Last year I worked with the Future Food Institute in guiding one of its Food Shapers research teams in a project focusing on Scalable sustainability and Circular systems – in which the students explored resilient human networks, short food supply chains, regenerative agriculture, and reversing food waste.
As part of that work, I wrote an introductory piece citing the global food system’s disturbing role in leading our world to exceed planetary boundaries, referencing the Global Footprint Network’s concept of Earth Overshoot – which indicates that humanity’s annual demand for nature’s services (ecological capacity) is running at 1.75 Earths. That’s obviously an untenable (read “unsustainable”) situation for the long term – as we only have one planet to drawn on for ecological services. In other words, we simply can’t continue to overshoot Earth’s ecological capacity as there is no Planet B to draw on. We only have one planet, Planet A. There is no interpretive element here.
I went on to note that Earth, our Planet A, is telling us something. We’re receiving continual signals from Earth in the form of prolonged droughts, extreme fires, melting glaciers, rising temperatures, water shortages, plastics pollution, biodiversity loss, species decline, and more.
Enter the global pandemic world of Covid-19. A world that, as the The Economist recently portrayed, is in many ways “closed.”
As the world is in the early stages of a Covid-19-induced shutdown, it’s important to consider the very concerning linkage between biodiversity loss and pandemics. We would do well to think of Covid-19 as yet another powerful signal of the need to embrace sustainability concepts set forth in the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the need for a more sustainable food system and the reduction of global food waste as covered in Target 12.3. Covid-19 is another one of many signals from Planet A that we can no longer ignore, and it’s important to make the connection to our food system.
A brief review of some recent writings is warranted.
A November 2019 piece by Gabriel Recchia and Haydn Belfield drew on research by Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk which cited several catastrophic risks faced by global governments today, including 1) tipping points in the environmental system due to climate change and biodiversity loss and 2) a global pandemic. Regarding the latter, the authors noted that a pandemic “could speed around” our hyper-connected world, potentially threatening millions or billions of people, and that our global world of just-in-time delivery and global supply chains is “more vulnerable to disruption than ever before.” How prescient. Assessing the impact of Covid-19 today reveals that they were indeed spot on.
Earlier this month, the World Economic Forum published a piece by John Scott noting that “the increasing frequency of disease outbreaks is linked to climate change and biodiversity loss” and that the many disease outbreaks of the last 20 years have lulled the world into a sense of complacency. Scott states that deforestation has been rising steadily and is linked to nearly a third of critical outbreaks (like Ebola and Zika), and that climate change has “altered and accelerated” transmission patterns of infectious diseases like Zika. The food system, of course, is a major driver of both deforestation and climate change — so by extension, it is a driver of pandemics.
In addition, The Guardian published an article in which John Vidal suggested that human-induced habitat and biodiversity loss may be the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of mass pandemics. Vidal pointed out that humanity’s destruction of biodiversity is creating the conditions for new viruses and diseases like Covid-19. As part of his work, he interviewed Kate Jones of University College London, who noted that zoonotic diseases (those that can be transmitted from animals to humans) are increasingly linked to environmental change and human behavior – such as the destruction of forests from logging, mining, and urbanization. He also contacted disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, who stated that habitat destruction is forcing more species together – and in greater contact with humans – with the result that species that survive the changing environment are mixing with different animals and humans. Significantly, Gillespie is not surprised by the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak and feels that “the majority of pathogens are still to be discovered.”
Given the severity of Covid-19 to date, Gillespie’s comments are more than concerning, elevating the importance of stemming biodiversity loss and species decline. Recent figures from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) raise more concern. In its 2018 Living Planet Report, WWF notes that global wildlife populations have declined by 60 percent on average between 1970 and 2014. Species decline in the tropics (South and Central America) stands at 89% since 1970, while one-fifth of the Amazon has disappeared in the last 50 years. WWF points to overexploitation and agricultural activities driven by runaway consumption as the cause of such extensive biodiversity loss.
Further, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that there is “growing concern about the health consequences of biodiversity loss and change.” WHO adds that human activities (ex. deforestation, land use change, water management, pesticide use and impact) are altering ecosystems – changing population levels of organisms and altering the interactions between them, and therefore impacting patterns of infectious diseases. Specific to climate, WHO also states that “changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are a likely major consequence of climate change.” Last, the loss of biodiversity is a double-edged sword. In addition to creating opportunities for the spread of infectious disease, it can limit the discovery and development of potential treatments for them.
Coming full circle to food, it’s important to stress that biodiversity loss is a driver of pandemics, and the food system – fueled by excessive overproduction and waste – is a major driver of biodiversity loss. As I’ve noted often, food is central and critical to our lives — and to all of the SDGs. Reducing food waste has a multiplier effect that accelerates progress across all of the Goals. Along with the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) understands the linkage between the food system, biodiversity loss, and pandemics, as evidenced by the following comments from its Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition which is focused on the creation of a Code of Conduct for food loss and waste:
The world is facing unprecedented global challenges that affect the sustainability of agricultural and food systems. These challenges include: natural resource depletion and the adverse impacts of environmental degradation, such as desertification, drought, land degradation, water scarcity and biodiversity loss; rapid urbanization and population growth and the associated changes in lifestyles and dietary habits; transboundary pests and diseases; and climate change. It is widely recognized that one of the key practical actions to address these challenges is to reduce food losses and waste (FLW).
So as we battle through this trying time and hope for a rapid return to a post-Covid new normal, we need to consider what brought us to this point – and what can very likely happen again. Our food system, with its high levels of overproduction and waste, is a critical driver of biodiversity loss and therefore increases the risk of global pandemics. We must make our food system less wasteful, less harmful, and more circular.
WWF’s 2018 Living Planet Report notes that we are living in an age of “rapid and unprecedented planetary change.” The current Covid-19 pandemic is yet another signal of the accelerating negative impact that humanity is having on the planet. The Report also posits that this generation is the first to have a clear picture of our impact on Nature, and that we are the generation that can either act to change our relationship with the planet and secure the future for all life on Earth – or fail to act and let Earth slip away.
Since there is no Planet B to fall back on, we really have little choice. And there’s no time for complacency.
Covid-19 is yet another big signal, another warning shot for a new level of global collaboration for the creation of sustainable, circular systems – with particular focus on the food system.
Reducing overproduction and excessive waste are key places to start – not only to reduce environmental harm in multiple ways and free resources to invest in root cause solutions to social problems – but to reduce biodiversity loss and the potential for future pandemics like Covid-19 (or the next one, which could well be worse).