expand a use of land. Let’s use fertilizers and pesticides and ensure that every everyone has access to. 

Why is this not the best solution? 

Dr. Aline Mosnier: Of course, like this is important to prioritize the food needs, the satisfaction, food needs of the population. So I think that everybody agrees with that. The question is how and how much will be this food needs compared to the current ones. So everybody tends to think that because the population would. 

We will also need to increase production to proportionally, let’s say, and use all, also increase the all the inputs which are currently needed for our culture ion also proportionally. But first of all, we currently overall consume quite a lot of food in many parts of the world. So food which is not really needed for our health, it’s even damaging our health with over consumption. 

And also the way we eat is not also healthy and sustainable. So just by reducing this overconsumption in places where we have this excess and shifting our diets to also healthier food products, we could already save a lot of land and we will not need to increase so much the food production. That’s already a very important message to keep in mind. 

Then also, we have overweight to reduce the pressure on our system. While still meeting our nutritional needs for 9 billion people by 2050, food and loss is a big part of the production, but it’s just lost. So that does not affect the health and the nutritional needs of people. In low-income countries, it’s mostly problems related to damages to crops in the field or during the storage destruction of the crops, during the storage problem of transportation. 

So because maybe there is not cooling system in the transportation, there is also a lot of waste happening before food reaches the market. So here, a lot of progress to be made and in high income countries a lot of waste happens really at the retail side, at the consumer. and altogether with lost process, the production side and at the consumption side the future production needs could be reduced by 20% if we really act on that and at the end, there will still be some productivity increase needed in some parts of the world for that, more inputs will probably also be required. 

We are starting from very low level of, for example, fertilizer use in many parts of the world, in Africa, for instance. This will be still very beneficial to the system to slightly increase this input. But in overall parts of the world, for instance, Europe, we are already seeing some productivity increase, which is not really related to the increase of input use anymore. 

Because in fact at the global level, there are really large inefficiencies also in this input use. And it is estimated event that about. Of the total nitrogen use is not used by the crops at all. So here, efficiency gains also are key to be able to meet the food needs, but without adding pressure to the systems. 

Paulyn Duman: What I get as a key message from this is that before we even look at expanding the use of land for agriculture and food production, we first need to look at food waste and losses, and we can achieve some efficiency gains. If we look at this area, what would be interesting to our listeners is to know how they can contribute to providing solutions such as becoming more responsible consumers. 

Dr. Sarah Jones: So number one recommendation is to adopt a diverse food diet. So try to prioritize eating a good share of fresh products. Try to limit your meat consumption to a few small portions a week, alternate with vegetarian meals. There’s some really good recipe books out there now that can make that fun and a talking point and a good creative hobby. 

Do not believe the marketing. When you go to supermarkets, often what you see first are the most colorful, the biggest writing products. They’re not necessarily the most healthy. Trust your own knowledge of what’s good for you, and make sure you look for that information.   

Paulyn Duman: We have talked about consumers, but there are also other actors whose behaviors, operations, and processes can contribute to challenges, but also solutions to a more sustainable food system. 

Who are these actors that need to consider the way that they operate and how can they also help contribute to a more sustainable food system? 

Dr. Sarah Jones: Yeah, that’s a great question. So agri food businesses are going to be an important part of the solution. They are very influential in how our food systems are structured and how far food is produced. 

And what we really need to see from these businesses is investment in alternative agricultural research. Things like integrated pest and nutrient management, locally adapted crop crops that they can then help to market and create inclusive, sustainable business models around food systems and food production methods that are much more sustainable. 

And this also will require that they stop marketing unhealthy food and stop lobbying against environmental labeling, and also stop lobbying against government efforts to try and support farmers in the transition. For example, in the EU was the dollar discussion about Pesticide use and at what point we will bring in regulations to prevent the known and harmful pesticides from being widely used. 

And this keeps getting delayed mainly because of lobbyists. And it’s a real shame because there are alternative production methods and businesses can be part of the solution and really need to be part of the solution that it’s not all up to businesses. Policy makers have a very important role to play as they can help companies to make that transition and support farmers in doing so too. 

Firstly, by redirecting subsidies so that the subsidies that we have in our food system are not promoting heavy use of chemical fertilizers, heavy use of machinery, and are rather allowing farmers to. Have access to organic sources of manure of a fertilizer like manure and other products that cover crops and things that can re replenish soil nutrients without being potentially very harmful for water supplies and biodiversity and so on. 

So policy makers also have a role to play in educating us as consumers about what should matter when we buy. And how we can support farmers in the transition. Sourcing food from local markets, trying to buy food that hasn’t got a lot of packaging, but trying to buy food that has an environmental label that says it’s produced in a sustainable way, or has a social label that says it’s supporting fair wages and good working conditions and so on. 

And then finally, not to forget, a third important group is researchers. Obviously we are also part of that group, but. I think science really does have a role to play here. There are still a lot of knowledge gaps about how we transition to a more sustainable food system, and we invite modelers and others that are working on this topic to contact us. 

If you’re interested in joining Fable, we’re very open to collaboration.  

Paulyn Duman: As a last question, what would be your key message to our listen? Who are perhaps being pessimistic about current crisis and also worried about their future, whether there’s going to be enough food for everyone, whether there’s gonna be enough biodiversity on our planet, but at the same time they want to find hope that things are possible. 

What would be your message? 

Dr. Aline Mosnier: There are a lot of solutions and there are already some improvements going on, but indeed, I think that the current crisis still shows that complexity is increasing and the fact that also we delayed some important decisions is creating more problems now and will create even more problems in the future. 

So we should stop delaying these important decisions and as citizens, we can vote, we can ask for information and for actions. What it shows also is that conflicts are really the worst. and conflicts should be avoided by any mean, because it creates a lot of tensions in all the systems, which are really not needed and divert us from taking actions in really morey areas, but then we are distracted. 

Dr. Sarah Jones: Yeah. From my point of view, I agree with what Aline’s said. I would also with all the media headlines that we’re getting right now with climate change as well as biodiversity loss, as well as the struggle to feed the global population. It is very concerning, and especially for both of us who are thinking about our children’s future the next generation, and what life is going to be like for them being pessimistic about the future. 

It’s the easy option. Optimism requires hope, and it’s much. And actually there are solutions. This is what we are showing and what we are saying here is there are alternatives to the status quo in how whole food systems are managed. So as a citizen, I would say look for the solutions around you. 

Contact your local farmers, see if they sell produce directly. Try to find affordable ways of accessing better food, fresh produce. If there’s weekly food boxes that are affordable price, perhaps food that doesn’t conform to regulations about exactly what it should look like, often that’s a discounted price. 

There are ways to eat healthily and do so within a reasonable budget, but we do also acknowledge that food prices are a real concern right now for many people, and also recognize that the government and NGOs will need to step in to help those that really can’t afford to eat healthily and bring everybody on board with this change. 

Paulyn Duman: And that is Dr. Sarah Jones and Dr. Aline Mosnier, who are scientists working on food systems and biodiversity conservation targets. In this episode, we learned the impact of agriculture and biodiversity and how we can meet global biodiversity targets. Sarah explained that agriculture covers 40% of terrestrial land, making it impossible to meet global biodiversity targets without taking action. 

However, if ambitious policies are put in place such as changing diets, increasing food productivity, reducing food waste, reducing deforestation rates, and restoring natural vegetation. It would be possible to meet the global biodiversity targets by 2030. Aline also explained that over consumption, the food in many parts of the world is damaging to health and the environment, and that reducing this over consumption. 

And shifting to healthier diets could save a lot of land. They also discussed ways to reduce the pressure in food systems while meeting the nutritional needs of the projected population of 9 billion people by 2050, including reducing food waste and using sustainable agricultural practices. It is also important not to go against the efforts of different actors and government. 

And it’s also important to know how the financial flows, such as sub subsidies can contribute to and sustainable practices. They discuss the role of consumers, companies, and researchers in contributing to a more sustainable feature. And they also gave us an important message that we should emphasize the need to stop delaying important actions and decisions. 

We should avoid conflicts, but we should also be optimistic about finding solutions to the challenges facing a sustainable food system. You can find more of the SDG Learncast on the UN SDG Learn website. For now, I’m Paulyn. Thanks for listening. 


Paulyn Duman is the Knowledge Management, Communications, and Reporting Officer at the United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC) Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development and is a coordinator for the Joint Secretariat of UN SDG:Learn, together with UNITAR.  

The opinions expressed in the SDG Learncast podcasts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UN SDG:Learn, its Joint Secretariat, and partners.