05 Mar 2019 Story Ecosystems

Business unusual: Roast veg and Yorkshire pudding

Photo by Subhiksha, Wikimedia

Europe’s 530 million people need to rethink what they eat and how they produce food.

A traditional English dish is “Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding”, but regular meat-eating in the United Kingdom and across Europe is becoming unviable in the long-term. For a host of environmental and health reasons we need to view food differently.

Switching to a less meat-rich diet, and a smarter agricultural system which uses fewer chemicals and promotes the agricultural biodiversity on which we ultimately all depend for our survival, would be a very good idea, and is feasible, according to a new study by European think tank IDDRI.  

European agriculture is threatening biodiversity, the loss of which is causing alarm. In the space of one generation, 20 per cent of common birds have disappeared, and some regions are lamenting the loss of three quarters of all flying insects.

Most commercial beef, pork and chicken farming is based on imports of vegetable proteins for animal feed, which in effect means Europe is importing agricultural land from elsewhere in the world. That is not sustainable: Europe needs to reduce its global food footprint.

Addressing the challenges of sustainable food, the preservation of biodiversity and natural resources, and the fight against climate change requires a profound transition of Europe’s agricultural and food system.

An agroecological Europe in 2050: multifunctional agriculture for healthy eating—Findings from the Ten Years For Agroecology (TYFA) modelling exercise looks into the future and says it is possible over a 10-year period to phase out pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, allow natural grasslands to regenerate and extend hedges, trees, ponds and stony habitats to cover 10 per cent of agricultural land.

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Silage in Sweden. Photo by W.carter

More than half the European Union’s cereals and oilseed crops are fed to animals. The study models a future in which European meat production has been cut by 40 per cent, with the greatest reductions in grain-fed pork and poultry.

Widespread acceptance of healthier diets containing fewer animal products and more fruit and vegetables is a key part of the scenario. “Despite a 35 per cent decline in production compared to 2010 (in kcal), this scenario meets the food needs of all Europeans while maintaining export capacity for cereals, dairy products and wine. It reduces agricultural sector greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent compared to 2010, restores biodiversity and protects natural resources,” it says.

“Coming after a recent hard-hitting study on global insect declines, this is a refreshing look at what is possible in terms of a sustainable food system for Europe and the world,” says UN Environment biodiversity expert Marieta Sakalian.

Biodiversity leads to better nutrition

In October 2018, UN Environment won an award for its work on food systems. UN Environment’s TEEBAgriFood report organizes the complexities of three main blocks of the food value chain—food production, distribution and consumption. It provides a new evaluation framework to capture malign and benign impacts of food production, distribution and consumption to make it sustainable, equitable and healthy. In so doing, it provides guidance for the global food sector, which employs 1.3 billion people—more than any other sector.

UN Environment is leading Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition—a joint programme with Biodiversity International, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the governments of Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey. It is the first global initiative of its kind to develop and test a successful comprehensive, multisectoral approach to mainstreaming biodiversity for improved nutrition, linking evidence, policies, markets and awareness.

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Milking parlour in Germany. Photo by Gunnar Richter Namenlos

UN Environment and partners recently published Mainstreaming Biodiversity in Production Landscapes, which summarizes the outcomes, lessons learned, good practices and technical assistance provided to partner countries by UN Environment on mainstreaming conservation and sustainable use of agricultural biodiversity into production systems. This work is carried out through a diverse portfolio of Global Environment Facility-supported projects and programmes in over 36 countries worldwide.

In January 2019, UN Environment also highlighted the importance of insects for ecosystems and sustainable food production in a brief titled: We are losing the “little things that run the world”.

In December 2018, UN Environment and partners launched the Landscape Academy—the first digital learning platform on the “landscape approach”. The Academy equips youth, “green” entrepreneurs and mid-career professionals with the skills they need to drive the development of sustainable landscapes.

The landscape approach is a land use and management theory that seeks to simultaneously reconcile competing land uses to achieve social, environmental and economic goals. It focuses on multi-stakeholder participation in decision-making and management, to understand the processes of change, provide solutions at multiple scales and improve the resilience of local communities and their environments.

Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly, from 11 to 15 March 2019, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.

For further information, please contact Marieta Sakalian