Food and biodiversity: a common future?


The UK's use of imported soya products for human and animal consumption or biodiesel requires an estimated 1.7 million hectares of land in Brazil and Argentina, equal to the entire agricultural area of Wales © Jojobob/Dreamstime

On January 25 this year the UK Government launched its Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming report. The abrupt food price rises in 2008, which we are now experiencing again, focused attention on how the world will feed itself in the future with as much as 50% more food required by 2050. The Foresight report delivers some unpleasant messages about increasing global hunger, food system failures and climate change impacts.


But the news is not entirely bad. A sustainable increase in global food production is possible using currently available technologies. The emerging model is ‘sustainable intensification’ - producing more food from the same agricultural area, improving yields but avoiding additional environmental impacts. If globally successful, sustainable intensification will limit agricultural expansion into new areas. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment highlighted the dangers of such expansion.  Tropical and subtropical grasslands and forests, already reduced to less than 50% of their original extent, are at particular risk. Faced with the choice between increasing yields (with the possible loss of remaining biodiversity in agricultural landscapes) and clearing new land (with the inevitable biodiversity loss in virgin habitats) the best option seems clear.


The UK has a global food role both as a consumer (we import 40% of our food) and a proponent of sustainable production. Our economic dependence on overseas ecosystems is clear (we also import Soya harvesting © Nabokv/ Dreamstime.comthree quarters of our biofuels) and JNCC, through its Global Impacts Project, is using data on biomass imports to identify important trade partners and the key supplying ecosystems. Pressures on these systems can be expressed through estimates of the land area or water volumes required to produce this imported biomass, pressures which can drive biodiversity loss. Knowing what we import and from where also makes it possible to decide how these pressures may translate into biodiversity impacts. Land use changes, effects of invasive alien species or excessive water abstraction are all possible drivers of biodiversity loss, as is overexploitation of marine ecosystems.


The Foresight report concludes that we are at a unique point in our history. Human activities now dominate the functioning of our natural systems and decisions made over the next few decades ‘will disproportionately influence the future’. The Foresight report, the forthcoming UK National Ecosystem Assessment and JNCC’s own work provide glimpses of possible futures for national and global biodiversity. These studies provide the evidence base on which to formulate policies to steer us towards a future that safeguards both our food supply and global biodiversity.


Contact File


Tony Weighell

Head of Global Impacts Project

Tel: +44 (0)1733 866852


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