What do we know about the future of the environment and biodiversity in relation to food system transformation?

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By Elisabetta Gotor and Cargele Masso

Food, land, and water systems face daunting challenges in the future, and the body of research exploring these challenges is growing rapidly. This note is part of a series developed by the CGIAR Foresight Initiative to summarize what we know today about the future of various aspects of food systems. The goal of these notes is to serve as a quick reference, point to further information, and help guide future research and decisions. This note was prepared in collaboration with the CGIAR’s Environmental Health and Biodiversity Platform

Key messages

  • The environment’s proper functioning is essential for a better life on Earth, including maintaining, enhancing, and restoring biodiversity and ecosystem services. On the one hand, the environment is driven by external factors and shocks as well as interventions within the global food system. On the other hand, simultaneously, it drives the overall health and stability of the planet (Adger, 2000; Rockström et al., 2017; Richardson et al., 2023). However, this relationship involves complex interactions and tipping points (Holling, 1973; Chapin et al., 2008; Rockstrom et al., 2009). Foresight research needs to capture this complexity in analyzing alternative future pathways for food system transformation.
  • Holistic approaches, strategies, and policies are essential to address environmental stresses, promoting conservation, regeneration, and coexistence with nature. A sustainable and resilient environment requires practices respecting ecological boundaries, reducing resource consumption, fostering biodiversity, and enhancing ecosystem recovery and adaptability. Foresight research is needed to help decision-makers understand synergies and trade-offs between long-term public goods benefits and short-term private costs from resource use and management.
  • Prioritizing strategies at the intersection of the biodiversity-climate-society nexus is crucial for policymakers, communities, and industries (IPCC-IPBES, 2021; Simpson and Jewitt, 2019). Addressing food system challenges, including root causes of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, requires sustainable land and soil management, conservation efforts, and food-production practices, in addition to economic viability and social inclusion (Bryan et al., 2013). Foresight analysis can help pave the way for deploying effective and holistic solutions for a sustainable and resilient environment.

Recent trends and challenges

Recent trends show an urgent need for responsible natural resource management. The global food system is currently responsible for 21-37% of total net greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities (Olivier et al., 2018), contributing to global warming exceeding 1°C. Projections suggest that by 2050, agricultural land will expand by 400 million hectares, reducing forested and natural land. This loss threatens biodiversity and essential ecosystem services like carbon storage and water regulation provided by forests (IPCC-IPBES, 2021; FAO, 2022; FOLU, 2019).

Over the past 50 years, population growth, coupled with a 15% per-person increase in material consumption since 1980, has driven alarming surges in biomass extraction, fossil fuel consumption, and mineral and metal exploitation since 1970 (IPCC-IPBES, 2021). The depletion of the world’s largest groundwater systems has reached about 30%, and over 80% of global wastewater is discharged untreated, contributing to environmental pollution. Simultaneously, massive amounts of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other pollutants – 300/400 million tons annually – are dumped into the world’s waters and soils. Coastal ecosystems suffer from extremely low oxygen levels, causing severe ecological degradation in terrestrial and marine environments (UN Water, 2021; UNEP, 2022).

These environmental impacts are widespread, with 75% of the terrestrial environment, 40% of the marine environment, and 50% of streams experiencing severe degradation, resulting in significant losses of wild animal biomass and plant life (IPCC-IPBES, 2021; Tudge et al., 2021). The preservation of genetic diversity within crops, animals, and fisheries is crucial for resilient food systems, particularly in terms of pest and disease resistance (FAO, 2010; FAO, 2020). Disturbingly, pollinator declines have been observed globally, posing threats to pollinator-dependent crop yields, rendering them less reliable than their pollinator-independent counterparts (Smith et al., 2022). Similar challenges are reported in fisheries, such as the loss of fish diversity in Lake Victoria (East Africa) as a consequence of the introduction of the invasive Nile perch, as well as expansion of invasive plants in terrestrial ecosystems.

What is the latest foresight research on this topic?

Projections for 2050 indicate a high confidence in increased population, income, changes in consumption patterns, and heightened demand for food, feed, and water (van Dijk et al., 2021; IPCC, 2019). Demographic and economic factors, dietary shifts (e.g., to plant-based diets in affluent countries), innovation, trade, and governance will be key drivers of this change. Despite the universal goal of achieving a more sustainable and resilient environment, the diversity in environmental characteristics, motivations, interests, preferences, and values across different regions necessitates local solutions (Townsend et al., 2020). Therefore, transitioning to a multi-actor and multi-scale governance model is deemed vital for creating a sustainable future that addresses the unique challenges and opportunities in different local contexts (Wynberg et al., 2023).

Recent foresight research sheds light on critical challenges, offering insights into water scarcity, ‘hotspots’ across sectors, the delicate balance between population and agricultural productivity, and the environmental impacts of agricultural practices.

Water scarcity, identified as a major concern for specific regions in the future, presents a complex challenge with large uncertainties.  In their study, Greve et al. (2018) find that median water scarcity and the associated range of uncertainty are generally on the increase worldwide, including many major river basins. The authors also suggest a decision-making framework that identifies four representative clusters of specific water policy challenges and needs. Huang et al. (2021) propose a potential solution through adaptive inner-basin water allocation measures (AIWAM), demonstrating that such interventions could lead to a 12% decrease in the global population exposed to water scarcity by 2050. However, they note that the adaptive measure may intensify agricultural water scarcity in the upstream of the basins.

Byers et al. (2018) broaden the perspective and assess the interactions between climate change risks and socioeconomic development by calculating 14 impact indicators across water, energy, and land sectors. The study finds that global exposure to multi-sector risks doubles when the global mean temperature (GMT) increases from 1.5°C to 2°C, doubles again with a 3°C GMT increase, and is approximately 6 times higher in scenarios characterized by high poverty and inequality. While 85%–95% of global exposure to multi-sector risks is concentrated in Asian and African regions, these regions also account for 91%–98% of the exposed and vulnerable population (depending on SSP/GMT combination), with approximately half of this population located in South Asia. In higher warming scenarios, African regions see a growing proportion of the exposed and vulnerable population. This proportion ranges from 7%–17% at 1.5 °C, doubles to 14%–30% at 2 °C, and doubles again to 27%–51% at 3 °C. Therefore, focusing on reducing poverty, mitigating emissions, promoting adaptation, and achieving targets in the water, energy, and land sectors has the potential to significantly reduce multi-sector climate risks for vulnerable populations.

A critical aspect addressed by a recent multi-model analysis by Stehfest et al. (2019) emphasizes that the balance between changes in population and agricultural productivity is pivotal in determining the pressure for future extensification of crop- and pastureland. However, the authors highlight that land-use regulations are underrepresented in models and should receive more attention in future assessments, while modeling is critical to inform effective land-use policies and planning. Similarly, Springmann et al. (2018) explore the environmental impacts of increases in agricultural yields and how changes in food management, technology, and transition to healthy diets may help mitigate these impacts. They estimate that implementing these measures, especially those targeting food loss and waste, can reduce environmental pressures on the food system by 25–45% compared to the 2050 baseline projection in medium-ambition scenarios, and by 30–60% in high-ambition scenarios.

Bergstrom et al. (2021) contribute valuable insights by examining the current state and trajectories of 19 ecosystems across diverse latitudes and environments. Their ‘3As’ framework – awareness, anticipation, and action – guides decision-making in the face of chronic ‘presses’ and acute ‘pulses’ affecting terrestrial and marine ecosystems collapse (e.g., loss of services and species). Key recommended policy actions include aligning global climate policies with Paris Agreement targets, enhancing protected area management, incentivizing sustainable land use, adopting adaptive management, integrating Indigenous knowledge, boosting research funding, and fostering international collaboration.

Finally, Panagos et al. (2021) shift the focus to soil erosion by water within the agricultural areas of the European Union and the UK, projecting a significant increase by 13% to 22.5% by 2050 due to a combination of climate change and land use patterns. While a shift to more pastureland could potentially reduce erosion by 3%, the projected increase in rainfall erosivity is expected to counteract this effect, leading to overall increases in soil erosion. The study suggests that the most effective strategy is to tie the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) incentives to environmental performance in a targeted manner. For optimal results, soil conservation measures, such as cover crops and reduced tillage, should be applied to at least 50% of erosion hotspots to mitigate both water and wind erosion.

Collectively, these studies paint a comprehensive picture of the challenges we face, but they also offer promising solutions. Proactive policy and investment decisions today can play a crucial role in mitigating resource depletion’s impacts and contributing to a more resilient environment. The importance of adaptive and forward-looking strategies in resource management emerges as a recurring theme, underscoring the need for a holistic and proactive approach to address these complex environmental challenges on a global scale. In the current climate crisis, models to help decision-makers optimise the synergies between the environmental, agricultural, economic, and social inclusion dimensions of food systems are required more than ever.

What are key gaps, questions, and opportunities for further foresight research on this topic?

Despite significant advancements in foresight research on environmental sustainability, several key gaps and questions remain.

First, there is a need for foresight analysis to identify sustainable practices for land, soil, and water management, especially in developing countries and regions where resource pressures are substantial.  However, these practices also remain critical in selected food production systems of developed countries.

Second, understanding the link between ecosystem functions and services and optimizing trade-offs across socio-cultural, food systems, and land and water systems is crucial for building resilience (Karki et al., 2018; Panyadee et al., 2018; Rahman et al., 2011; Sharma et al., 2018). In the past, society focused more on provisioning services (i.e. increasing agricultural production) at the expense of regulating cultural and supporting services. In the future, there is a need for understanding ecosystem linkages (Walker et al., 2010) and for optimization across the nexus between socio-cultural factors, pressures for economic growth, and food, land, soil, and water systems.

Third, future research should focus on enhancing productivity to meet the needs of the growing global population while effectively managing competition for land and water. The impact of system shocks, both short-term and long-term, on the ability to adapt to environmental changes also requires thorough investigation (Benton et al., 2018). The development of early warning systems and recovery measures is essential for effective adaptive strategies (Kramer et al., 2019; Nkiaka et al., 2019; Street et al., 2019).

And finally, understanding the local nuances and factors that influence sustainable practices is critical, necessitating a transition to a contextualized multi-actor and multi-scale governance model (Wynberg et al., 2023).

Holistically addressing these gaps and questions will contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities for achieving a sustainable and resilient environment and food system.

This note was prepared by Elisabetta Gotor, Principal Scientist, Performance, Innovation and Strategic Analysis at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT; Director, Land Resources Economics Unit, CGIAR Science Group on Systems Transformation; and Co-lead of the CGIAR Research Initiative on Foresight; and Cargele Masso, Director, CGIAR Environmental Health and Biodiversity Impact Area. The authors would like to thank Chiara Livorno, currently a PhD candidate in Development Economics and Local Systems with the University of Florence, for her contribution in the literature review.

If you have any feedback or questions about this note, please contact Elisabetta Gotor (e.gotor@cgiar.org).

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Photo: Landscape of Mount Halimun Salak National Park, West Java (Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR).

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