Since its early days, Slow Food has put the defense of biodiversity at the heart of its strategies. This precious natural resource is under threat worldwide, including in Europe. But what is biodiversity? What does it have to do with our food and health? And what is the European Union doing to restore its richness?
Our health depends on the health of our planet. If this fact was not clear for everyone yet, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the fundamental importance of ecosystems and biodiversity for our health and our economic and social stability. Degradations of nature caused by human activity, causing pollution and change to habitats, have lain the foundation for the emergence of all recent diseases (covid-19, Ebola, MERS, SARS, avian influenza, etc). A high price to pay for mankind but also for all other living beings. According to the latest IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) “Red List”, around one third of the world’s known animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, from mammals and birds to reef corals and crustaceans.
Biodiversity designates the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat, and its loss does not only involve wild species, but also agrobiodiversity, namely the animal breeds and plant varieties. According to FAO estimates, out of 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output, and only nine account for 66 % of total crop production. The world’s livestock production is based on about 40 animal species, with only a handful providing the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs. This loss has direct consequences on the food we eat. “Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk”, said FAO’s Director-General José Graziano da Silva.
Biodiversity – from the most basic one (gene diversity) to the most complex (ecosystem diversity), is the greatest richness of our planet, and it needs protection. But there is still a long way to go before we can reverse the devastating effects of human activity on nature. Let us take the case of Europe. In its latest “State of nature in the EU” report, the European Environmental Bureau revealed that 81 % of habitats are in poor condition, with peatlands, grasslands and dune habitats deteriorating the most, with intensive agriculture, urbanization and unsustainable forestry activities identified as top threats.
In line with the international target agreed in 2010, the European Union has committed to halting biodiversity loss by 2020 through its biodiversity strategy. As the target expires this year, the Commission adopted a proposal last May, for a Biodiversity Strategy as a central element of the European Green Deal. Slow Food welcomes this new strategy as it sets more ambitious goals to tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss. The strategy proposes to, amongst others, establish binding targets to restore damaged ecosystems and rivers, improve the health of EU protected habitats and species, bring back pollinators to agricultural land, reduce pollution, green our cities, enhance organic farming and other biodiversity-friendly farming practices, and improve the health of European forests. Slow Food shares the acknowledgement of the strong impact of food systems on biodiversity, as highlighted in the EU Green Week conclusions: “Protecting biodiversity is a key element of sustainable food production and plays a crucial role in building up more resilient EU agriculture and natural ecosystems”.
Last October, two events occurred that sent contradictory signals about the EU’s intentions and commitment regarding climate change and the restoration of biodiversity. First, the environment ministers of EU governments endorsed the EU Biodiversity Strategy, adding another building block in the construction of a greener and more sustainable Europe. “Biodiversity is our life insurance: it supplies clean air and water, food, building material and clothing. It creates jobs and livelihoods. With the destruction of nature there is also the risk of disease outbreaks and pandemics”, commented Svenja Schulze, German Federal Minister for the Environment.
Meanwhile, the final vote for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) happened at the European Parliament, burying all hopes for a European farm policy that is fully equipped to tackle the environmental challenges that we are currently facing. The majority of the EU Parliament rejected the proposal to integrate European Green Deal targets in the CAP, as well as the article defining clear emissions reduction targets for the agricultural sector, showing low environmental ambition when it comes to set clear and binding rules. The new CAP’s objectives should have been aligned with the Biodiversity and Farm to Fork Strategies, allowing agriculture to be a driving force for the restoration of nature, but EU members of parliament voted differently.
A surprising decision when we think of a recent study developed for the same European Parliament, about the European Green Deal and the CAP, warning that EU agriculture and food practices are not on the right track to meet the EU Green Deal climatic and environmental targets. “Biodiversity erosion occurs due to increasingly specialized and simplified agricultural systems and rural landscapes, using larger plots of land and the widespread application of chemical inputs. Soil degradation and nutriment flows – notably nitrogen – in water and the atmosphere have reached alarming levels. Significant changes in farming practices and systems are now required.”
For decades, Slow Food has been actively working to promote the great benefits of agrobiodiversity, by acquiring and sharing a deeper knowledge of food and production that allows for a better understanding of the importance and urgency to protect biodiversity, and to support the work of those who safeguard it. Agroecological small-scale farmers help protect plant varieties and animal breeds, and preserve healthy soils, where a third of all living species live beneath the surface of the earth, making it a fundamental and irreproducible natural resource on which all the planet’s life depends. Their role of critical importance for nature needs to be strengthened, emphasized and fairly remunerated.
In the coming months, and in view of the upcoming UN Biodiversity Convention, Slow Food will continue its advocacy and awareness-raising activities on the EU Biodiversity Strategy. The European Union’s work on biodiversity must combine the preservation of natural environments and wild species with the safeguard of agricultural biodiversity. With nature being so closely intertwined with the environmental, agronomic, social, cultural and economic sectors, the EU’s response to biodiversity loss must be multi-sectorial and push for more coherence and coordination between all EU member States.
Europe is home to extraordinary biodiversity, and all is not lost for its inhabitants! A different agricultural model is possible, but we urgently need to rethink our relationship with nature to ensure that ecosystems, people and farmers thrive in harmony.