COP 15: Can we eat our way to a healthier planet?

Surprisingly few people know there were actually two important COP events last year. While COP 26 in Glasgow received worldwide media attention, the lesser-known COP 15 proceeded quietly in the Chinese city of Kunming. This latter event focused on biodiversity and considered how we can best conserve Earth’s natural resources more fairly and sustainably.

Biodiversity is incredibly important to the future health of our planet, but looking after ecosystems, especially forests and oceans, is also critical to the fight against climate change as they serve as vital carbon sinks. So why are these important causes being looked at independently? The Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity admits that climate change and biodiversity “are two intertwined crises that should be addressed together.”1

Professor Johan Rockstrom, an internationally recognised scientist on global sustainability issues, agrees. Speaking at BNP Paribas Asset Management’s Investment Symposium 2021, Professor Rockstrom proposed that a transition in the global food system is pivotal for achieving net zero goals, particularly the 1.5˚ target. But will a transformation of the food chain really fix climate change, what would be involved and how will this impact investors?

Addressing an unsustainable food chain
While much of the fight against climate change has focused on cleaning up energy emissions, the world’s agricultural and food system is actually responsible for producing 31% of human-caused global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions2 From this total figure, around half comes from farms, a quarter comes from changing land use and a third comes from supply-chain processes3 .

How we produce food is not only damaging for climate change but also threatens other planetary boundaries – the environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate – such as biodiversity, land use and the overuse of biochemicals. Professor Rockstrom believes that a revolution in how we produce food over the next decade could be the solution to many of the planet’s challenges. He says, “There is evidence today that a global transition of the food system to one that is more sustainable will give us a very good chance of moving back into a safe operating space of planetary boundaries and provide a chance to avoiding pushing the system onto an irreversible pathway.”

Fixing the food system: more than just climate change
The food system is often the first victim during climate events such as flooding, fires or drought. Essentially, it’s the victim of its own negative impacts. Yet, addressing the unsustainability of the food chain is not just critical for climate change but for the survival of humanity too.

Food security is fragile, especially in the emerging world and amid a growing population. The latest research suggests our current food system can only feed 3.4 billion people and still maintain planetary boundaries4 . But the global population is already at 7.8 billion and is forecast to reach nearly 10 billion by 20505 meaning we are already past the tipping point of sustainable food supply.

Our current food system can also be connected to the recent health crisis. The frequency of zoonotic viral diseases has been directly attributed to the expansion of agriculture into previously intact environmental habitats6.

Moreover, food inflation is going up, just as food reliability is going down. Potentially further harming those that have the greatest need of good nutrition. Something needs to change.

Planetary diet plan
The first challenge is to change humanity’s eating habits.

It’s not just the volume of food we consume that’s problematic, the type of food we eat is also stretching both natural and economic resources. Poor diet and nutrition are strongly associated with illnesses such as hypertension, cancer and diabetes, creating pressure and cost on the world’s health services. However, malnutrition has also been shown to be a significant drag on GDP due to high levels of work absence and poor productivity.

Converting to a healthier diet would not only add value to the global economy but would also add to the global workforce as people are no longer ill or dying prematurely. Professor Rockstrom suggests that shifting to a Mediterranean or flexitarian diet, which entails the reducing our red meat intake and increasing our consumption of fruit and nuts, would have a positive health outcome for both humans and the planet – a double win.

And we’re moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. Trends towards flexitarianism are already gaining traction. For example, Green Monday is a social media initiative where people commit to going meatless on a Monday to achieve a more sustainable diet.

Smart farming
It’s not just what and how we eat that needs to change, how we grow food is also currently unsustainable and environmentally damaging. Half of all habitable land is currently used for agriculture and is therefore responsible for a significant percentage of GHG emissions.

The ground and soil have the potential to hold more carbon than the atmosphere and Earth’s plant life combined – so an amazing solution is sitting beneath us if it can just be harnessed effectively. Yet, current commercial agricultural practices are eroding this potential rapidly. Already a third of topsoil is gone and if we carry on with these practices there may only be 30-40 harvests left.

Switching to organic farming methods and eliminating the use of harmful pesticides could change this outcome significantly. In France, an experiment has shown that increasing the organic matter by 4/1000 can dramatically bend the curve of carbon emissions7 .

The use of controlled greenhouses has also been impactful. They can improve yields by 30 times while using 90% less water (which can be sourced from rainwater rather than relying on fresh water sources). Importantly, they can also be situated close to populations, meaning less food mileage, and the model is repeatable and could therefore be replicated worldwide.

Technology – such as robotic harvesting, machine learning and sensors – is also improving agricultural efficiency. Adoption of these systems and other more sustainable practices need to be encouraged and supported worldwide.

Engaging to raise awareness
Unlike climate change, where many sectors are still seeking new technologies to help them decarbonise, solutions to help build a more sustainable food chain already exist. However, unlike climate change, awareness of the urgency of this issue is not commonplace.

The second phase of the COP 15 summit will take place in May this year. This time, the event needs to take a leaf out of COP 26’s book to generate better publicity to ensure biodiversity, food and health gain the recognition needed to affect change.

The investment community can play its part too. As with any transformative change, there will be enormous investment opportunities to benefit investors pursuing this theme. However, they can also use their influence to challenge the business world to change its practices – as is happening with decarbonisation.

At BNP Paribas Asset Management, we are using corporate engagement to educate, raise awareness, encourage transparency and promote the adoption of sustainable food standards. We are also advocating for greater public policy to regulate food standards, introduce taxation to promote healthier food options and enforce more effective food labelling.

Finally, through our environmental strategies we are investing in those businesses providing the necessary solutions to the sustainable food challenge. This will not only provide a wider breadth of opportunities for our clients to affect real change, but they should also benefit from the growth potential of these innovative enterprises.

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