Bedrock of food security destroyed

Continue destroying plants, animals and insects at this rate and we will put “the future of our food system under severe threat”. This stark warning comes from the world’s first comprehensive analysis of the state of our biodiversity.

A 579-page report by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), State of the World’s Biodiversity and Food for Agriculture, looks at research into biodiversity in 91 countries.

In 1900, 1.6-billion people lived on Earth. That number is now near eight billion and is expected to hit 10-billion by 2050. The FAO is tasked with working out how this many people can be sustainably fed.

Biodiversity — a variety of plant and animal species living in their natural environment — is the bedrock of the world’s food system. The organisation’s report dives into this system and looks at how collapsing biodiversity is affecting how much food we can produce.

In the introduction, the FAO’s director general, José Graziano da Silva, warns that it is “deeply concerning” that biodiversity and ecosystems are “in decline” in so many of the countries.

“The foundations of our food systems are being undermined, often, at least in part, because of the impact of management practices and land-use changes associated with food and agriculture,” he writes.

Biodiversity is what allows life on the planet to survive shocks. It’s why the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs didn’t kill all life, because there were other living things that survived the changing environment. It also allows the food that people rely on to evolve to survive droughts and floods.

But modern human civilisation, since the agricultural revolution 12 000 years ago, has been built on destroying this biodiversity in favour of a select few species. Just nine plant species now account for 66% of all crop production (sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet and cassava) and a handful of animals make up the livestock market (cattle, sheep, pigs and chicken).

The UN report identifies three broad trends as destroying biodiversity: climate change, which causes habitats to disappear; pollution, which kills species; and people clearing and burning natural vegetation to make space for homes and farms. This wipes out the species that have evolved to thrive in these environments.

In other research published last month in the journal Biological Conservation — Worldwide Decline of Entomofauna: A Review of its Drivers — Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys warned that these three things are driving insect species across the world to extinction. “It is evident that we are witnessing the largest extinction on Earth since the late Permian and Cretaceous period [65-million years ago].”

Addressing the effect of the biodiversity collapse, the FAO researchers say: “The reliance on a small number of species means we are more susceptible to disease outbreaks and climate change. It renders food production less resilient.” As an example of how this plays out, the organisation references the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. Under a colonial regime, the country’s farmers grew that single crop and relied on its income for food. Then a fungus, lasting several years, wiped out the crop. A million people died.

With a changing climate and more storms, droughts and other extreme weather events happening as a result, the more species the better. That concentration of 66% of food production in nine plant species increases the chances of a new fungus wiping out food security. South Africa, for example, grows just enough white maize to feed people in a year when there are good rains. When it doesn’t rain, the country has to import food. By focusing on that single crop, the country is vulnerable to something that eats maize or causes the crop to fail.

But the FAO’s report does come with a small dose of hope. More and more countries are taking increasing notice of local biodiversity failure, and how this is affecting food production. In the past 20 years, for example, 20% of the area of the world covered in vegetation has become less productive.

To prevent this, the organisation says that most countries now have a legal framework in place to ensure sustainable use of land. But this is where it stops. Besides pointing out that not enough attention is being focused on the collapse of biodiversity, the FAO warns that governments, companies and people have “a large knowledge gap” and lack awareness about this destruction.

And this threatens the ability to feed eight billion people.


  • Just nine plant species of the 6 000 that have been cultivated for food by humans account for 66% of crop production;
  • 26% of the 7 745 local breeds of livestock are classified as at risk of extinction because of the focus on bigger and more productive breeds;
  • 33% of fish stocks are overfished and 60% are fished to the maximum sustainable amount;
  • Just 7% of fish stocks are underfished;
  • 17% of invertebrate pollinator species, such as bees, are threatened with extinction; and
  • 70% of inland wetlands have been lost since 1900. 

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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