Researchers urge UN to move quickly on biodiversity protection

March 19, 2021

Among the benefits of biodiversity: more oysters! (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

A multidisciplinary group of researchers say the United Nations failed to foster sustainable food systems that promote biodiversity from 2010 to 2020 and, in a paper released Friday, lay out eight concrete targets for the UN to consider in its post-2020 game plan.

The new paper, published March 19 in Science Advances, reviews four previous sets of goals related to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and finds that they did not do enough to account for biodiversity and, moreover, did not set enough necessary and measurable targets for changes to food systems. Important measures such as reducing food waste, promoting sustainable diets and strengthening sustainability standards were not explicitly mentioned in any of the four sets of targets.

The UN is expected to review the Convention on Biological Diversity at a meeting now set for October in Kunming, China.

Current agriculture and fishing practices are undermining the UN 2050 goal of "living in harmony with nature," the researchers said, causing grave environmental harms and threatening biodiversity and human flourishing. Prior research has found that food systems have caused about 60% of terrestrial biodiversity loss globally and of 33% of overexploitation of commercial fish populations.

But post-2020, the authors of this paper, who work in fields including law, zoology and ecology, see potential to create a more equal, healthy world. They have shared their findings with the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity and submitted recommendations for the zero draft of the post-2020 global diversity framework, urging the UN to set many deadlines for as early as 2025.

"We are hopeful that the CBD will carefully consider the urgent need to address food systems," lead author Izabela Delabre, a lecturer in environmental geography at Birkbeck, University of London, told The Academic Times.

To meet the eight targets proposed by the researchers, countries must remove incentives to food system practices that harm biodiversity; determine the actual value of what's being lost to environmental degradation; reduce food waste; set minimum sustainability requirements and enforce them through trade sanctions; promote "life cycle assessments" that tell producers and consumers exactly how big each product's environmental footprint is; promote sustainable and healthy diets through efforts like robust free school lunch programs and increased sustainable sea farming; account for biodiversity in planning; and create a system that oversees and enforces these actions. The authors set clear measurements for each target.

The authors note the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has found that while 33% of the world's food is wasted, 11% of the world's people are malnourished. And the food system, whose current inefficiencies leave people hungry and exacerbate a climate emergency, will certainly have to expand with the world's population. A 2011 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences projected that from 2005 to 2050, global food demand would rise 100 to 110%. 

"Transforming the food system for biodiversity is an opportunity to address issues of justice, access and equity in food systems," Delabre said. In line with this, the paper calls for indigenous and local leadership on food systems and biodiversity, free school lunches for children and microcredit investment in marginalized and rural areas.

These microcredit investments, Delabre said, increase local communities' ability to harvest and sell food products. 

"By giving the poor the capacity to trade, they can also improve income and livelihoods," she said. Previous research has shown that microcredit is especially helpful to very low-income farmers who tend to have much smaller farms.

One of the "enabling conditions" of protecting biodiversity and feeding the world in a sustainable manner was, the authors said, involving indigenous and local people in policy decisions and science discourse. Delabre pointed out that while indigenous people are about 5% of the world's population, the World Bank reports that their lands contain 80% of the world's biodiversity. 

To address problems with fishing practices, sustainable sea management was a key factor in this plan. 

"Increased sea plant and filter feeder cultivation is beneficial because it, in contrast to agriculture products, does not require large amounts of freshwater, industrial fertilizers or feed such as agriculture," Delabre said. If the UN adopts their plan, oysters, mussels and seaweed will be on the table more often in the future. 

Other researchers are also making the case, ahead of the convention meeting in China, that the sea needs better protection. The UN has previously reported that 33% of fish stocks were being unsustainably fished in 2015, and 60% were being sustainably fished at the absolute maximum level; a mere 7% of fish stocks were being fished at levels that were lower than sustainable, with wiggle room.

The multidisciplinary authors of this paper came together through the network of the International Union of Biological Sciences, and through a workshop hosted by Sussex Sustainability Research Program, Delabre said.

To achieve the outlined goals will require rethinking a certain worldview, Delabre said. "In a more sustainable development model, instead of favoring and seeking to obtain constant [economic and productivity] growth, the focus would be on more equitable access to nature's benefits and better livelihoods."

The paper, "Actions on sustainable food production and consumption for the post-2020 global biodiversity framework," published March 19 in Science Advances, was authored by Izabela Delabre, Birbeck, University of London and University of Sussex; Lily O. Rodriguez, Université Paris-Sud and Centro de Conservación, Investigación y Manejo de Áreas Naturales–Cordillera Azul; Joanna Miller Smallwood, Centro de Conservación, Investigación y Manejo de Áreas Naturales–Cordillera Azul and University of Sussex; Jörn P. W. Scharlemann, Joseph Alcamo, Alexander S. Antonarakis, Pedram Rowhani, Richard J. Hazell, Charlotte Gresham and Anthony E. Alexander, University of Sussex; Dag L. Aksnes, University of Bergen; Patricia Balvanera, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; Carolyn J. Lundquist, National Institute of Water and Atmosphere Research and University of Auckland; and Nils C. Stenseth, Université Paris-Sud.

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