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The Curt Bergfors Foundation is thrilled to present the Food Planet Prize 2023 to the Agrobiodiversity Index. With US$2 million for one single winner, the Food Planet Prize is the world’s biggest environmental award.

The Agrobiodiversity Index has done something that has never been tried before. It has a vision of using science and empirical evidence to quantify and measure the sustainability of the food system, and translate this into a quantitative index for farmers, businesses, and policy, in order to accelerate the adoption of sustainable and healthy food systems.

“For the Agrobiodiversity Index, winning the Food Planet Prize 2023 means that we can take our work to the next level. Change is a process, and this will allow us to catalyze the process into policies and practices,” commented Sarah Jones, co-lead of the initiative.

“The climate crisis is already well known, compared to the biodiversity crisis. This will allow us to put the agrobiodiversity crisis on the map,” added Arwen Bailey, member of the Agrobiodiversity Index team.

The Curt Bergfors Foundation received more than 1000 nominations for the 2023 edition of the prize. A yearlong evaluations process started with initial reviews by the foundations nominations team resulting in a longlist of the most interesting nominees, picked to equally represent all parts of the food system, a wide geographical spread, and a balanced selection between technological, nature based and social innovation.

From the longlist, ten candidates were selected and put through a rigorous process of academic and practical evaluation, on-site visits by an investigative journalist and a photographer commissioned by the Foundation, and a full compliance and due diligence report. Eight nominees were finally chosen for the Food Planet Prize shortlist and presented to the jury.

On Friday morning (9 June) each of the eight shortlisted nominees were given the opportunity to address the jury in person and tell them why they should win this year’s award, and to answer a few final questions. Following this, final jury deliberations were held and concluded by a vote to select this year’s winner.

For more information on the Agrobiodiversity Index, please click here and here.

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The Curt Bergfors Foundation received more than 1000 nominations for this year’s prize.

The shortlisted nominees offer a wide range of solutions to help move global food production towards a more sustainable, nature-positive, and climate-friendly future. Approaching the challenge from different creative angles, they all aim to deliver solutions for reshaping a global system that is currently exhausting the resources of the planet on which it depends.

Ranging from systems change thinking to new technologies, most of these solutions also take a holistic approach that considers social issues plaguing farmers at the bottom of the food pyramid as well as the fundamental connections between agriculture, climate change and biodiversity. Most importantly, all nominees on the shortlist have great potential to deliver lasting and wide-ranging impact.

The eight short-listed Food Planet Prize Nominees 2023 are:

The Agrobiodiversity Index

The Agrobiodiversity Index helps measure the status of biodiversity in global agriculture. With only nine crops currently making up two-thirds of the world’s crop production, it provides a centralized way to track and understand what is getting lost, risks of low agrobiodiversity, and ways to improve. It could help restore the healthy, rich diets previously provided by local produce. Learn more.

Aponiente

Aponiente is working to cultivate an edible sea grain for the first time. This grain, Zostera marina, can be cooked similarly to rice but has higher protein and fiber levels, and is grown with a much lower climate footprint with no need for irrigation. It could help reduce food insecurity while restoring coastal ecosystems. Learn more.

Coolfood

Coolfood is a one-stop solution to facilitate plant-forward, climate-friendly eating. By taking the Coolfood Pledge, large-scale food service providers commit to reducing their food related GHG emissions by 25% by 2030 with the help of tailored Coolfood tools. This approach could help feed a growing global population while keeping GHG emissions in check. Learn more.

Monarch Tractor

Monarch Tractor has launched a line of the world’s first fully-electric, driver-optional, data-collecting smart tractors, offering an all-in-one solution to an industry struggling with labor shortages and increasing costs while reducing CO2 emissions. It could help revolutionize the future of farming by making it possible to run smaller-scale farms profitably. Learn more.

Protein Challenge Southeast Asia

Protein Challenge Southeast Asia equip protein innovators to embed systems change approaches into the design and implementation of their activities such that they support a deep transition towards a resilient, regenerative and socially just food system in the region.  This holistic approach could help create the systematic change required achieve affordable, nutritious, sustainable protein for all. Learn more.

Ragn Sells Easy Mining

Ragn Sells Easy Mining is pioneering the recycling of phosphorus and other nutrients that are essential components of fertilizers. Their technologies could help improve food security by recovering nutrients from waste to reuse in fertilizers, instead of relying on vulnerable – and finite – global supply chains. Learn more.

Sustainable Rice Platform

Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) is aiming to redesign the rice value chain from beginning to end. Rice is responsible for feeding half our planet, but also uses one-third of the world’s freshwater resources for irrigation and emits significant amounts of methane. Through education and certified practices, SRP could help feed the world sustainably. Learn more.

The Toothpick Company

The Toothpick Company turns fungi into a bioherbicide to fight Striga, a “master weed” that has devastated an estimated 40 million farms in Africa. Using fungi as weapons in the war on weeds, it could help reduce reliance on chemical herbicides that have proven harmful to ecological and human health. Learn more.

The Food Planet Prize winner will be selected by a jury of world-leading food system specialists located on four continents, chaired by Professor Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and Magnus Nilsson, the Director-General of the Food Planet Prize.

We congratulate all the short-listed nominees and wish them best of luck for the presentation to the jury and the winner announcement ceremony scheduled to take place on 9 June 2023.

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Category: Uncategorized

It’s that time of the year: The 2023 winner of the Curt Bergfors Food Planet Prize, the largest monetary award in the global food arena, will be announced on 9 June.

After a Covid-imposed hiatus, the winner announcement ceremony will take place in person in Stockholm, in the presence of representatives of all short-listed nominees and our esteemed jury. The jury – a distinguished octet of experts in sustainability, food production, and more – will again be co-chaired by Johan Rockström and Magnus Nilsson. Johan, the globally renowned Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, helped pioneer the concept of “planetary boundaries,” and Magnus, a Michelin star chef, is the Director-General of the Food Planet Prize.

The Food Planet Prize is special.

“It is not only the world’s biggest environmental award, but also one that is unlike almost all other prizes because it does not award you for something you already did, but for what we believe that you will do, if only you get a chance,” said Magnus Nilsson and continued:

 “The Curt Bergfors Foundation and the Prize were shaped by Curt’s vision of a necessary and unavoidable revolution in our food system, and the way that it is structured, which says a lot about him as a person.”

The Food Planet Prize 2023 has received more than 1000 nominated initiatives for this year’s award, and will soon release the shortlist of eight outstanding nominees, one of which will be crowned the deserving winner of the US$2 million prize on 9 June 2023.

Selecting the winner from over 1000 nominees is a 13-month long process with various stages, including meticulous fact-checking, the involvement of investigative journalists and experts in various areas of sustainability, as well as specialists tasked to conduct a proper due diligence and compliance report on each candidate. This process is so rigorous that any of the short-listed projects that makes it through the final analysis stage is worthy of the Prize.

We cannot wait to tell you who has passed the bar set for the winner of the Food Planet Prize 2023. Check back soon for the announcement of the short-listed projects!

2022 Prize Winner ColdHubs is fixing food loss with off-grid cool rooms. Fresh food sellers like these in Abuja, Nigeria use Coldhubs cold room at the market to keep their products. A practice that has reduced the seller’s business waste by over 50% and in turn increases their profit.

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Category: Uncategorized

The ocean provides food and livelihood to billions of people, as well as oxygen for every second breath we take. But in many aspects, the big blue stands on the brink of collapse. At the point when the pace of extinctions on land started accelerating, in fact. As demand for blue foods soars, will the ocean economy boom offer a blueprint for a sustainable food planet?

Life has existed in the ocean for three times longer than on land. What was once considered an endless resource is, of course, finite and vulnerable to human activity. Evidence clearly shows that overexploitation, climate change, and pollution are endangering biodiversity, destroying fragile marine habitats, and putting the ocean’s ability to feed us in jeopardy.

Since land-based food sources are faring even worse – and wholly exhausted for some – powerful players are rushing into the ocean. Would they extend their lucrative yet environmentally harmful and socially unjust practices to the last wild commons? Will they turn the sea into a copy of the industrial food system shaped by intensive agriculture?

Many bet on the blue economy to get right what land management got wrong. To succeed, established actors and new entrants would need to leave old habits at bay and surf new waves of thinking.

Freeing the last wild commons from our cravings

The man-made sixth mass extinction has wiped out around 500 terrestrial species over the past 500 years. In oceans, it’s radically altering marine ecosystems and the genetic structure of many species. If we continue with the status quo, human impact on marine biodiversity might soon rival that on land.

Decreasing fish stocks
Figure 1: Adapted from Pauly et al. (1998). Fishing Down Marine Food Webs. Science, 279(5352, pp. 860-863 and Jackson et al. (2001). Historical Overfishing and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems. Science, 293(5530), pp. 629-637.

So far, scientists have recorded “only” 15 extinctions of marine species. They, however, also agree that we’re on the brink of a ripple effect as thousands of other species are endangered. On the one hand, this is a direct result of sourcing more than three-quarters of the 120 million tons of marine fish extracted from the ocean every year from overexploited stocks. On the other hand, the very activities currently in place to make up for plummeting catches represent dangers in their own right.

Understanding the deep sea, not emptying it

As fish stocks run dry, ships redirect hunting efforts beyond coastal zones. An increasing share of our beloved seafood, therefore, comes from the hyper-abundant open ocean and deep sea. This vicious cycle can create a “gold rush effect,” where we damage ecosystems before getting a chance to understand the target species’ basic biology, the implications for other species, and the ecological interactions at stake.

The ocean covers 71% of the earth’s surface. So, there’s a lot to explore and exploit, but there’s also a lot to safeguard. This thin line is critically important to realize the ocean’s role as nutrient provider. Luckily, fewer extinctions do mean that even a modest release of pressure will allow the ocean’s resilience to kick in and recovery to begin. States can play a predominant role in this balancing act since most high seas fishing would be unprofitable without large subsidies.

Curtailing diseases by farmed animals

Marine aquaculture is another coping mechanism with a long list of side effects. It contributes to the global rise of antimicrobial resistance because of the enormous amounts of antibiotics used to prevent the spread of bacteria in overcrowded enclosures. Escapee fishes infect native ones. And then some.

Mariculture’s prioritization of high-value export species like crown-jewel salmon – while wild stocks are replenishing – can also be seen as a diversion. Ship crews continue to throw highly nutrient species overboard as bycatch. Fishes that could perfectly be part of our healthy food pyramid. So, to be sustainable, the blue food economy’s offering needs to focus on people and planetary needs instead of satisfying our cravings.

Avoiding the crossing of marine tipping points

Oceans play a central role in regulating our climate. Due to its vastness and heat absorption qualities, it’s been instrumental in limiting human-induced temperature rise. It sequesters 25% of the carbon we emit. Even more impressive, between 1970 and 2010, the ocean soaked up 93% of excess heat accumulated in the Earth system. But that causes it, in turn, to warm.

Ocean warming has dire consequences on our food supply. It could lead to turnovers of over 60% of current marine biodiversity in sub-polar regions and the tropics. Most at risk are species that end up on our plates.

By taking up CO2, oceans also acidify. Ocean acidification is a high impact, high probability tipping point that already affects calcifying organisms today. A series of massive oyster die-offs have indeed been recorded in the U.S. since 2006 as acidic seawater eats away their shell, leaving them unable to feed.

And ravages of global warming will impact the big blue all the way down to the deep sea’s biological carbon pump. This is the ecologically essential mechanism by which carbon-containing compounds are exported from the surface to the deep ocean. We just don’t know how or to what degree the process will be disturbed.

Curing the ocean of the plastic plague and other poisons

The ocean has gone from wild and pristine to littered and contaminated by dreadful pollutants in just a few generations. Manufacturers have produced approximately 6,300 million metric tons of plastics since the invention of this petroleum byproduct. Only 9% has been recycled. A colossal chunk has found its way into the oceans, killing many marine animals. As it slowly breaks into smaller pieces, currents and winds scatter it further and further, century after century.

A fish stuffed with plastic
Choked by plastic pellets, one of the countless beached fish that washed ashore in Sri Lanka as the Singaporean ship MV X-Press Pearl caught fire just outside Colombo’s harbor in May 2021. Photo: Sipa USA/Alamy

Through food, these microplastics end up in our stomachs. On average, we eat a credit card-sized amount of it each week. Microplastics have also been linked to algal and jellyfish blooms. In fact, scientists point out that humans are engineering an Anthropocene ocean much more suited for nutritionally poorer jellyfish, which thrive in gutted areas.

Besides plastic, mercury is another widespread ocean pollutant. All seafoods contain it at varying concentration levels. It’s a persistent, neurotoxic substance that can severely impact the health of those who eat fish. Unfortunately, rising ocean temperatures will further increase bioaccumulation, becoming an even more significant threat to humans.

In the face of all these threats, how can we create a sustainable blue foods future?

Shifting to nature-positive blue foods

Despite overfishing and pollution, many seafoods still compare favorably to terrestrial protein sources. Small pelagic fish and bivalves create the smallest environmental footprints across capture fisheries and aquaculture.

However, blue foods are by no means a silver bullet. As production expands and demand should double by 2050, it’s critical to prioritize sustainable practices. Regenerative marine plants then emerge as the Swiss army knives of the ocean.

Kelp is is central to sustainable blue foods economy
Kelp floating underwater with light beams

When people think about food from the ocean, few think of plants. Yet, the diversity of plants flourishing in the sea is immense. Given its versatility, seaweed could become a pillar of a sustainable ocean economy. However, like many marine ecosystems, macroalgal (seaweed) and seagrass forests are degrading rapidly due to rising temperatures and marine heatwaves. Farming can come to the rescue.

Mimicking seagrass and seaweed forests, farms can protect coastlines by dampening wave energy during storms. And their environmental role doesn’t stop there. By altering PH levels and generating oxygen, they combat ocean acidification and deoxygenation locally.

These “lungs of the sea” also sequester carbon. Seaweed farms have an assessed carbon mitigation capacity of about 1 500 tons of CO2 per km² per year. Today, they capture only about 0.4% of the carbon their wild counterparts do, but estimates suggest it could rise to 6%. The marine plant also reduces emissions from terrestrial agriculture when incorporated into cattle feed, an innovative approach that allowed Future Feed to win the 2020 Food Planet Prize.

When cultivated with bivalves like mussels, marine algae can be a vital part of coastal habitat restoration. This integrated system is at the forefront of large-scale, sustainable aquaculture with a minimal environmental footprint. Once again, a Food Planet Prize Winner, this time GreenWave, is the pioneer behind this regenerative farming system.

Shifting to healthy diets with blue foods

If they are beneficial for the environment, the question then becomes: can blue foods support a shift toward a healthy food system? According to U.S. Special Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, the answer is yes. At the 2021 “Our Planet, Our Future” Nobel Summit, he declared that “We can have 50% of the food that we need from the ocean”. This may be true, but there are critical considerations to take into account.

Aquatic foods can indeed help us reduce the consumption of land animal protein, as recommended by EAT-LANCET Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. They are packed with a diversity of critical nutrients difficult to get elsewhere in such density. And there remains significant untapped potential.

Sustainable blue foods economy means eating more of what we catch
Fresh seafood in fish market in Busan, Korea. – Photo: Getty

Of the 2,000 or so aquatic species we catch, and over 425 we farm across both freshwater and marine environments, a mere 23 species account for 70% of our diets. And they are not equally nutritious. But even less nutrient-rich blue foods may still be healthy replacements for red meat. So, we need to eat more of what we catch or farm rather than transform it into feed.

There are huge distributive differences too. Aquatic foods contribute 17% of animal protein consumed globally. In some countries, however, they represent well over 50%. But even in these countries, export is prioritized. Consequently, ship crews throw highly nutrient species overboard as bycatch, undermining their own population’s food security.

Then, intensive aquaculture’s rapid development also adds layers of nutritional challenges. It incentivizes people to move away from local fish to farmed species. In Bangladesh, for example, tilapia is replacing catfish and hilsa, which provide five times more vitamin B12 than the former.

Speeding into a bright blue foods economy

Since the ocean’s capacity to feed us all is inextricably linked to the stress we put on it,

we are prompted to protect and utilize it simultaneously. To continue to harvest precious nutrients in the future, avoiding traps land agriculture fell in and embracing novel thinking are of the essence. Securing equitable use of shrinking resources is one of such considerations.

Sustainable blue foods economy needs to include small-scale fishers
When thinking about the future of the ocean and the food system, it is crucial that we draw inspiration from the past and not limit ourselves to the perceived reality of the present. A typical local artisanal fishing boat in Zanzibar’s archipelago. Photo: Getty

Currently, 100 companies account for 60% of total revenues across all core ocean industries. Many are multinationals representing economic sectors, business models, and worldviews of the 20th century. This high concentration risks turning the ocean into a replica of the exploitative, unjust, and low-cost operational models used on land.

The boom of the ocean economy can seem hyper-capitalist and neo-colonialist. After all, for the most part, it disregards small-scale fishers, coastal communities, indigenous peoples, and developing island states. All the while, small-scale fisheries account for half of wild captures and over 90% of employment in the sector. Yet, they continue to be given much less weight in policy discussions and international negotiations.

Nevertheless, Stockholm Resilience Centre’s researchers argue in the recent The Blue Acceleration – The trajectory of human expansion into the global ocean that things will work out better with the renewed momentum of ocean economic development. Organizations like Blue Justice Initiative International, for instance, combat transnational illegal fishing and help achieve sustainable and equitable marine fisheries management.

Leveraging conflicts to drive transformation

The blue acceleration is no magic wand for social sustainability. Fish escaping tanks spread sea lice and other diseases in wild populations, which creates conflict with fishers. Few corporations still dominate the ocean economy, perpetuating unequal access to resources. The Focus on high-protein species, coupled with the practice of throwing perfectly nutritious “bycatch” overboard, threatens coastal fishers’ livelihoods and low-income countries’ food security. Reducing fish catches spurs illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, which leads to an array of conflicts worldwide. Etc. However, the ocean economy boom prompts the world to see and resolve confrontations that otherwise occur out of sight of land.

The new battleground can therefore generate opportunities for social-ecological transformation. Conflict can force the diverse group of players with diverging values and incentives to the table, finding new solutions away from incremental thinking. Low-intensity, non-escalating conflict can also effectively raise awareness, push public debate, and incubate social justice movements.

Actively exploring alternative futures can increase the chances for the ocean to remain a foundational contributor to the global food system and a source of social, cultural, and legal identity for many communities worldwide.

This article is based on the research report Can we Bring the Oceans Back from the Brink? published in November 2021. The report was commissioned by the Food Planet Prize and authored by Dr. Andrew Merrie, Stockholm Resilience Centre.

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We’re currently experiencing the most rapid global warming in thousands of years. The latest IPCC report, released earlier this month, paints a somber picture of what many are facing and what awaits if we fail to act in the next couple of years. An “atlas of suffering,” as UN General Secretary António Guterres calls it. Inaction could indeed close the small window of opportunity we have for adaptation and make food security a luxury reserved for the richest few.

Raging wildfires, rising sea levels, punishing droughts, and devastating storms are becoming all too frequent as global temperatures increase. Despite most nations’ pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we’re still moving toward a rise of around 3°C by 2100. This goes beyond the 2°C goal negotiated in the 2015 Paris Agreement and the 1.5°C safety mark set by the IPCC. It’s also above anything our planet has experienced in the past three million years.

We are thus on a fast track to unknown planetary conditions and near-certain starvation for the most vulnerable among us. Accounting for the global population’s estimated growth from eight to ten billion by 2050, the difference between 1.5°C and 3°C of warming could mean a fifty-fold increase in the number of people affected by hunger.

Already today, extreme weather – caused by climate change – is the main culprit of agricultural loss. Soils are degrading, freshwater supplies are drying out, and yields are plummeting. The food system, including agriculture, is not only a victim of global warming, it is also the single largest greenhouse gas emitter. Pushing it toward a sustainable, resilient future requires nothing less than a revolution across its value chain.

Avoiding eating our way to the last supper

As things stand now, the world’s food system could get in the way of meeting the 1.5°C target. It contributes nearly 35% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, around 40% of which originates from production. And a 2018 study showed that by 2050, its environmental effects could further increase significantly.

But not all foods are made equal. There’s a dramatic emissions imbalance between plant- and animal-based food sources. The latter contributes close to 60% of food production emissions, despite providing only 37% of our protein and a mere 18% of our calories.

Feedlot cattle in Amazon
Aerial view of oxen grazing on feedlot cattle farm in Amazon, Para, Brazil.

Reducing the impact of red meat, in particular, is an acute challenge as one kilo of beef generates the equivalent of 60 kilos of carbon dioxide (CO2e). In contrast, the same amount of fruits and vegetables emits less than one kilo CO2e.

If eating patterns continue on their current paths, we will need to increase crop production by 60% before 2050. We could, however, save one gigaton CO2e if half the world’s population shifted to a plant-based diet. Changes to agricultural management practices could deliver another gigaton CO2e.

To avoid eating our way to the last supper, we must also ensure that as little as possible of our painstakingly produced food is squandered. Because halving our total food waste and loss can reduce emissions by an additional gigaton CO2e.

How come food is so intrinsically linked to the climate?

A stable climate laid the foundation for agriculture

Over the past three million years, planet Earth has self-regulated within -6°C below and +2° above the 14°C average observed during the pre-industrial era. However, for the past 12,000 years, and up until the Industrial Revolution, global average temperatures didn’t waver more than 0.5°C. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere remained steady too: between 250ppm and 270ppm.

This period of relative climate stability, known as the Holocene, laid the foundation for sedentary agriculture. That it sprouted in up to nine geographically separate areas around the same time, while Homo sapiens had already roamed the Earth for around 150,000 years, underlines how important the Holocene climate conditions were for the emergence of farming. Why? The explanation is quite simple! To grow, plants absorb CO2  – together with sun and chlorophyll. But too much of the good stuff hinders their growth. As does too little.

Therefore, exceeding 2°C will put pressure on agricultural yields worldwide and reduce the nutritional quality of what we eat. Both pose health risks at best and survival risks at worst. It will also trigger irreversible shifts and potentially force the planet toward “Hothouse Earth” – an extreme state last experienced some 56 million years ago when global mean temperatures were 5 – 8°C higher than today.

The Anthropocene: tractors in the fast lane 

Human activities began to fundamentally transform the planet already during the Holocene. By domesticating livestock, tilling land, and clear-cutting forests for cultivation, humans altered natural landscapes and drove the extinction of megafaunas.

But it was the Industrial Revolution that sparked the relationship between human prosperity and mounting pressure on the Earth systems and the climate. We started tapping into millions of years of energy stored in coal to feed machinery that, in turn, generated greenhouse gases. CO2, aerosols, methane, ozone, and nitrous oxides are among the most powerful. Their concentration in the atmosphere regulates how much of the sun’s rays reach the earth’s surface, determining the warmth of the earth. Today, although the fossil fuel, forestry, and transport industry are also to blame, two-thirds of the greenhouse gases created by humans come from the food system.

Modern food system's engineered landscape
Crop circles in Kansas, USA, illustrate our systematic engineering of landscapes, a landmark of the Anthropocene. Photo: NASA

The Industrial Revolution revamped agricultural practices. It allowed for the systemization of deforestation, the engineering of landscapes, the capture of nitrogen from the air to produce synthetic fertilizers, etc. All of which paved the way for intensive farming.

By the middle of the 20th century, all that progress had triggered a radical “Green Revolution.” Granted, standardized techniques and high-yielding crops made it possible to increase production and reduce hunger. Still, it also plundered the planet’s resources, polluting air and waterways and cementing our climate interference.

Scientists agree that these abrupt changes define the beginning of a new geological era: the Anthropocene. An epoch in which humans have become a global force for geological change. In the face of frightening transformations, they are determining thresholds at which this accumulated pressure will exceed our planet’s ability to absorb it.

Approaching the tipping points

Since the early 2000s, a set of processes, patterns, and ecosystems has been identified as tipping elements. Driven beyond critical thresholds, these factors could trigger a domino effect of climate calamities. And the risk increases with rising global temperatures. At 1.5°C higher than pre-industrial levels, we risk activating up to five of the tipping elements. Which could make pushing the “stop” button on climate change almost impossible. And there are already signs pointing to certain critical elements being on the verge of collapse. As is the case for ice sheets.

climate change pushes tipping elements to the edge
Red alerts. Five tipping elements, spread across the world, could cause a domino effect of climate calamity, already at +1.5°C. Source: Schellnhuber et al. Nature Climate Change (2016), Steffen et al. (2018), PNAS

Ice sheets play an essential role in the earth systems. They regulate the temperature of the water and air around them, driving circulation patterns that determine weather conditions across the globe.

With average temperatures in the Arctic warming almost twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the Greenland ice sheet, for example, has thinned considerably in recent years. As its surface sinks, it comes into contact with lower, warmer layers of air, leading to further melting. The irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet could be reached if the global temperature rises by slightly less than 2°C.

This would inject massive amounts of fresh water into the ocean, possibly leading to a complete shutdown of the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation – one of the most powerful ocean circulation patterns. It’s essential for temperature regulation and the redistribution of nutrients, salt, and other gases across all oceans. At 2°C, regions relying on snowmelt could experience a 20% decline in water availability for agriculture after 2050.

Transgressing these individual tipping points would wreak havoc on our Earth system. But the interconnectedness of tipping elements suggests an even greater risk of permanently leaving the Holocene climate conditions if one or more of them were triggered. At that point, cascading effects could thrust us on a path toward a Hothouse Earth.

Taking the reins of the 21st century

Each degree of global warming will put pressure on agricultural yields worldwide. On land, global maize yields could drop by up to 7.4% with each additional degree. The picture looks fairly grim for wheat, rice, and soybeans too. Their yields could drop by 3% to 6%. Fruits and vegetables will likely not fare much better. At sea, since oceans absorb the majority of excess CO2, fish are dying, and, by extension, our food supply is diminishing.

Heat stress will also lead to reduced food quality, thereby increasing food waste. Making matters worse, ozone concentration and soil salinization can reduce the nutritional quality of what we eat, posing additional risks to human health. These losses will vary greatly from region to region, but already vulnerable areas will endure the worst of it.

On a societal level, compound risks are significant. Since heat stress reduces productivity, either farmers’ livelihood will shrink, or food prices will go up. Both scenarios can, in turn, have local and international economic effects.

But as much as our food is a big part of the climate problem, it has to become a bigger part of the solution. And there is good news. Science suggests that the food system has the potential to deliver 4 Gt CO2-equivalents per year. That’s around one-quarter of the required emissions reductions by 2050.

Transforming the food sector from a carbon source to a carbon sink – while at the same time feeding a growing world population – will be an existential challenge over the next three decades. But it is now that the level of ambition must increase. Get inspired and check out these outstanding projects doing just that.

This article is based on the research report The Foul Breath of Climate Change published in October 2020. The report was commissioned by the Food Planet Prize and authored by Dr. Johan Rockström and Dr. Lila Warszawski.

Category: Uncategorized

The relationship between land use and agriculture is a tale of how human beings have pushed natural resources to their limits. Human-induced land changes result in the loss of natural ecosystems, like forests and grasslands, as well as biodiversity. They also increase greenhouse gas emissions and diminish ocean health.

Pressured beyond its limits

With the increasing need to grow edible crops, feed livestock, and produce biomaterials and biofuel, land use is pressured beyond its limits. Since 1961, the amount of arable land needed to produce the same quantity of crops has declined by a whopping 70%. But that efficiency comes at a cost. As discussed in our long read Managing the Food System’s Main Asset: Land, it led to chemical contamination, pollution, salination, soil erosion, nutrient depletion, overgrazing, deforestation, and desertification.

Three main phenomena drive the expansion of pastures and cropland. First, a growing global population coupled with the increased consumption of animal products puts pressure on land resources. As more and more households enter the middle class, they spend a bigger portion of their income on meat. Second, the demand for plants- and fungi-derived biofuels and biomaterials is growing. And finally, as agricultural land degrades and becomes less fertile, new, ever-larger areas are exploited for planting and grazing.

Depleting our Planet’s greatest carbon sink

If we continue this business-as-usual scenario, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will fall to a quarter of its 1960 levels. Unhealthy soils also mean losing the Planet’s greatest carbon sink. Indeed, soil is not only the backbone of the food system; it also plays a crucial role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Healthy soils contain over twice the amount of carbon found in trees and other kinds of biomass. Depleted, they lose their ability to store carbon effectively, which creates a vicious cycle: reduced storage capacity makes the world hotter, and higher temperatures degrade soils further.

Since heat and drought are projected to increase worldwide with global warming, land degradation will amplify food security, famine, migration, and political turmoil. Land is one of the very few productive assets possessed by the rural poor, and most poor rural households engage in some form of agriculture. Yet poverty – and lack of sufficient land to practice crop rotation – forces people to put pressure on fragile resources by, for example, letting their livestock overgraze. This pressure causes resource mismanagement and lost livelihood opportunities. In other words, poverty both drives and is driven by land degradation. The trap created by land degradation, poverty, and inequality poses significant challenges to the development of low-income households. Each one of these dimensions is intrinsically interconnected and influences the other. This means that we cannot solve land degradation without addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality in society.

The relationship between land and water is also intertwined. If land and soil are well managed, they can act as important filters, absorbing and storing excess water in times of flooding and slowly releasing stored water during times of drought. But agriculture, as it is practiced today, has a way of upending that balance; irrigation currently accounts for 90% of global freshwater consumption. At the same time, nutrient and sediment runoff from agriculture — responsible for more than 50% of the nitrogen and phosphorus delivered from land to ocean — threatens aquatic life. “Dead zones” — large zones of low-oxygen water that affect hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of marine ecosystems — are one result. So too is contaminated groundwater, since whatever is applied to the soil, including nitrates from fertilizer, will eventually find its way into aquifers.

Drought, land use, and soil health are also interconnected. Healthy soil retains water, which in turn supports the plants and other organisms that grow there. But a lack of rainfall will quickly disrupt this system. While the effects of droughts may not be immediately apparent, they can be devastating and deadly. And as drought occurs more frequently, it can make it increasingly difficult for the soil’s water reserves to recover between dry spells. Heat and drought are projected to increase worldwide as global warming continues. In turn, this will amplify land degradation. But we still have a choice: drought can either be mitigated or exacerbated by changes in land use and cover. It’s what we do with the land that will soften the blow.

Lost land of plenty

As the global population grows in size and affluence, land-use change also reduces the Planet’s biodiversity. In fact, the insatiable demand for agricultural products has made land-use change the most crucial factor in biodiversity loss. Approximately one out of every eight plant and animal species on this Planet is now threatened with extinction. These numbers do not apply to wild animals alone: 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened. Just a handful of foods can do a lot of damage. Beef, for example, is the single most important driver of biodiversity loss. When cattle grazing encroaches on new territory, forest cover often suffers, as trees are removed and with them the habitats for insects, birds, fish, and other critters who live amid their branches, trunks, and roots. Oilseed, an essential component in livestock feed, is another food with an outsized impact on land-use conversion.

Beyond environmental consequences, land degradation’s social and economic implications are immense. According to estimates, the total annual costs of global land degradation due to land-use and land-cover change (including external losses in carbon sequestration, biodiversity, genetic information, and cultural services) are about US $231 billion per year. It also drives migration. Over 1.3 billion people, or approximately 17% of the world’s population, live on agricultural lands whose already precarious condition is further impaired by climate change and poor management strategies. When those lands can no longer adequately sustain the communities that depend upon them, their inhabitants will be forced to seek other places to settle. Land degradation, together with the closely related problems of climate change, is estimated to cause 50-700 million people to migrate, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Are we ready to better manage the food system’s main asset? Read the full article.

Category: Uncategorized

Human activity is degrading the environment at an unprecedented speed. And the way we produce, consume, and dispose of food today sits in the driver’s seat. Determined to reverse this trend while feeding a growing population, the Food Planet Prize gives promising initiatives the means to scale and accelerate their positive impact. Eleven months after announcing the first-ever recipients, we took stock of just how much broader and faster the US 1$ million awards enable our Prizewinners to apply their solutions.

From product launches to new networks, our 2020 Prizewinners have come a long way in less than a year!

Future Feed – First low-methane steaks served in Australia

Methane contributes 30% of global warming, and livestock emits 14.5% of all human-generated methane. Food Planet Prize Recipient Future Feed developed a seaweed-based feed supplement that inhibits more than 80% of cattle and other ruminants’ emissions. Serving the world’s very first lower-methane steaks this August marked the product’s market readiness.

Future Feed-fed steaks will hit the shelves in 2022. Preparing for imminent launch, the company is developing a Certified Trademark that will feature a set of standards and accurate environmental footprint calculations to build consumer trust. Licensed seaweed growers have started farming commercial quantities of Asparagopsis.

Next stop? Making the supplement available for livestock farmers across the globe and raising systems. Now that on-farm trials have confirmed its efficacy for beef cattle. In this regard, the Prize sum will contribute to research aimed at generating a seed stock of the red algae or related species suitable for colder regions. This could allow Europe and North America to produce climate-friendly meat and dairy from ruminants locally.

Sanergy & ICIPE – Boosting soil and human nutrition with protein-rich insects

Combining soil, animal, and ultimately human health is unique to this two-in-one award. Food Planet Prize co-recipients Sanergy and ICIPE cooperate to boost nutrition for the 11% of the global population that is hungry or malnourished. The first harnesses the power of insects to convert human waste into organic fertilizers, while the second transforms farmed edible insects into protein-rich food and fertilizers. They invested the shared US 1$ million in input growth and product launch, respectively.

Sanergy scaled up its operations to agricultural waste collection. Now sourcing waste from three open markets, in addition to urban residents in Nairobi, the Kenyan social enterprise collects a total of 5,000 tons of sanitation and organic waste every single month. A pool of 2,000+ farmers buys 1,300 tons of its fertilizers across 30+ territories. The average farmer sees a 30% bump in crop yields.

Looking ahead, Sanergy aims to replicate its Build-Collect-Treat&Convert model across fast-growing cities in Kenya and abroad. They are building new recycling factories to scale waste management services. Which will create more jobs, in addition to the 100 women resellers they already employ.

Edible crickets. Credit: ICIPE

ICIPE released four finger millet and amaranth porridge products fortified with edible cricket flour. The crickets’ protein content compares favorably to that of animal and plant origin. The insects are a good source of minerals (iron, zinc, and calcium) and vitamins (riboflavin, thiamine, and folic acid) too.

Additionally, the research institute’s analysis revealed higher levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the frass of crickets, black soldier flies, and migratory desert locusts than most commercial organic fertilizers. ICIPE developed traps that harvest desert locusts, which swarms usually devastate crops. Their circular system, therefore, offers multiple benefits: protected crops, recycled waste, improved yield, and enriched soils.

Land Institute – Together, en route to overturn soil-hostile agriculture

In the name of productivity, agriculture as we know it is reducing the fertility of our soils. We overgraze, till, sow, fertilize, … and the list goes on. While really, the world’s soils are in desperate need of rest to regain nutrients. The Land Institute received the Food Planet Prize to spread perennial crops that mimic natural processes and promote healthy soils. The Prize money has enabled the American non-profit to instigate a systemic revolution.

The Land Institute has launched a formal movement to expand research on perennial crops globally. Their freshly ignited international movement established research hubs in Uganda, China, and several European countries. The network’s new team also catalyzed five partnerships in Spain, the Czech Republic, Moldova, Kenya, and Mexico. Some partners received seeds.

All in all, the Institute has sustained, deepened, or expanded collaborations with nearly 60 researchers on six continents. It notably broadened perennial rice research in China and Uganda – rice being the third most grown cereal in the world. To facilitate cooperation and inform the shift to healthy soils, the non-profit will convene research conferences and develop online platforms, allowing partners to share knowledge and seeds, and store and share data, respectively.

Aerial view of a crowd

Blue Ventures – Advocating for oceans and small-scale fishers

As we increasingly turn to water bodies to compensate for impoverished land, overfishing is endangering the health of fish stocks. Lower catches result in growing food insecurity, particularly in coastal communities. Blue Ventures aims to improve access to food through locally-led marine conservation initiatives that benefit people and nature alike.

Blue Ventures uses its 1 million to help grow a broad coalition of stakeholders devoted to inclusive, holistic, and lasting change. The 23 members of the Transform Bottom Trawling coalition include small-scale fishers, seafood companies, conservationists, local tourism businesses, scientists, and policy experts. The UK-based organization hired a Head of Advocacy to build this global movement that will tackle destructive fisheries.

Blue Ventures’ restoration model has already spread to over 14 countries – 3 more since winning the Prize – guiding local and national fisheries and reaching more than 650,000 people. Their goal is to, by 2025, help strengthen local marine management in 20 countries, support the rebuilding of local fisheries for 1,5 million fishers, and secure fishing grounds benefiting 3 million people.

All five 2020 Prizewinners tackle some of the food system’s most pressing challenges. Recognizing that the food planet does not operate in a bubble, some also address social issues. By providing employment opportunities to coastal communities or women, they create systemic change beyond food.

Subscribe to our newsletter to be the first to know how the 2021 Food Planet Prize recipients will reshape the Food Planet. We will announce the Prizewinners on 18 November.

Category: Uncategorized

The global food system accounts for one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The figure published in Nature Food in March 2021 is higher than previous estimates. Despite this impressive share, the official program of this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) dedicated zero days to food, unlike other big polluters like the energy and transport sectors.

Although three of the summit’s key milestones – methane reduction, sustainable land use, and climate finance – touch upon areas of the food system, COP26 failed to address the biggest GHG emitter systemically.

Data: Food system's Greenhouse gas emissions
Food system’s greenhouse gas emissions

According to the updated numbers from a new global database called EDGAR-FOOD published in Nature Food, livestock and crop farming are responsible for the largest share of food system-related emissions. Land use comes in second with almost one-third of emissions, mainly due to carbon losses from deforestation and degradation of organic soils. While cows and deforestation make catchy headlines, they are only part of the story, albeit the biggest. Packaging, transportation, processing, retail, consumption, and waste management make up approximately 27% of food-system emissions.

Scattered coverage of the food system at COP26

The UN Climate Conference tackles the food system’s contribution to global warming – through livestock exclusively – with the Global Methane Pledge signed by over 100 countries.

137 nations have also set out new commitments to change their agricultural policies to become more sustainable and less polluting, as well as to invest in the science needed for sustainable agriculture and for protecting food supplies against climate change. Farming and land use have even been a part of the formal agenda at the COP26 in Glasgow.

Furthermore, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero announced that financial institutions have pledged over $130 trillion to fund the transition to a sustainable economy. Among the highlighted sectors, one finds farming and cattle. Again! Loans and investments will “help farmers implement proven business models to decouple beef and soy production models from deforestation.”

In light of these commitments, many civil society organizations emphasize that a food system approach – not just an agriculture-centric approach – is required if we are serious about climate action. Others regret that governments and companies are not doing enough to shift unsustainable consumption patterns. And we agree!

At the Food Planet Prize, we address the food system in all its complexity and recognize the urgency of the needed changes. We, therefore, award innovative initiatives with the potential to help humanity shift to sustainable food systems by 2030.

Subscribe to our newsletter to discover the 2021 Prizewinners as we announce them on 18 November.

Meet the Finalists in the running.

Category: Uncategorized

The Curt Bergfors Foundation is proud to present the 2021 Food Planet Prize Finalists.

This year’s Finalists span a wide spectrum of actions needed to rapidly shift to a nature-positive, people-centered, climate-resilient food planet. They address land degradation, food loss, malnutrition, and plastic pollution, to name a few. Most also take a 360° approach and make farmers’ livelihoods as well as other social issues an integral part of their work. We are incredibly impressed by the ingenuity of their technologies, methods, and operations.

Sometimes blurring the lines between land, sea, and atmosphere, these top candidates disrupt critical areas of the food arena, from rethinking food production to enabling waste reduction. As true trailblazers, they either reimagine these crucial aspects or offer creative applications to established concepts. We believe all have a solid potential to scale quickly and impact broadly.

Nearly 400 nominations were submitted this year; six of which are still in the running. Without further ado, let us introduce the 2021 Food Planet Prize Finalists:

Agrisea for “taking rice farming offshore”

Agrisea uses a gene-editing technique to amplify the untapped salt-tolerant genes found in rice to grow the grain on floating sea farms. The rice requires no soil, fertilizers, nor freshwater and could help combat hunger while saving land and freshwater resources. Learn more

Air Protein for “making food out of excess CO2”

Air Protein is developing a protein ingredient from edible microbes. The protein is cultivated with a mixture of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas and will initially be used to produce alternative meat products. The technique could contribute to curbing global warming. Learn more

B4Plastics for “giving a whole new meaning to the notion of ghost gear”

B4Plastics is designing biobased and biodegradable fishing equipment. They program an “expiration date” into plastic’s most praised AND decried feature: durability. Their gear, which will also feature accelerated biodegradation past that date, could help reduce plastic waste in oceans. Learn more

ColdHubs for offering “a cool way to tackle food loss”

ColdHubs operates “plug and play” cold rooms located at major farm clusters and outdoor markets. Their pay-as-you-store system allows small-scale farmers to keep their produce fresh, extending shelf life from two to 21 days and reducing post-harvest loss by 80 percent. Learn more

GreenWave for “taking ocean farming to new depths

GreenWave has developed a vertical ocean polyculture that produces high yields of seaweed and shellfish with a low environmental footprint. Their farming system adds zero fertilizer, feed, nor pesticide to the ocean and supports the restoration of marine ecosystems. Learn more

The Savory Institute for “re-greening grasslands through grazing”

The Savory Institute offers Holistic Management training to farmers, ranchers, and pastoralists worldwide. Their land and livestock management methods and grazing systems fight desertification and boost soil regeneration, ecosystems restoration, and carbon capture. Learn more

The 2021 Food Planet Finalists were selected by our Jury of world-leading food system specialists, chaired by Professor Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and Magnus Nilsson, Director of MAD Academy. Congratulations and best of luck to all six top candidates for the Prize!

We will announce the 2021 Food Planet Prize recipients on 18 November 2021.

Sign up for our newsletter to find out first hand if your favorite wins.

Category: Uncategorized

In our efforts to feed a growing population we have destroyed vast amounts of the Earth’s biodiversity. We urgently need to preserve what diversity remains, for the future of our species, the planet, and our food.

Biodiversity in crisis

The rapid loss of biodiversity is now recognized as one of the most pressing issues of our time. The modern food system is a key culprit; to feed our growing population we have focused on a small number of high-yielding crop varieties and animal breeds, transforming landscapes, and plundering natural resources in the process. As a result, many varieties of plants and animal breeds have been driven towards extinction.

Yet we now understand that biodiversity provides the foundation for food security, human health, and the stability of our planet. We need to develop ideas that will transform our food system, repair at least some of the damage we have inflicted, and safeguard the diversity that remains. The world needs ambitious, transformative ideas.

Defining diversity – the infrastructure of life

Biological diversity or ‘biodiversity refers to the variety of all life on Earth, from bacteria to bison, plants to people. It is made up of three interconnected components:

  • Species diversity, the mind-boggling array of animals, plants, and micro-organisms in the world (of the 9 million or more estimated species on Earth, we’ve identified around 1.2 million).
  • Genetic diversity, the variety of genes contained within species. In seed banks around the world, for instance, are 469,000 unique samples of wheat, 251,000 of rice, 3,200 of bananas, and nearly 25,000 of potato. These varieties or cultivars are all adapted to their local environments and possess traits suited to different conditions, from drought to flooding, poor soils to diseases.
  • Ecosystem diversity, the variety of habitats on the planet, from the Arctic tundra to the African Savannah, from rivers to the deep sea.

All three components are in rapid decline. We now have overwhelming evidence that more and more animals, plants, and ecosystems are facing an uncertain future and that the primary driver for this is the food system. Agriculture is the single largest cause of biodiversity loss and habitat destruction, accounting for 80 percent of all land-use change globally.

Biodiversity under threat – living through the Earth’s sixth mass extinction

In the Earth’s history, five mass extinction events have occurred, including the one that ended the age of dinosaurs. Many scientists believe we are living through a sixth mass extinction; this time, humans instead of natural events are to blame. 

The scale of the world’s biodiversity loss was laid bare in a United Nations report in 2019 which plotted two diverging trend lines: one, upward-sloping, for humans, the other downward-sloping, for everything else. The scientists concluded that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, with the human need for food and energy as the main culprits.

Driving this decline in biodiversity is not only the increased demand for food but, crucially, a growing appetite for a tiny selection of ‘staple’ crops. During the past half-century, a ‘global standard diet’ has been replacing the world’s diverse food cultures. The average eater now gets the bulk of his or her daily calories from just six sources: wheat, rice, sugar, maize, soybeans, and farm animals (meat and dairy). 

Of the 6,000 plant species humans have cultivated for food, a mere nine now account for two-thirds of all crop production. From this small selection of crops, we focus on just a few varieties of each. The same is true of animals; while nearly 8000 local breeds of farm animals exist, only a tiny number of these are raised for global livestock production.

Insatiable demand for some foods is leading to large-scale loss of biodiverse landscapes. Between 1980 and 2000, 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost, some to cattle ranching in South America, others to palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia.

The Cerrado, Brazil’s equivalent of the African savanna in the center of the country, has been transformed by an ingredient that makes possible the world’s growing appetite for industrially produced meat. The Cerrado is one of the planet’s richest centers of diversity, but already so much has been lost to monocultures of soy.

Risk to future food security

Relying on just a few varieties of a small number of crops and on a tiny number of animal breeds for our food makes us far more vulnerable to the major threats posed by climate change: drought, pests, and disease. 

The ‘Green Revolution’ (the ambitious post-war project to feed the world with high-yielding crops) was made possible by the arrival of modern plant breeding and the development of synthetic fertilizer. While it succeeded in its main goal – of producing more calories and feeding people – we are now dealing with some of the adverse consequences. In little more than five decades, the rich diversity developed by countless generations of farmers was rapidly replaced by a smaller selection of new varieties; higher-yielding, genetically identical, and dependent on chemical inputs.

In 1920 in Turkey, close to the birthplace of agriculture 10,000 years ago, about 18,000 unique ‘landrace’ varieties of wheat were being farmed. Following the arrival of new, high-yielding dwarf varieties in the 1960s, 95 percent of that genetic diversity was lost. In the late 1950s, Sri Lankan farmers were growing at least 2,000 different types of rice, but by the 1990s this had been mostly reduced to just five.

When we discard locally adapted varieties that have evolved over millennia, and they disappear from farmers’ fields, we risk losing unique and valuable genetic traits. In fields of traditional landrace wheats, no two populations are the same, but modern bread wheat has been bred for uniformity. Each individual plant is a near clone of the other, developed to produce the maximum amount of grain and to be ready to harvest at the same time. This homogeneity increases the crop’s vulnerability to disease; a lethal fungus can more easily spread from one identical plant to another. 

Old landrace wheat variety. Photo: Marek Studzinski

As our climate changes, scientists are turning to older landrace crop varieties in search of disease resistance and drought tolerance. This approach has been used before. In the 1960s, when a disease broke out in the wheat fields of the American north-west, plant breeders experimented with a Turkish wheat stored inside a seed bank. They discovered it had resistance not only to the outbreak but also fourteen other diseases affecting the crop. Tonnes of food and millions of dollars were saved.

Botanists and crop breeders are also urgently searching the wild for seeds of other plants we may need, including those of ‘crop wild relatives. The race is on to find and save them before they go extinct. Their traits could give us options for the future.

Risk of zoonotic diseases

Science has allowed us to bank on just a few of the highest-yielding and fastest-growing animal breeds for our meat. Just three breeding lines now dominate global poultry production, and most pork is based around the genetics of a single pig, the Large White. In dairy, more than 95 percent of America’s dairy herd is based around one breed of ‘super cow’, the Holstein (and most of these can be linked back to a handful of males). This genetic uniformity leaves these animals – and us – vulnerable on a global scale. Creating larger and larger industrial units filled with thousands of genetically identical animals is also a perfect environment for zoonotic diseases to evolve and spread.

The Cavendish crisis – the clone banana under attack

The dangers of replacing diversity with monocultures are evident in a crisis facing the banana industry. Panama Disease has the potential to wipe out the Cavendish, the world’s most traded banana. While there are more than 1,500 varieties of bananas, nearly half of all global production is the Cavendish.

This variety was planted across several continents in vast monocultures because it was robust enough to be transported long distances and was high yielding. But because of the way the fruit has been bred, every Cavendish banana is an exact clone of the others. So, if a pathogen can attack one tree on a plantation, it can attack them all. Scientists are working against the clock to find disease-resistant genes to this disease in wild banana plants found in the birthplace of the fruit, Papua New Guinea. It could be that ancient DNA may help the Cavendish to protect itself.

Similar problems are facing other food crops, including Arabica coffee (the source of most of the world’s espressos and cappuccinos). Because almost all cultivated Arabica descends from a small number of plants smuggled out of Yemen in the 17th century, it has a much narrower genetic base than its wild relatives. Again, monocultures of this crop have left it vulnerable to disease. Like a stock portfolio with just a few holdings, crops grown this way become vulnerable to catastrophes.

Safeguarding the future

The importance of preserving biodiversity can be illustrated by the survival of a mysterious and endangered plant growing in southern Mexico. This rare type of maize, called Oloton, is grown by an indigenous community in a high-altitude village in Oaxaca. It oozes a strange mucus from aerial roots which scientists have discovered allows the plant to self-fertilize. In a world awash with synthetic nitrogen manufactured with fossil fuels, this maize may hold important clues for future food security. It is also a stark reminder of how indigenous people and their food and farming cultures have helped to preserve diversity. Often, it’s they who are the last defenders of fragile ecosystems.

Our own biodiversity loss: The human gut microbiome

A diverse diet is important for the health of our microbiome, which is made up of trillions of bacteria and other microbes that live inside our gut. Science is revealing how important the microbiome is for our health. The more diverse our diets, the more diverse our gut microbiomes become, which in turn brings benefits to our health. We each have the most selfish of reasons to preserve the diversity of our food; our own wellbeing.

Microbes, living in amazing diversity inside our gut, can weigh up to 2kg. Photo: Getty Images

To achieve food resilience, we need to think big and small.

All over the world, people are finding ways to change food systems and help preserve biodiversity. Some of these efforts are based on large-scale thinking aimed at reimagining agriculture; others are intensely local.

One of the most ambitious suggestions comes from E.O. Wilson. In his book Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, he suggests protecting the planet by preserving huge areas, land left undisturbed by humans. The idea is that half of the planet’s surface should be dedicated to flora and fauna, the equivalent of World Heritage sites for biodiversity.

Change is possible on a smaller scale too. The Crop Wild Relative project in the UK is working with wheat’s oldest ancestors, hoping to recover some of the phenotypic plasticity that modern wheats have lost but which the plant’s wild ancestors still retain.

In the east of India, on a two-acre plot in Odisha, seed collector Debal Deb is growing nearly 1,500 different varieties of rice. Many have been collected from remote farms, passed down through generations, often saved by just one farmer. Deb’s collection includes a variety that’s flood-tolerant, capable of surviving after being submerged for weeks; another can grow in soil with high-saline soils.

Alex Atala is Brazil’s most celebrated chef. His ATA Foundation runs eight projects designed to help indigenous groups flourish by making use of their own culture and traditions, ‘It makes sense to protect the people who protect diversity’, he argues.

Also in Brazil, Leontino Balbo’s business, Native, produces 34 percent of the world’s organic sugar (75,000 tonnes annually). On land where farmers once depended on chemical fertilizers, pesticides have been exchanged for a system of natural pest and disease management in which naturally resistant crop varieties flourish.

In Mexico City, Francisco Musi and Sofia Casarin have founded Tamoa, a company that makes traditional tortillas using Mexican maize varieties. In doing this, they are working to protect Mexican landraces, many of which are disappearing, pushed out by imported American corn.

Founded in Italy, the Ark of Taste is an online catalog of endangered foods compiled by the Slow Food movement. So far, more than 5000 endangered foods from more than 100 countries have been put on the Ark. It’s testament to the many people the world over who are working to save their own local food traditions – and it gives us hope.

The word biodiversity has only recently gained currency because humans are in the process of destroying what it refers to. But as the work of organizations, scientists, thinkers, chefs, and activists reminds us, this moment of crisis also represents an opportunity to heal the planet and protect the generations to come.

This article is based on a longer report. Read the full report