Food production threatens biodiversity disaster

Without radical change the world’s food system is set to drive rapid and widespread biodiversity loss, new research has found.

The international research team, led by the University of Leeds and the University of Oxford, found that what we eat and how it is produced will need to change rapidly and dramatically to prevent widespread and severe biodiversity losses.

The findings published in Nature Sustainability show that the world’s food system will need to be transformed to prevent habitat loss across the globe.

Lead author of the paper, Dr David Williams, from Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment, and the Sustainability Research Institute, warned the situation puts tens of thousands of species in danger of extinction.

“We estimated how agricultural expansion to feed an increasingly wealthy global population is likely to affect about 20,000 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians,” he explained. “Our research suggests that without big changes to food systems, millions of square kilometres of natural habitats could be lost by 2050.

“Nearly 1,300 species are likely to lose at least a quarter of their remaining habitat, and hundreds could lose at least half. This makes them far more likely to go extinct.

“Ultimately, we need to change what we eat and how it is produced if we’re going to save wildlife on a global scale. We need to alter both our diets and food production methods.”

The study estimated how food systems would affect biodiversity at a finer land scale than previous research (2.25 km2), making the results more relevant to conservation action by highlighting exactly which species and landscapes are likely to be threatened.

It did so by linking projections of how much agricultural land each country will need with a new model that estimates where agricultural expansion and abandonment are most likely to occur.

By looking at whether individual animal species can survive in farmland or not, the researchers could then estimate changes in habitat, finding that losses were particularly severe in sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of Central and South America.

Many of the species that are likely to be most affected are not listed as threatened with extinction, and so are unlikely to be currently targeted by conservationists.

Co-lead author, Dr Michael Clark, from Oxford Martin School and Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, added: “As international biodiversity targets are set to be updated in 2021, these results highlight the importance of proactive efforts to safeguard biodiversity by reducing demand for agricultural land.

“Discussions on slowing and reversing biodiversity often focus on conventional conservation actions, such as establishing new protected areas or species-specific legislation for threatened species. These are absolutely needed and have been effective at conserving biodiversity.

“However, our research emphasises the importance of also reducing the ultimate stresses to biodiversity—such as agricultural expansion.

“The good news is that if we make ambitious changes to the food system, then we can prevent almost all these habitat losses.”