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As we celebrate World Environment Day, we take a moment to reflect on how agricultural practices impact the environment and our global food system. In order to gain deeper insights into this critical issue, we took the opportunity to speak to Dr. Susan Gardner, the Director of the Ecosystems Division at UNEP.

Dr. Gardner shed light on the transformative potential of sustainable agricultural practices, emphasising their ability to enhance biodiversity, improve livelihoods, increase gender equality and promote a healthier environment – for the achievement of our Sustainable Development Goals.

Why should we be mindful of food systems and how we grow, process and consume our food, in relation to biodiversity?

Food systems and nature are intrinsically interlinked: Nature provides us with essential – and very often free ecological services, essential to food production: from pollination to pest control, water to soil fertility.

However, our current food system’s unsustainable production methods are a major contributor to our triple planetary crisis – the crisis of pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change. Agriculture alone is responsible for 60% of biodiversity loss and generates approximately one-third of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Over the past 50 years, pollution by fertilisers, chemicals and pesticides and the conversion of natural ecosystems for crop production or pasture has been the principal cause of habitat loss, in turn reducing biodiversity. Moreover, agricultural practices utilise 75% of available freshwater resources.

The way we produce food has a significant impact on the environment, and yet our food systems rely on a healthy environment to function. Around 75% of the world’s food crops depend on natural pollination by insects, birds, and other animals. So, the production of food necessitates healthy, functioning ecosystems and vice-versa.

Yet on all fronts – whether it’s environment and climate change; the health and nutrition of consumers; or the livelihoods of farmers – our food and agriculture systems are failing us. A system’s failure means we need systemic change. Transforming a failing system requires deep transformative change at all levels.  The recent UN Food Systems Summit saw great traction, where heads of state came together to discuss a food system transformation. Over 100 national pathways for food system transformation were submitted, demonstrating commitment at the national level. These pathways serve as roadmaps – they are the blueprints for change – and they now need to be urgently actioned.

According to UNEP’s recent Global Environment Outlook report, if we do not transform our energy, waste and food systems to more sustainable models, we will utterly fail to deliver on our sustainable development goals. And with the world’s population predicted to exceed 9 billion by 2050, it is estimated that 70% more food calories will be needed – this means 70% more dependence on the productivity of our landscapes and oceans.

Speaking of challenges facing our food systems, environmental threats affect all of us irrespective of gender, yet women are more vulnerable to their impacts. What is the role of gender equity in fostering a healthy environment and sustainable food systems?

Gender equality and environmental sustainability are interconnected, with women playing a crucial role as agents of transformational change and stewards of nature, especially in rural contexts. Women comprise approximately 40% of agricultural labour and about 47% of the global fishing workforce, highlighting their central role in food production. They are also key actors in building community resilience as a first line of defence against the impacts of climate change on rural livelihoods and food security.

Unfortunately, women often have limited decision-making power and control over the resources they manage. Globally, less than 15% of all landholders are women, resulting in an unstable situation where women play a significant role in crop production but have minimal empowerment as landholders. Additionally, women continue to be underrepresented in environmental leadership at the national level. This needs to change.

Gender equity is essential for achieving sustainable food systems and environmental transformation.

UNEP has been working to ensure gender-inclusive programs worldwide, particularly in crisis-affected and impoverished communities. For instance, in Western Nepal, rural livelihoods are affected by increasing and unpredictable precipitation linked to climate change. The loss of income has led to significant migration – particularly male migration – to cities, leaving women to shoulder the burden at the community level.  One of UNEP’s projects in the region has focused on supporting communities to adapt their agricultural practices to climate change and to diversify their livelihood options, particularly targeting women and girls. Nearly all households surveyed – that is 95% – reported improved income as a result of gender-sensitive project activities, allowing for male family members to return home and for families to send their daughters to school.

UNEP’s work has demonstrated that climate and food system action not only provides important opportunities to empower women but also that investing in women has positive impacts on the community as a whole.

So how do sustainable agriculture practices like organic impact biodiversity and the environment?

Agriculture can indeed become a positive influence on the environment. Agricultural practices and systems that are biodiversity-friendly, climate-resilient and pollution-free have proven to enhance rural livelihoods and people’s health as well. Organic agriculture serves as a great example of such a practice. Although organic agriculture currently represents a small portion of global food production, it has gained considerable momentum, especially in areas where consumers can choose the food they eat.

In Thailand, UNEP and partners have shown that shifting from conventional rice production to organic rice production makes both economic and ecological sense. Through the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood) project, UNEP’s latest report suggests that converting 90 per cent of Thailand’s rice fields to organic by 2030 could generate benefits of $3.8 billion. Therefore, creating enabling opportunities and environments is crucial to facilitate such transformations.

When supported by appropriate policies, farmers can succeed in the process of becoming organically certified, which connects them with informed consumers. So too, consumers need access to information to inform their choices, highlighting the environmental impacts of different options. By being informed, consumers can actively contribute to solutions to help drive food systems change from the demand side. They can ‘vote with their forks’ – by supporting products that employ sustainable farming practices, for the environmental future we want.

UNEP’s latest report suggests that converting 90% of Thailand’s rice fields to organic by 2030 could generate benefits of $3.8 billion © Oulailux

What are some recommended steps or policies that policymakers can take to empower farmers and promote the adoption of sustainable farming practices?

Transforming our food systems is not an easy endeavour – but by working collectively, across all stakeholder groups, we can scale up our action and have a ripple effect across so many of the challenges we face.

Here are some concrete policy options to consider:

  • Promote nature-friendly and biodiversity-supporting agricultural approaches, such as organic, while providing farmers with information, training, and access to sustainable production methods that work in harmony with nature. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration offers practical guidance and a framework to restore productive ecosystems to ensure food, climate and environmental security.
  • Strengthen the coherence between global agreements and national-level action, embedding a ‘food systems approach’ throughout. To action food system transformation, we need coherent policymaking to help implement the National Food Systems pathways that were put forward at the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021. They are a clear roadmap that brings together integrated and context-specific solutions at local and national levels.
  • Encourage sustainable diets, reduce food loss and waste, and promote sustainable protein sources. Address critical points of food loss and waste within the food supply chain, integrate food waste into national climate plans, and improve efficiency through sustainable food chains.
  • Redirect funding from both public and private sources toward sustainable agriculture and land use practices. Phase out harmful subsidies that support unsustainable agriculture practices and re-allocate them as incentives for nature-positive and climate-positive initiatives. Governments should incorporate natural capital measures into their economic development plans, recognising the value of nature and ecosystem services.

Overall, addressing the challenges faced by our food systems and achieving sustainability will necessitate collaborative efforts and informed decision-making through a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach.

Food unites us around a common table – we need to stay united and coordinated in our response.  By implementing these steps, policymakers can contribute to the necessary transformation of our food systems, aligning them with the pace required to achieve the SDGs by 2030. It is a challenging task, but one that is possible. By working together to address the drivers of risk – we can prevent further environmental and humanitarian crises in the future while creating new pathways for a nature-positive and equitable food system for all.

Sustainable agricultural practices foster a harmonious coexistence among all species, promoting balanced and thriving ecosystems © Arnaldo Aldana

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