This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
Changing our agriculture and seafood systems
In the past few years, it has become ever clearer that our world faces interconnected and existential threats to climate, nature, and human security, and that we are running out of time if we want to avoid the worst consequences for people and planet. We need to act now, and we need to prioritise actions that can simultaneously deliver tangible near-term improvements, while also contributing to the longer-term systems change that will be necessary if we are to decisively reverse the drivers of these interlinked crises. There are no easy answers. But focusing on food system solutions, which mitigate climate impacts, protect nature and enhance food security all at once, feels like a “no regrets” move in the face of these challenges. The choices we make about the food we produce, distribute and consume have powerful potential to shape our future for the better—if we choose to embrace the change that is needed.
Today, our agriculture and seafood systems are at the root of toxic feedback loops that degrade nature, increase carbon emissions and deepen the food insecurity of those already most vulnerable. Food production accounts for roughly one third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is also the primary driver of biodiversity loss. And the negative externalities do not end with the environment: it’s a system that leaves over 800 million suffering from malnutrition, 650 million living with obesity, and more than 450 million agricultural workers struggling with poverty. By any measure, the existing food system fails both people and planet.
But we can make different choices. We can transform the food system to be more productive, regenerative and equitable—mitigating climate impacts, reversing nature loss and improving human health and sustainable development. And as analysis in the Food and Land Use Coalition's Growing Better report shows, we can do this, “While reaping a societal return that is more than 15 times the related investment cost (estimated at less than 0.5 percent of global GDP) and creating new business opportunities worth up to USD 4.5 trillion a year by 2030”. It’s an investment we would be foolish not to make.
And importantly, many of the most impactful things we can do to halt the harm and accelerate the transformation of the food system in the near term are already well understood, and within our reach based on known technologies and practices. In particular, we can root out problematic practices like deforestation and overfishing, which should have no place in our food production. Indeed, after reviewing the evidence of what is necessary and possible in this space the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation launched a major philanthropic initiative in 2016, which supports partners working to eliminate deforestation and overfishing from food commodity value chains. We see them as the “low-hanging fruit” that can deliver big impacts for people and planet.
Ending deforestation and habitat conversion in food production by 2025 is a relatively low-cost intervention that would allow us to achieve close to 20% of the emissions reductions needed to stabilise our climate on a 1.5-degree pathway. And halting deforestation and conversion would also protect the rights and livelihoods of forest peoples, leaving them better positioned to adapt to the climate impacts we anticipate in coming decades. In addition, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests ending these destructive practices (the majority of which are illegal) will be critical to maintaining agricultural productivity in many parts of the world—studies show the localised negative impacts of deforestation and habitat conversion on water flows, temperatures and crop yields. Recognising the importance of taking action, at the UNFCCC COP26 over 140 countries covering roughly 90% of global forests announced the Glasgow World Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use, redoubling efforts to scale up and accelerate the end of forest loss and hold leaders accountable.
A spotlight on fisheries
Similarly, overfishing threatens our long-term food security and the livelihoods of coastal communities around the world. Giving fisheries the opportunity to replenish their stocks and rebound not only makes sense in terms of optimising future food production but also increases their resilience to climate change, making it possible to sustain abundant fisheries production despite added pressures from a warming ocean. Focusing on curtailing the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing that represents the most egregious forms of overfishing have the added benefit of turning a spotlight on fisheries with a particularly high human cost; these fisheries are well-known to be rife with practices like slave labour, human trafficking and other abuses. The steps that companies and governments take to create transparency and accountability throughout the seafood supply chain can help us capture these multiple benefits from fisheries that operate sustainably.
Also on the Forum Network: From Coast to Coast: Empowering and investing in women fishers and fish farmers around the world by Michelle Tigchelaar, Research Scientist, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions & Karly Kelso, Director, Climate Resilient Food Systems, Environmental Defense Fund
Sustainable success and beyond
Importantly, we can reap the benefits of ending deforestation and overfishing while maintaining and even increasing our food supply. On land, we know that we can produce sufficient food without clearing more forest if we take well-understood steps to restore degraded lands, shift to sustainable intensification and adopt more regenerative cultivation practices, reduce waste and change diets. And in the oceans, stopping overfishing is really a prerequisite for sustaining seafood supply. Well-managed fisheries can feed more people, reduce pressures to increase land-based agricultural production and maintain healthy ocean habitats that can support new sources of “blue food” (e.g. sustainable finfish, shellfish and seaweed aquaculture).
All of these benefits point towards ending deforestation and overfishing as the practical, achievable interventions that can start us down the path for the systems change at scale that the world truly needs. And once we start the flywheel turning with success on those fronts, we can turn our attention firmly toward the deeper shifts necessary—in particular, eliminating the pervasive and pernicious subsidies that incentivise value-destroying food production practices around the world.
The OECD Environment Ministerial took place on 30-31 March. Learn more here!