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Publication | 5 February 2021

Food system impacts on biodiversity loss. Three levers for food system transformation in support of nature

Global Food and Nutrition Security

In the light of key international events in 2021, in particular the UNFSS, the CHATAM – UNEP report provides a number of policy recommendations for the transition toward more sustainable food systems.

The report starts by the fact that over the past 50 years, the conversion of natural ecosystems for crop production or pasture has been the principal cause of biodiversity loss. Half of the habitable land on earth is dedicated to agriculture and intensive farming practices has increased the magnitude of the problem.

To explain this evolution, the report introduces the so-called ‘cheaper food’ paradigm: The more food produced, the cheaper food becomes, and the more consumed (and wasted). The ‘cheaper food’ paradigm drives a set of overlapping and often self-reinforcing mechanisms illustrated by this figure:



Low food prices, due to an externalisation of environmental and social costs, has encouraged two unsustainable trends:

  • greater consumption of resource-intensive foods such as animal products by middle and high-income households;
  • greater consumption by low-income of calorie-dense, nutritionally poor foods. The result has been a rapid rise in the incidence of overweight and obesity alongside continued micronutrient deficiency in low-income countries as well as high-income ones.

Three levers to reform food systems and reverse the loss of biodiversity are presented:

  • Shifting to diets based more on plants. It is recalled that nearly 80% of the agricultural land is dedicated to livestock while meat and dairy products only account for respectively 18% and 37% of global calorie and protein supply;
  • Setting aside land for biodiversity, protecting and restoring natural habitat;
  • Shift to more nature-friendly, biodiversity-supporting production systems.

The report explains that only a simultaneous deployment of the three levers could work and that the dietary change is the critical lever.

Finally, in the light of the international summits to take place in 2021, the report provides some policy recommendations:

  • International decision-makers need to recognize the interdependence of supply-side and demand-side action;
  • The transition toward sustainable food systems must take into account climate and biodiversity international negotiations;
  • The coherence between global agreements and national-level action must be strengthen, through national dialogues and accounting frameworks, global guidelines to support transformative change of food systems.