The word ‘biodiversity’ has only recently gained currency because humans are in the process of destroying what it refers to. But this moment of crisis also represents an opportunity to galvanize actions and ideas that will heal the planet and protect the generations to come.
The rapid loss of the world’s biological diversity, often referred to as ‘biodiversity’, is increasingly recognised as one of the most pressing issues of our time. Sitting alongside and interlinked with climate change, this crisis needs addressing. There is no time to lose.
Over millions of years, the Earth built up a truly astonishing number of living species. For most of human history, we have been able to make use of this biodiversity and even add to it. Since the industrial age however, we have waged a war against diversity, endangering many of the Earth’s crops, fruits, vegetables, animals, fish and wild plants and, in some cases, even driving them to extinction. In the last century this process has accelerated, threatening entire ecosystems and our planet’s biosphere. And the leading culprit for this acceleration, according to many experts, is the modern food system. From the way we have transformed landscapes, to how we have plundered natural resources, to what we have chosen to eat, the process by which we produce, distribute, and consume food has become a destructive force.
Through innovation and scientific know-how, we have succeeded in feeding more people more cheaply, but in a way that relies on just a few high-yielding crop varieties and animal breeds while requiring huge amounts of energy. In our desire to create more food, we have covered the planet with a blanket of homogeneity.
As we head into a more turbulent and uncertain future, scientists, governments and the food industry are waking up to the realisation that we all depend on biodiversity – it provides the foundations for food security, for human health and for the health of our planet. With creativity and imagination, we can develop ideas that will transform our food system, repair at least some of the damage we have inflicted, and safeguard the diversity that remains, but we need to act now.
A date that should go down in history as one of the big wake-up calls on the biodiversity crisis is September 23, 2019. On this day, the United Nations held a Climate Action Summit at its headquarters in New York. Government leaders, corporate CEOs and scientists gathered together to try to find solutions to an emergency. “In the face of worsening climate crisis, practical action needs to shift into a higher gear”, the UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres said at the event’s opening. “This is not a climate talk summit. We have had enough talk; this is not a climate negotiation summit. You don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit.” The preceding four years had been the four hottest on record, he explained, “and we are starting to see the life-threatening impact of climate change on health… and risks to food security.”
Later that day, summit attendees heard another speech – less reported in the press but equally powerful – that addressed not climate but biodiversity. The speech was remarkable not so much because of its message (warnings about the loss of biodiversity had been issued for many years before), but because of its messenger: it came from some of the major corporations that make up the global food industry.