Food News

‘Cheaper food’ paradigm is primary driver of global biodiversity loss, report warns

The ‘cheaper food’ paradigm that has shaped the global food system for decades is now the primary driver of accelerating biodiversity loss, a major new report from the International think tank Chatham House warns. 

The report, backed by UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Compassion in World Farming, calls for an urgent reform of food systems and introduces three ‘levers’ for reducing pressures on land and creating a more sustainable food system:

  • Changing dietary patterns to reduce food demand and encourage more plant-based diets
  • Protecting and setting aside land for nature, whether through re-establishing native ecosystems on spared farmland or integrating pockets of natural habitat into farmland 
  • A shift to more sustainable farming

Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss shows thatagriculture is the identified threat to a staggering 24,000 of the 28,000 (86%) species globally at risk of extinction. The global rate of species extinction today is higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years. 

Vicious circle
The report reveals the enormous environmental and social costs of pursuing for decades the goal of producing more food at lower costs through increasing inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, energy, land and water. It argues that this ‘cheaper food’ paradigm leads to a vicious circle, where the lower cost of food production creates a bigger demand for food that must also be produced at a lower cost through more intensification and further land clearance. 

The report warns that the impacts of producing more food at a lower cost are not limited to biodiversity loss. The global food system, it reminds us, is a major driver of climate change, accounting for around 30% of total human-produced emissions. 

The findings and recommendations of the new Chatham House report were presented this week, during an online event which included speakers from UNEP, Chatham House and Compassion in World Farming, as well as Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE, Founder – the Jane Goodall Institute & UN Messenger of Peace. 

Susan Gardner, director of UNEP’s Ecosystems Division, said: “Our current food system is a double edged sword – shaped by decades of the ‘cheaper food’ paradigm, aimed at producing more food, quickly and cheaply without taking into account the hidden costs to biodiversity and its life-supporting services – and to our own health.

Our current food system is a double edged sword – shaped by decades of the ‘cheaper food’ paradigm, aimed at producing more food, quickly and cheaply without taking into account the hidden costs to biodiversity and its life-supporting services – and to our own health”



“Reforming the way we produce and consume food is an urgent priority – we need to change global dietary patterns, protect and set aside land for nature and farm in a more nature-friendly and biodiversity-supporting way.” 

Wasteful system
Professor Tim Benton from Chatham House, said: “The biggest threats to biodiversity arise from exploitative land use – converting natural habitats to agriculture and farming land intensively – and these are driven by the economic demand for producing ever more calorie-rich, but nutritionally poor, food from fewer and fewer commodities grown at scale. These commodities underpin a wasteful food system that fails to nourish us and undermines biodiversity and drives climate change.” 

Philip Lymbery, global chief executive at Compassion in World Farming, said: “At a time when so much of the world continues to battle the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s never been more obvious that the well-being of people and animals, wild and farmed, are intertwined. 

“As this new report shows, the future of humanity depends on us living in harmony with nature. We need to work with nature, not against her. Never has it been so timely for us to realise that protecting people means protecting animals too. The future of farming must be nature-friendly and regenerative, and our diets must become more plant-based, healthy and sustainable. Without ending factory farming, we are in danger of having no future at all.” 

“Our current food system is a double edged sword – shaped by decades of the ‘cheaper food’ paradigm, aimed at producing more food, quickly and cheaply without taking into account the hidden costs to biodiversity and its life-supporting services – and to our own health”

Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE, founder – the Jane Goodall Institute & UN messenger of peace, said: “The intensive farming of billions of animals globally seriously damages the environment, causing loss of biodiversity and producing massive greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate global warming.  

“The inhumane crowded conditions not only cause intense suffering to sentient beings but enable the transfer of pathogens from animal to human risking new zoonotic diseases. On ethical grounds it should be phased out as soon as possible.” 

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