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What Covid-19 can teach us

The long read: reNature’s lessons from the corona crisis

2020 will be a year that we won’t forget all too soon. The corona crisis has manifested itself on a level of unprecedented scale and scope. While the long-term impacts on our societies, economies and value systems are yet to be fully understood, we can say for sure that the world will not be the same after this crisis.

For instance, The Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis has conducted an assessment of the possible impact of the coronavirus on the Dutch economy in 2020 and 2021. Even the most positive scenario involves a recession for the Netherlands. Unemployment numbers will rise and the economic impact will likely be worse than that of the financial crisis in 2008.

The spread of Covid-19 personally affects us

Without question, the corona pandemic implies effects much more severe than economic downfall: People are dying. Unlike any other recent crisis, it directly affects our personal lives and those of our relatives. To date (16.04.2020), Italy alone has suffered an estimated number of 21,645 casualties . Meanwhile, the US is facing horror scenarios of 100,000 to 200,000 deaths directly linked to the spread of Covid-19.

Globally, countries are forced to take extreme measures to isolate its citizens and halt the spread of the disease. German Chancellor Merkel has recently called the pandemic “Germany’s greatest challenge since World War II,” which describes the extent of this catastrophe quite vividly.

For many of us, the corona crisis affects our personal lives to an extent that we have never known before. Having to stay is probably one of the least evil effects (Source: Kelly Sikkema/ Unsplash).

Most of us have never experienced a comparable situation. Stocking up on food, empty supermarket shelves and even a rise in gun sales in the US are a manifestation of fear seizing people around the world. In India, even food shortages are expected as transporting networks are at risk of collapsing. For the first time in a long while, we are experiencing a crisis that affects every one of us personally. 

Taking notes while fighting the pandemic 

It is now imperative to take all necessary efforts to overcome this crisis. Diminishing casualties to a minimum and reducing the severity of the crisis’ impacts are of absolute priority. Efforts to ‘flatten the curve’ are crucially important to save the lives and protect the health of those who are vulnerable. Furthermore, the impact on unemployment rates needs to be cushioned and those losing their jobs and income sources need to be compensated for their losses.

The current measures of governments attempting to isolate people to slow down the spread of the disease should be taken seriously. China – one of the first countries to be heavily affected – is now showing that recovery is possible. In Wuhan – initially the epicenter of the virus – people are slowly allowed to resume their activities. For a while now, new infections in China have stemmed mainly from international travelers.  

In China, people are slowly resuming their normal activities again (Source: 贺 朱/ Pixabay).

Seeing this light at the end of the tunnel provides us with some time to reflect on the situation. Amidst the advances of the pandemic that sometimes seems chaotic, people around the world mostly find themselves indoors, often with more free time. For many, these circumstances create a moment of opportunity to assess what we can learn from this crisis.

What can corona teach us?

In our case at reNature, the corona crisis has set thoughts about the future in motion. Questions arose such as: What lessons can we take from this crisis? Where did it come from? Was there something we could have done to avoid it? Are there future crises on the horizon that might affect us to a similar degree? If so, what can we do to prevent them?

Fortunately, empty supermarket shelves during the corona crises are only a short-term issue. Yet, provide us with a glimpse of how quickly our complex supply systems are affected during crises (Source: Claudio Schwarz/ Unsplash).

One answer is: Yes, we do face risks of entering crises that may affect our personal lives to a similar extent. Corona is revealing that our globalized system has weaknesses and that we are not invulnerable to shocks, such as the spread of diseases. Therefore, this article explores those risks and suggests approaches for increasing our resilience.

It is important to note very clearly that we do not intend to distract from or underestimate the severity of the corona pandemic. On the contrary, this article is an acknowledgment of the seriousness with which we should approach it and what we can do to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. By understanding and reflecting on the present, we hope to inspire solutions for a better future. In the moments that give us pause, we want to help people understand the cause.

Not the last crisis

As the environmentalist George Monbiot puts it, wealthy nations have been living in a protective “bubble of false comfort and denial”. We’ve been shielding out the idea that natural hazards have a grip on our societies. 

With the majority of the human population living in cities, the importance of functioning systems outside of our human bubble might be easily overlooked (Source: Vlad Alexandru/ Pexels).

Indeed, the corona pandemic has been a wake-up call that shows how our societies are closely connected to the natural world. They also indicate that we are less resilient than we tend to think. We will need to greatly increase this resilience, for the case that crises of similar scale and magnitude will reoccur in the near future.

We must increase our societal resilience starting now. Scientists tell us that crucial tipping points exist within the earth system. Passing them could lead to large-scale and possibly irreversible environmental changes, although the likelihood of irreversibility of changes at the earth-system scale remains a contested topic (for example, see Brook et al., 2013 compared to Hughes et al., 2013).

Melting ice: the water rises

It is important to see how human activity in the business-as-usual scenario could offset a chain reaction. A classic example is how the weakening of natural carbon sinks could further destabilize the climate system and push it closer to large tipping points such as the loss of the Greenland ice sheet. These sinks are structures such as forests, soil or peat forests – currently threatened by deforestation and other activities – that store carbon and, therefore, can counteract global warming but can also become a carbon source and contribute to global warming if disturbed.

The sum of melting glacier and ice sheet contributions is now the dominant source of global mean sea-level rise. Marine ice sheet instability in Antarctica and/or irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet could result in a multi-meter rise in sea level over hundreds to thousands of years. These instabilities could be triggered at around 1.5°C to 2°C of global warming. The former is likely to be reached between 2030 and 2052 if global warming continues to increase at the current rate. 

While for many, melting ice in Greenland might seem like a distant, inconsequential process somewhere up in the arctic, its impacts on humanity may be catastrophic (Source: Alexander Hafemann/ Unsplash).

Looking forward to 2100, it is suggested that sea levels will rise between 0.43 and 0.84 meters relative to the period 1986–2005. While to some this might not seem too alarming at a first glance, the consequences for us humans would be dire. 

With average sea levels rising and events of extreme sea levels occurring more frequently, coastal zones are under increasing threat. Large areas of land often used or inhabited by humans would be temporarily or permanently submerged due to higher average sea levels or higher average high tides. Other adverse effects include more frequent or intense coastal floodings, enhanced coastal erosion, loss and change of coastal ecosystems, and the salinization of soils.

In Bangladesh, up to 13.3 million people are expected to lose their homes, mainly, due to sea-level rise within the next three decades (Source: Kelly Lace/ Pexels).

Without effective adaptation measures, annual flood damages are expected to increase by 2-3 orders of magnitude by 2100. Even though well designed coastal protection is very effective in reducing expected damages and cost-efficient for urban and densely populated regions, it is generally unaffordable for rural and poorer areas. 

The extent to which this may affect our societies becomes clear when looking at the growing number of people living in these coastal areas. In 2010, already 11% of the population lived in areas below 10 meters of elevation. And in Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, it is estimated that 6–8% of the population live in areas that are at high or very high risk of being affected by coastal hazards.

A safe and just operating space for humanity

The example of the Greenland ice sheet is fitting to visualize the effects of passing earth system tipping points. The results are sudden and profound alterations of our surroundings, making it increasingly difficult for human societies and nature to adapt.

Human-induced climate change is already causing extreme weather events at this very moment: extreme temperatures are soaring, and both heavy rains and droughts occur more often whilst becoming even wetter and drier respectively. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, the Australian wildfires, drought in East Africa, floods in South Asia, drought in Central America – all are linked to climate change.

Some human-induced changes might even be irreversible: the loss of coral reefs – predicted to decline by 70-90% at 1.5 C warming – could mean we lose these delicate ecosystems altogether. The same goes for the Greenland ice sheet, which is likely to never come back once it melts.

These projections of risks posed by global warming show that the impacts are likely to be especially high for marine systems and coasts. Yet, agricultural crop yields and terrestrial ecosystems may well get heavily affected as well (Source: IPCC, adapted by Ana Somaglino). Please find the legend below.

To prevent surpassing tipping points – after which large-scale irreversible changes might occur – we want to stay within the so-called safe operating space for humanity. 

This ‘space’ describes the range in which human activity continues without greatly damaging the earth’s ecosystems. This means there are certain planetary boundaries that should not be exceeded.

Doughnut economics: Bridging earth and human welfare

Whilst staying within the planetary boundaries, it is imperative not to lose track of the socio-economic side of things. Global welfare for humans and reduced inequalities have to be ensured without damaging our planet.

A concept that describes just that is  Doughnut Economics. Emerging from a radically different view on economics, it combines the Planetary Boundaries framework with the global Sustainable Development Goals. Thereby, it describes how we have to ‘stay inside’ the doughnut – the space in which earth and people can thrive.

The doughnut works as follows: the outer ring represents the planetary boundaries – the ecological ceiling – and the inner ring represents the minimum level of human welfare – the social foundation. As such, the doughnut, with its social and planetary boundaries, describes a model for thriving economies within the safe and just space for humanity.

The Doughnut. When the ecological ceiling is not exceeded (outwards) and the social foundation is reached (inwards), the economy is within “the safe and just operating space”. Exceeding the ecological ceiling leads to overshoot, whilst falling below the social foundation leads to shortfall (Source: Wikipedia).

4 boundaries that have already been exceeded

The scientists that created the framework of the planetary boundaries have identified nine important processes, four of which – climate change, biosphere integrity (genetic diversity), biogeochemical flows of phosphorus and nitrogen, and land-system change – are thought to have already surpassed the boundaries of the safe operating space.

These four overshooting processes can be roughly translated into four major threats that we are now facing: 

  • a rapidly changing climate (“climate change”)
  • large scale species extinction (“biosphere integrity”)
  • high pollution from agricultural fertilizer (“biochemical flows”)
  • great loss of forested land (land-system change)

The nine planetary boundaries, with four being overshot: climate change, biosphere integrity, biochemical flows, and land-system change (Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre).

For the future, we have to make sure that we can face the threats that are overshooting the planetary boundaries mentioned above. These threats have the potential to lead us into crises of, at least, equally devastating impacts as the corona pandemic. We also have to prevent shortfall by dropping below the social foundation and instead strive to reach the desired levels of human welfare. 

This has implications for how our societies function. Critical changes will have to take place in perhaps the most important foundation of our societies: our food systems

Our food systems at risk

A food system gathers all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes. 

Our food systems nowadays are highly complex arrangements affected by a variety of global influences (Source: UK Government Office for Science).

Well-working food systems are extremely important. After all, each one of us needs food every day. Sadly, this basic requirement for human well-being is still not met for all of the earth’s inhabitants. Global agriculture and food systems are not meeting the world’s demand for food as 821 million people are still hungry. 

Soon, our food systems will increasingly need to cope with multi-dimensional, complex and increasing challenges. These include a growing world population, urbanization and climate change, which drive increased pressure on natural resources, impacting land, water and biodiversity. By 2050 we will have to support an additional 2 billion individuals, and our global diets are shifting in ways that are more and more demanding for Earth’s resources.

In the following, we shed light on some of the most pressing of these threats. We will outline how they may affect our food systems, for instance, in regards to agriculture, nutrition, food security, and food safety. 

The threats to food systems

The foundation of each food system is the production of raw commodities. In most societies, these are generated through a set of activities summarized under the term “agriculture’ – raising crops, farming livestock, and the collection of seafood. The functioning and sustainability of these practices, therefore, determines our food supply.

Agricultural activities form the basis of our food systems (Source: Unsplash).

For this article, four major, intertwined threats have been identified for a smooth and long-term continuation of these activities: climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation, and pollution from fertilizers.

These threats are directly interlinked with the four overshooting processes as described in the planetary boundary framework: a rapidly changing climate, large scale species extinction, great loss of forested land, and high pollution from agricultural fertilizer, respectively.

For many of us, having access to clean and diverse food is normal and it is hard to imagine how this would ever change (Source: Pexels)

These threats could adversely effect on our food systems. Perhaps most notably, they may affect our food security and its four essential dimensions: The availability of sufficient food may be inhibited, the access to it is likely to become more difficult for many as well as its utilization which requires clean food and drinking water sources. Additionally, the stability of food security – meaning that access to clean food is ensured year-round may well be put at increased risk in the future.

The sections below will discuss in more detail how the identified threats endanger our food systems and food security.

Climate change: unpredictable weather and rapidly changing conditions

Climate change is happening fast. Human-induced global warming is currently increasing at 0.2°C per decade due to past and ongoing emissions.

Heatwaves, droughts, dust storms, desertification, heavy rainfall, changing rainfall patterns, flooding, and sea-level rise, are some of the effects of climate change that currently impact humans and nature. And, will continue to do so in the future, often with increased frequency and intensity.

An increase of meteorological, hydrological and climatological events over the last decades can be attributed to climate change (Source: Sceptical Science, adapted by Ana Somaglino).

These effects are devastating for agriculture. Worldwide, farmers are struggling to adjust to a fast-changing and increasingly unpredictable climate (read more about it here). Climate change is estimated to reduce yields of maize, rice, wheat, and other cereal crops especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America. Indeed, there is a significant risk of substantial yield declines in (sub)tropical crops due to global warming.

Global warming puts food security at risk

Climate change, along with factors as population and income growth and high demand for animal-sourced products, put the food system under pressure, impacting the four pillars of food security: availability, access, utilization, and stability.

Food security will continue to be impacted in the future as well, but this depends strongly on how human societies develop. Factors such as population growth, inequality, consumption and many others can affect it. Though, even in the best-case scenario, the risk is high that food availability and access will be diminished if global warming exceeds the 3°C mark. In the worst case, this will already happen at 1.5°C.

Projected levels of food insecurity in terms of availability and access at different levels of global warming (Source: IPCC, adapted by Ana Somaglino). Please find the legend below.

The Food Insecurity and Climate Change tool allows us to see how different scenarios of climate change and adaptation to climate change will impact food security. Under the scenario of low emissions – below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures – and no adaptation measures there are many countries worldwide that will experience moderate to high vulnerability to food insecurity. 

The question remains whether the Paris Agreement – keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2°C – will be met. With current rates of global warming, we will likely reach 1.5°C warming between 2030 and 2052. Another question is to which extent adequate adaptation measures will be in place.

Climate change might put the stability of food supplies at risk (Source: Pixabay).

As a particular component of food insecurity, the stability of food supply is projected to decrease. This is because the increasing magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events will cause yield declines leading to food price spikes that disrupt food chains. Such instabilities will mostly hit those in poverty who are most vulnerable to such instabilities. At around 2°C of global warming, food supply instabilities are projected to be very high

Besides, urbanization – meaning the spread and expansion of cities – is estimated to lead to the conversion of valuable cropland. This would lead to losses in food production, posing additional risks to the food system.

A warming climate will quite likely result in food supply instabilities. 1.5 °C warming could already send off periodic shocks in food supply across regions (Source: IPCC, adapted by Ana Somaglino).

Given the damages of climate change to agriculture, it is painfully ironic that contemporary farming is contributing to climate change for a large part. Currently, 23% of global human-induced emissions come from agriculture, forestry and other land uses (AFOLU), and up to 37% if the whole food system is considered too. 

Biodiversity loss: losing ecosystem services

Biodiversity is declining fast. One million species now face extinction. Some scientists therefore say we are currently amidst a “sixth mass extinction” – referring to past global extinction events of similar scale. This essentially puts the current loss of species at the same level with the extinction of the dinosaurs. Indeed, the global extinction rate is already tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.

In addition to the alarming number of species going extinct, scientists state how the planet is experiencing a huge episode of population declines and extirpations (going extinct locally), which will have negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization.

Ecosystems interact with farming systems in various ways. Their functioning is essential for the productivity of human farmland and, therefore, our food supply. This figure focusses on so-called supporting and regulating services (Source: Zhang et al., 2007, adapted by Ana Somaglino).

Indeed, ecosystem services (the benefits humans derive from ecosystems) are vital, especially for our food systems. Agriculture is heavily reliant on biodiversity and ecosystem services. 

Pollination: a crucial ecosystem service

Pollination is the highest agricultural contributor to yields worldwide, contributing far beyond any other agricultural management practice.

More than 75% of global food crop types, including fruits and vegetables and some of the most important cash crops, such as coffee, cocoa and almonds, rely on animal pollination – a service provided by functioning ecosystems. The global value of pollinator-dependent crops is estimated to be between US$235 and US$577 billion a year.

However, if biodiversity is disturbed, these ecosystem services can fall away. Present species extinction rates of pollinators are 100 to 1,000 times higher than normal due to human impacts.

80% of the world’s almond supply comes from California’s almond plantations, the blossoming trees of which are entirely reliant on bee pollination (Source: Dulcineia Dias/ Unsplash).

Resorting to manual pollination in China

In some parts of China, bee populations have plummeted to dramatically low numbers, resulting in humans having to do the pollination by hand. There are numerous regional reports of declines of some economically very important pollinators, such as honey bees, and this situation could well be representative for the whole country.

In Hanyuan county, of China’s Sichuan province, workers have to get acrobatic to hand-pollinate the fruit trees (Source: Huffington Post).

Scientists therefore believe that populations of pollinators – mostly bumblebees and bees – now face an alarming risk of decline throughout China. The suggested reasons for the plummeting of pollinator populations are land-use intensification, the overuse of pesticides, and invasive species. Land-use intensification has led to degradation of pollinators’ habitat, large amounts of pesticide affect the health of pollinators, and invasive species compete with- and have brought parasites and pathogens to native pollinator populations.

A massive decline of pollinators in China could even have global ripple effects on food security and livelihoods. As one of the most important international exporters of pollinator-dependent fruit and vegetables, any disruption in crop production from declines in pollination in China could greatly impact the world’s supply.

China is not the only country where the loss of pollinators is a big problem. The strongest evidence for pollinators declines actually comes from North America and the EU. These include severe regional declines in domestic honey bee stocks in the USA (59% loss of colonies between 1947 and 2005, and Europe (25% loss of colonies in central Europe between 1985 and 2005).

Next to bees, other animals and insects such as butterflies are pollinators, too. Yet, their numbers are also decreasing (Source: Himesh Kumar Behera/ Unsplash).

Animal pollination is a fascinating and crucial service among the many ecosystem services that agriculture relies on for successful functioning. Much more can be read on animal pollination in publications by the FAO.

The value of biodiversity 

The value of biodiversity also becomes visible with the example of cultivated crops, crop’s wild relatives and domesticated breeds. As most farming systems increasingly use the same varieties, diversity decreases.

While more than 6,000 plant species have been cultivated for food, fewer than 200 make substantial contributions to global food output, and only nine (sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet and cassava) account for 66 percent of total global crop production.

This loss of diversity poses a serious risk to global food security as these crops become more vulnerable to pests, pathogens and climate change.

Einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum) – a relative of the commonly farmed version – was one of the earliest grains ever to be cultivated (Source: Slowfood West Michigan).

On the flip side, increased biodiversity can be a key element in making agriculture more resilient to future crises. Diversity at every level – the diversity of species as well as genetic diversity within them – contributes to the capacity of production systems to cope with shocks and to adapt to change.

For instance, increased agrobiodiversity – the subset of biodiversity, both domesticated and wild, which contributes in one way or another to agriculture and food production – can result in more productive systems that are less vulnerable to extreme events, such as heavy weather, pest outbreaks, and market fluctuations.

This is because increased agrobiodiversity distributes risk in a smarter way (for example, if one crop fails, a better-adapted one will survive), and it also creates interactions between components that can be beneficial to the health of a system as a whole (for example, integrating trees within agricultural systems)! Many examples of how diversity can create beneficial interactions are listed by the FAO and BI and CIAT.

Agrobiodiversity also provides us with many nutritious foods with unique properties that can directly provide valuable dietary components as well as genetic material for crop breeding

Land degradation: a threat-amplifier

Land degradation is a complex phenomenon, usually involving the loss of some or all of the following: productivity, soil, vegetation cover, biomass, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and environmental resilience.

Deforestation is a common form of human-made land degradation (Source: Pok Rie/ Pexels).

Land degradation is commonly caused by the mismanagement or overexploitation of land resources. This includes human activities such as deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices, pollution, or direct impacts such as mining. Broadly speaking, all these activities damage the qualities of the land in one way or another. 

In other words, land degradation is caused by long-term unsustainable use of agricultural and forestry land, and by exploitation and poor management of land. Ecosystems thereby lose their functions and both the quality and productivity of agricultural land decrease.

Degraded land is of low agricultural quality (Source: Markus Spiske/ Pexels).

As such, land degradation is closely related to climate change and biodiversity loss, threats discussed before. As the UNCCD states: “the transformation of our natural ecosystems, the inefficient use of water resources, and the excessive use and misuse of agrochemicals contributes to land degradation at the local level as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions, reduced biodiversity, and changes in rainfall on regional and global scales.”

Nowadays, human use of land directly affects more than 70% (!) of the global, ice-free land surface. The large majority of it is used for agricultural purposes, covered by range- and pasture lands for livestock (37%), plantations and managed forests (22%) as well as cropland (12%). 

Human use of the global ice-free land surface. The bars show decreasing land-use intensity from left to right (Source: IPCC, adapted by Ana Somaglino).

About 25% of the total global ice-free land area is subject to human-induced degradation. For instance, the speed by which soil from agricultural fields is currently eroding is estimated to be 10 to 20 times higher (under no tillage) to more than 100 times higher (under conventional tillage) than the rate by which it can regenerate – a truly unsustainable process.

Deforestation and land degradation

Agriculture is also a major driver of deforestation – and of the associated land degradation. An analysis of the 11 most critical deforestation fronts found agriculture to be the dominant, and usually the largest, driver of land-use change. More than 80% of global deforestation between 2010 and 2030 is likely to happen in just these 11 places – up to 170 million ha combined.

These are (sub)tropical locations worldwide such as the Amazon, the Congo Basin, New Guinea, Borneo and Eastern Australia. The Amazon is estimated to undergo the heaviest deforestation (up to 48 million ha!).

11 deforestation fronts. More than 80% of global deforestation between 2010 and 2030 will likely happen here (Source: WWF).

The main culprits are usually agricultural commodity crops. For instance, in South America, deforestation is primarily driven by large-scale commercial agriculture, predominantly cattle, but also plantation agriculture of crops such as soybean and oil palm.

Vulnerable drylands

Worldwide, over 1.3 billion people are trapped on degrading agricultural lands. This is especially problematic in areas where people’s livelihoods are reliant on farming whilst living on marginal – low quality – lands. Land degradation can be considered a threat amplifier. As a slow and insidious process, it is associated with food and water scarcity. In combination with population growth, migration, poverty and a lack of good governance, it can increase the risk of conflict.

Drylands – often already less productive – are more vulnerable to further degradation (Source: Bernat Hermant/ Unsplash).

Drylands are particularly vulnerable regions. Rural communities in drylands are often poorer than elsewhere and the land is more vulnerable to degradation from climate change and direct human pressures.

Dryland soils face a range of land management challenges. These are characteristic of or amplified by dry conditions, including crusting and compaction, restricted soil drainage, wind and water erosion, low fertility, and soils that are shallow, stony, saline or sodic.

The pressure on drylands is growing, as the share of them under annual drought and the number of people living in them has been increasing. Yet, drylands are home to many people and they are also very important for global food production. 

Drylands cover approximately 41% of all land and house 30% of the global population, where 90% of dryland populations live in developing countries. Approximately 44% of the world’s agricultural land is located in drylands, mainly in Africa and Asia, and supplies about 60 percent of the world’s food production.

In the Sahel zone in Africa, land degradation can function as a threat amplifier (Source: Roberto Vi/ Pixabay).

How vulnerable dryland populations are to land degradation, climate change, and conflict becomes clear in the Sahel – the region bordering the south of the Sahara desert. Between 2011 and 2017, the nine Sahelian countries have faced constant struggles including drought, food insecurity, and conflict. Still, violent conflicts are at an all-time high, and by June-August 2020, food insecurity is expected to reach crisis levels in several Sahelian countries putting millions at risk.

Pollution from fertilizers

The increased use of agrochemicals in farming, such as nitrogen- and phosphorus-based fertilizers, as well as pesticides and herbicides, has boosted global crop yields and has arguably prevented agricultural expansion (for examples, see this article and this book). However, it also had significant negative impacts on soil and water quality, the health of ecosystems and species and, thereby, our food security (for example, see this article and this book).

For instance, inefficient application of fertilizers can lead to the leaching of substances from agricultural lands into surface waters such as rivers and lakes. “Nonpoint” sources of these substances, including agricultural activities, fossil-fuel combustion, and animal feeding operations are often of greater concern than “point sources”, such as wastewater treatment plants, industry, and mines. This is because they are larger and more difficult to control.

Fertilizer application on land remains a major contributor to nonpoint nutrient pollution, and this source has been increasing at an alarming rate in many geographic regions over the last decades. Since the 1960s, both industrial and developing countries have been using much more fertilizer, with global nitrogen and phosphate uses experiencing an eightfold and threefold rise, respectively. Also, we have already known that this causes big problems for decades.

When nutrients turn into plagues

When nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphate end up in water bodies, they can cause eutrophication, defined as “the process of increased organic enrichment of an ecosystem”. This can exacerbate the growth of harmful algae that kill fish and other aquatic life and may impact whole aquatic ecosystems, resulting in reduced ecosystem services affecting food systems, for instance through collapses in fish stocks. Algal blooms can also have direct effects on humans, as they can induce illness and even death from toxic seafood or toxin exposure through inhalation or water contact.

Caption: A harmful algae bloom in Lake Erie in North America in September 2017 (Source: Zachary Haslick/Aerial Associates Photography/NOAA).

Although these so-called algal blooms occurred naturally throughout history, the frequency and intensity of harmful outbreaks have risen globally in the last decades. This has been directly related to human influences. A massive algal outbreak in Lake Erie, for which monoculture farming of soy and corn was largely to blame, caused massive economic damages. One study roughly estimated the costs of harmful algal blooms to be US$100 million per year in the United States.

How the trend of increasing algal blooms will develop exactly is uncertain and depends not only on nutrient loading but also on how quickly global changes, such as climate change, will interplay in the future.

Fertilizer use expected to further increase

Despite nutrients not being the only factor at play, the increasing amounts being used could mean it will stay an important factor. The use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers is projected to increase by 2.7 and 2.4 times, respectively, by 2050.

To maintain sufficient yields and thereby sustain their livelihoods, many farmers use agrochemicals. Despite their harmfulness, they do not see alternatives to agrochemicals on their farms (Source: Pixabay)

One study suggests that by the year 2050, between 27% and 59% of all nitrogen fertilizer will be applied in developing regions located upstream of nitrogen-deficient marine ecosystems. In such systems, blooms occur within days of fertilization and irrigation of agricultural fields. The research highlights the vulnerability of these ecosystems to agricultural runoff.

Algal blooms: Virtually crossing a tipping point

Algal blooms in lakes are a classic example of how some ecological systems can change almost irreversibly when the respective tipping points are passed. 

They manifest easily under high nutrient loading, but to return a shallow lake to its clear-water state is a much more difficult task than simply reducing the nutrient loading again. This is because the new system – the algal bloom – has different properties than the previous system, making it hard to clean up the lake only by changing nutrient inputs, a process ecologists call hysteresis.

Pollution-induced disasters such as algae blooms harm the availability of the world’s largest traded food commodity: seafood (Source: Oziel Gómez/ Pexels).

As in shallow lakes, harmful algal blooms in coastal areas can also experience these tipping points and associated hysteresis. For instance, coastal embayments of Maryland and Virginia have been experiencing recurring tenacious algal blooms.

With approximately 3 billion people depending on wild and farmed seafood for protein, the dangers of this type of pollution for our food systems are imminent.

The global food system at a crossroads

We have now discussed four major threats to our food systems. All of them could have a significant impact on one or multiple of the four dimensions of food security in terms of availability, access, utilization and stability. 

Another and perhaps the most valuable insight is the great overlap between these threats. Indeed, “Land degradation, biodiversity loss, and climate change are now recognized as intertwined threats to multiple dimensions of human security and contribute to a downward spiral in the productivity and availability of land resources” states the UNCCD.

With the human population growing, maintaining the productivity of land is essential (Source: Tom Fisk/ Pexels).

Similar acknowledgments on the connectedness of these threats are made by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services IPBES. In their reports, and those by the FAO, there is much more to discover in terms of the relationships between climate change, biodiversity loss, and land degradation – this article has only scratched the tip of the iceberg.

Climate change, biodiversity loss, and land degradation are intertwined threats, and linked to the poor management of land resources, such as the overuse of agrochemicals. (Source: UNCCD, adapted by Ana Somaglino).

The corona crisis as a warning reminder

This is the point at which it is sensible to remind ourselves of the ongoing impacts of the corona crisis, the empty supermarket shelves and the economic recession. A food system crisis would certainly not fall too short from that. It could even be worse.

A typical image of the corona crisis: A supermarket queue in Macau (Source: Unsplash). 

This is why global institutions are now pushing for changes in food systems, sometimes even at an alarming tone.

The High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) acknowledges the profound changes linked to population growth, urbanization and the effects of global warming and biodiversity loss. It foresees a deep transformation of our food systems which in turn will greatly influence what people eat, as well as how food is produced, processed, transported and sold.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) highlights the current weaknesses of our food system pointing out that it threatens human health and environmental sustainability. A shift is needed away from a focus on short-term profit and production towards striving for long-term sustainability. 

As Monbiot mockingly, yet gravely, remarks in response to hoarding: “Fights over toilet paper are ugly enough: I hope we never have to witness fights over food.” 

In many countries, the hoarding of toilet paper rolls led to empty supermarket shelves as suppliers could not catch up with deliveries to satisfy rising demands (Source: Erik Mclean/ Unsplash)

Preventing a food system crisis is of utmost importance. It is now that opportunities for reducing such a risk should be investigated. Available solutions should be applied to revert the currently ongoing processes that damage our earth system and, with it, our security.

By examining the aforementioned threats to food systems and their overlaps, it becomes obvious that we have to change the way we produce and consume food. Of many improvements to food systems, one important lesson is that increasing resilience is key.

Resilience: a key to improvement

Resilience is a term that originated from ecology and which has transformed throughout decades. It can be hard to understand what resilience means in different contexts as scientists have used it in different ways. It can be hard to understand how it conceptually differs from concepts like stability and adaptive capacity, and how it interacts with concepts such as tipping points and hysteresis. Multiple conceptualizations exist – with which we won’t bother you too much at this point.

What is important to know is that, as the term has been expanding away from ecology to other sciences, the term is now being used more broadly. For instance, it has also been used in the context of ‘socio-ecological systems’ applied to natural hazards and disaster management. 

The importance of resilience for food systems given the threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, and land degradation is also incorporated in Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2) “Zero Hunger”. SDG target 2.4 is to “ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.”

Resilience is often visually conceptualized by so-called stability landscapes. The yellow ball moving from one valley to another indicates a shift in state whilst the valley’s depth, width, and steepness of slope indicate resilience. There are two ways in which states change is conceptualized: one where the parameters or conditions change (the landscape changes), and another where the state variables change themselves (the ball is pushed). The tipping point is represented by the peak in the landscape. (Source: Beisner et al., 2003, adapted by Ana Somaglino).

Resilience in practice

What does increasing resilience mean in practice? The Stockholm Resilience Centre explains resilience as the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about how humans and nature can use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking.

Almost all ecosystems are somehow affected by human activities (Source: David Marcu/ Unsplash).

Understanding resilience starts with acknowledging how deeply humans and nature are connected: there are virtually no ecosystems that are not shaped by people and no people without the need for ecosystems and the services they provide. In a similar fashion to how Monbiot talked about our “bubble of false comfort and denial”, The Stockholm Resilience Centre sees the starting point for many problems in the fact that we think of our societies as disconnected from nature.

Digging deeper into the concept, one important principle of resilience includes diversity and redundancy. Diversity makes systems more resilient as a general rule, and redundancy in systems makes that if one element in that system fails, other components can keep fulfilling vital functions. 

Sound a bit vague? Let’s look at how the resilience of natural ecosystems compares with natural systems altered by humans:

Natural ecosystems have high diversity and redundancy. These are their system components which make them able to deal with disturbances. For instance, primary forests are generally more resilient than semi-natural forests or plantations. Primary forests, being more diverse than planted forests, commonly have high redundancy of functional species which is directly linked to resilience, whereas planted forests are much more vulnerable to disturbances as they have low diversity and redundancy.

Tropical rainforests are among the most diverse ecosystems on the planet (Source: Crystal Mirallegro/ Unsplash).

Similar to forest plantations, monocultures of soybeans as far as the eye can see have such low diversity and redundancy makes them very prone to disturbances such as climate change, diseases, and market fluctuations.   

What can we learn from nature?

The solutions are already out there

We have now learned about some of the most substantial risks to our food systems and triggers of potential crises. We have also learned why we should aim to make these systems more resilient by acknowledging how human societies are connected to nature, and by learning from nature.

Understanding that our societies and nature are part of the same system is the first step towards creating more resilient food systems (Source: Yulian Alexeyev/ Unsplash).

To gain an understanding of resilience concerning food systems, we can look at a definition by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO):

“Resilience is the ability to prevent and mitigate disasters and crises as well as to anticipate, absorb, accommodate or recover and adapt from them in a timely, efficient and sustainable manner. This includes protecting, restoring and improving livelihoods systems in the face of threats that impact agriculture, nutrition, food security and food safety”.

What does this mean in reality? For a large part, it means changing the way we practice agriculture.

The FAO presents 20 interrelated actions to transform food systems to achieve the SDGs. These include, amongst others: connecting smallholders to markets; encouraging diversification of production and income; enhancing soil and restoring land; mainstream biodiversity conservation and preserving ecosystem functions; preventing and protecting against shocks and enhancing resilience; addressing and adapting to climate change; and strengthening ecosystem resilience.

Specific activities that are mentioned with multiple actions include integrated crop-livestock systems, agroforestry, tree-crop-livestock systems, crop and income diversification and sustainable land management. These are, among others, exactly the type of practices that we at reNature promote through our approach of Regenerative Agroforestry.

Regenerative Agroforestry: protecting food systems

Incorporating all of the abovementioned activities, Regenerative Agroforestry and agriculture imply effective tools to increase the resilience of our food system to future crises. As innovative farming approaches, they contribute to transforming our global food system, to staying within planetary boundaries, and to achieving the SDGs.

A diverse Regenerative Agroforestry system (Source: reNature)

More specifically, Regenerative Agroforestry provides a hands-on solution to the four threats as discussed in this article:

  • Climate Change: When replacing conventional agricultural or degraded land Regenerative Agroforestry substantially increases the amount of carbon stored in soil and biomass. This carbon is being taken out of the atmosphere where it would otherwise contribute to global warming. The latter is, therefore, mitigated. Further, Regenerative Agroforestry systems – highly productive in regards to food provision – are much more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
  • Biodiversity loss: Regenerative Agroforestry has proven to reverse the currently unhealthy relationship between biodiversity and farming. Mimicking a forest ecosystem, it fosters plant and animal life on and around the farm. For example, compared to a monoculture farm, an agroforestry system provides additional habitat for a variety of organisms, as well as flowers essential to the survival of pollinators.
  • Land degradation: Once degraded, land can be regenerated naturally. What is needed is the knowledge on how to do so. Following the guidelines of ecological succession – the natural process of evolving ecosystems – Regenerative Agroforestry accelerates the regeneration of soil, plant and animal life on land. Through the sensible application of livestock, for instance, desertified land can be brought back to the state of a flourishing, food-producing ecosystem. The application of shading trees and plants and their stabilizing roots further enable Regenerative Agroforestry to prevent land degradation from happening in the first place.
The great herds of Bison have been a major reason for the fertile soils of the US’ great plains as they naturally managed and nurtured their grasslands. In silvopastoral agroforestry systems, intelligently managed cattle or other livestock can have a similar effect (Source: Pixabay).
  • Pollution: In Regenerative Agroforestry systems, the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is avoided. Nutrients are returned to the soil by covering it with biomass that is won from dead organic materials such as branches from pruned trees. Beneficial soil life is stimulated and little disturbed. This way a circular system is created making the use of external chemical fertilizers redundant. Pests are kept in control through the diversity of systems – a somewhat natural resilience mechanism – utilizing natural biological interactions. For example, a harmful insect may be counteracted by introducing other species preying on that insect. 

When replacing conventional farming systems, Regenerative Agroforestry can, therefore, help adapt to climate change, increase biodiversity and associated ecosystem services, protect land resources, and decrease pollution. All these activities will also contribute to better livelihoods for farmers, for instance by diversifying farm income.

Our agroforestry project in Minas Gerais, Brazil. This farm is integrating coffee, bananas and other crops (Source: Eduardo Sousa).

Take home message: We need collaboration

For these solutions to effectively increase food system resilience, they need to be implemented on a sufficient scale. This requires the involvement of people, governments, international organizations, private companies, and NGOs.

We need to think about the bigger picture, which means aiming to minimize systemic risks for global crises. This requires a global effort that reminds us once again of the corona crisis: “By learning to cooperate we would not only have learnt to stop the next pandemic, but also to address climate change and other critical threats.”

We need to collectively make sure that our food systems are resilient to future threats. reNature, therefore, invites everybody to join us on our mission. Let’s transform food systems together!

Together we can make sure that there won’t be yet another crisis awaiting us – or that at the very least we will be prepared. 


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