It’s hard to keep being shocked or even surprised at the litany of reports on the dire condition of our biosphere, but the recent Chatham House study on biodiversity is still an eye-opener. Politicians often claim their job is to keep food cheap, irrespective of the toll it may inflict on human and planetary health. This is countered by Prof Tim Benton of Chatham House, who retorted: “We must stop arguing that we have to subsidise the food system in the name of the poor and instead deal with the poor by bringing them out of poverty.” The article below ran in the latest edition of the Sunday Times‘ Climate supplement.
WITHOUT EVER intending it, humanity has gone to war on the natural world. Worse, we are winning this war, and in the process, in real danger of crippling the very biosphere which sustains all life on Earth.
In Ireland and across the world, biodiversity loss is accelerating. According to a recent report published by the Chatham House think tank, the global extinction rate is orders of magnitude higher than at any time in the last 10 million years.
The global food system is the main driver of this trend, the Chatham House report concluded. It pointed out that over the last 50 years or so, wildlife habitats and entire ecosystems have been destroyed at an ever increasing rate to clear land for agriculture.
Of the 28,000 or so species currently known to be at risk of extinction, some 86 per cent are primarily threatened by agriculture. Our efforts to feed a burgeoning human population approaching eight billion are taking an ever graver toll on nature. This is not, however, inevitable.
In total, around four fifths of the world’s farmland is used for animal agriculture, either to graze them directly, or to produce vast quantities of fodder for housed animals. Yet, the animals only provide around 18 per cent of the calories eaten by humans.
Eating food directly, such as bread, vegetables, nuts or fruit is vastly more efficient in terms of resources used than consuming animals and animal products.
Farmed animals now comprise around 60 per cent of the Earth’s mammals by weight, with humans accounting for another 36 per cent. That means that, by weight, just four per cent of the world’s mammals are wild. So-called cheap food comes with a high ecological price tag.
While the number of wild animals and insects is in freefall, it is estimated that there are now around 70 billion farmed animals in the world. These, along with billions of humans, all require food, fresh water and other resources. These are being consumed at a far faster rate than the natural world can provide.
By depleting biodiversity and crippling ecosystems, humanity is also putting its own survival at risk, the report added. However, while dire, the situation is far from hopeless. The first critical step is to shift human diets to be largely based on plants, rather than farmed animals.
A shift of this kind would also benefit the dietary health of populations around the world, and, crucially, reduce the risk of future devastating pandemics. The new report follows a similar study by the influential Lancet EAT Commission in 2019. It recommended a drastic 90 per cent cut in meat and dairy consumption if we are to avoid dangerous climate change and protect biodiversity.
Intensive food production systems in Ireland and around the world involve the heavy use of chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and are often monocultures. Ireland’s famously green fields are not what they seem. Most are now largely biodiversity deserts, as they typically consist of a single species of ryegrass for livestock fodder and depend on chemicals.
Up until relatively recently, many Irish farmlands were havens of biodiversity, with meadows in particular supporting a wide range of wildlife, grasses and flowers. However, as agricultural practices intensified, this led to drainage of wetlands and clearing of ‘marginal’ lands. As a result, farmland birds such as the corncrake have virtually disappeared.
According to Birdwatch Ireland, many wild animals in Ireland are now facing extinction, with birds particularly hard hit. Shockingly, some 40 per cent of waterbirds have disappeared in just the last 20 years.
Organic farming, which involves food production without artificial fertilizers or pesticides, allows nature to exist in harmony with agriculture. Recognising the crucial importance of this, the EU recently published its ‘Farm To Fork’strategy, which aims to see one quarter of Europe’s farmland managed organically by 2030, with ambitious targets on cutting the use of chemical inputs.
Ireland, despite trading heavily on its ‘green’ reputation for food production, has barely two per cent of its land farmed organically. It would require a revolutionary shift for our systems and attitudes to both farming and nature to see Ireland come into line with the new EU targets.
Today, barely a quarter of the world’s agricultural land is used for growing crops for human consumption, yet this land produces the vast majority of the global calorie supply. Sharply reducing the number of farm animals would reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also freeing up millions of hectares for crucial rewilding, to allow the natural world the space to begin to recover and regenerate.
It could also help arrest and reverse the ongoing clearance of rainforests, which is having a catastrophic impact on vital ecosystems which are being razed to clear land for meat production.
Agriculture made modern civilisation possible. Ironically, our runaway intensive agricultural systems, left unchecked, risk destroying the very natural world upon which we all ultimately depend.
- John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism