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‘Our Food Systems Are Failing Us’: 100+ Academies Call for Overhaul of Food Production

Food

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"Our food systems are failing us." That's the conclusion drawn by a peer-reviewed report that's the result of three years of work by 130 science and medical academies, in the words of Prof. Joachim von Braun, co-chair of the project behind the major new study.


The report was released by the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) Wednesday in hopes of outlining both the scale of the problems facing global food production and some possible solutions ahead of the 24th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) in Katowice, Poland next week.

"Next week at COP24, we need to see leaders take action on climate change and go beyond political statements. It is not only the environment that is at stake, but health, nutrition, trade, jobs and the economy. Agriculture and consumer choices are major factors driving disastrous climate change. We need a robust and ambitious policy response to address the climate impacts of agriculture and consumer choices – and scientists have a major role to play. Our new report is a wake-up call to leaders," Braun, who is the co-chair of the IAP project on Food and Nutrition Security and Agriculture, President of the Pontifical Academy of Science, and Director of the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn, said in an IAP press release.

The report lays out two major problems with the world's food system, according to The Guardian.

`1. Climate Change: The food system is responsible for one-third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined emissions of heating, air conditioning, transport and lighting. At the same time, food production is increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as flooding and drought.

2. Health: While the global food system drains resources, it also isn't doing its job of making sure everyone has enough nutritious food to eat. The number of chronically malnourished people rose to 815 million in 2016, according to the most recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization data. On the other extreme, more than 600 million people are considered obese, while two billion are overweight. A third of all people don't get enough vitamins with their diet.

"This is no time for business as usual. In addition to climate change, our current food systems are negatively impacting people's health around the globe. High-calorie diets have become cheaper, and this has serious implications for public health, obesity, and malnutrition," IAP President Prof. Volker ter Meulen said in the press release.

The report also issued recommendations for making the global food system work.

1. Lower Emissions: The IAP recommended working to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions caused by agriculture, while also acknowledging that reducing emissions alone would not be enough to fix the problem.

2. Incentivize New Diets: The report suggested policy makers study how they could use incentives to convince consumers to pick healthier, more environmentally friendly foods.

3. Innovate: The report urged innovation when it comes to reducing meat consumption in wealthier regions, such as developing alternatives like "meat–mushroom mixes, lab-grown meat, algae and appealing insect-based foods."

4. Interdisciplinary Research: The report encouraged natural and social scientists to collaborate more to develop both food systems and social policies that would be healthier for humans and the planet.

5. International Advisory Panel: The report called for the establishment of a global panel of experts on food, nutrition and agriculture issues.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

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"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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