Recent reports of food shortages in the UK highlights the vulnerability of our food systems and the urgent need to find solutions for resilience. To address these challenges, food businesses can prioritise biodiversity as a first step towards building long-term resilience.
Challenges facing the food industry
The term “polycrisis” made a high-profile appearance in the World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2023, referring to multiple interconnected crises happening simultaneously. This buzzword for 2023 aptly describes the challenges facing the food industry.
Firstly, the food industry is vulnerable to impacts linked to environmental degradation, but also plays a role in exacerbating these issues. For example, the recent food shortages in UK supermarkets were directly attributed to (among other things) adverse weather conditions caused by climate change across southern Europe and North Africa. But this same vulnerable system has not been helped by the large-scale monoculture methods that have characterised modern day agriculture. For example, our current system is dominated by only 12 plant species and 5 livestock breeds, with wheat, rice and corn providing half the world’s calories. Given climate change impacts are expected to continue, this lack of diversity in our food leaves us ever more vulnerable to pests and diseases but also means there are fewer alternatives to rely on to maintain resiliency.
Secondly, the food industry has faced considerable challenges due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, such as higher costs for crucial raw materials such as fertilisers or energy. This builds on impacts already felt by the industry through the pandemic that caused uncertainty for businesses and stressed nearly to breaking point the functionality of food supply chains. Although the Black Sea Agreement provided some relief to the industry by allowing grain exports from Ukraine, the industry still faces significant uncertainty, especially if Russia were to block a further extension.
The polycrisis facing the agriculture and food industry highlights the urgency of resilience: a poor growing season linked to climate change, plus a lack of diversity in alternative crops to compensate for the bad harvest, along with a potential export blockade by Russia, could combine to become a significant food security crisis.
Taking action for long-term resilience
To address the crisis – and potentially avoid it altogether – food businesses can turn to biodiversity protection and enhancement as an important step to build resilience and future-proof their businesses.
Biodiversity is essential for food businesses, providing the necessary natural resources for food production, such as soil fertility, water quality and pollination. A prime example is that over 75% of food crops rely on insect pollination. Biodiversity also helps maintain the resilience and stability of food systems, making them better able to adapt and respond to changing conditions, including climate change and natural disasters.
By prioritising biodiversity, businesses can also reduce their dependency on expensive fertilisers. These fertilisers are, among other things, subject to volatile global market prices influenced by the ongoing war in Ukraine, as Russia is responsible for one-third of fertilisers used in Europe. This can help mitigate the impact of geopolitical issues on the food industry and provide more stability to the supply chain. My colleague Felix Gummer wrote last year about the profound economic and planetary imbalances that the war in Ukraine had laid bare.
Acting on these issues will require a tailored approach specific to each food business. However it is important to start, especially since evidence suggests that many top food businesses do not have a sustainability strategy with time-bound targets and even fewer have set targets around biodiversity.
Five steps to build resilience through biodiversity for food businesses:
- Understand biodiversity’s role in your business
The first step is for businesses to understand how biodiversity impacts their food value chain. By probing key questions around the role that biodiversity plays in the business, they can gain a better understanding of its nature and significance. Measuring and valuing the impacts and dependencies of biodiversity helps to highlight its importance to the business and can guide objective-setting to maximise its benefits.
- Assess risks and opportunities
To build resilience through biodiversity, businesses should assess both the risks and opportunities presented by biodiversity. This involves identifying areas of vulnerability, such as monoculture farming systems that can pose risks to the supply of fresh produce. However, this also presents opportunities, such as engaging with growers to switch to regenerative practices, which can mitigate risks and improve the sustainability of the supply chain.
- Prioritise material risks and opportunities
To prioritise effectively, it is important to identify and focus on the most significant biodiversity risks and opportunities based on impact and likelihood of occurrence. Businesses can start prioritising by asking questions like ‘which sourcing options are at most risk of biodiversity loss and other connected issues?’. This allows businesses to allocate resources and efforts to address the most pressing issues.
- Develop a plan of action
Once businesses have identified and prioritised the risks and opportunities, they will need a comprehensive plan of action. The plan should outline goals, targets, and initiatives the business will take to address the identified risks and opportunities. This can also involve engaging and collaborating with industry initiatives focused on biodiversity like the Business for Nature coalition to understand best practice.
- Implement, track progress and iterate
The final step in building resilience through biodiversity is to put the plan into action. Businesses should implement the initiatives outlined in the plan and track progress towards achieving their goals and targets. Tracking progress allows businesses to identify successes and areas for improvement. As biodiversity is a complex issue, iteration will be required as will innovation.
It’s clear that the food industry is vulnerable to complex issues that can make decision-making a daunting task. However, by placing biodiversity at the forefront of the agenda, food businesses can proactively navigate these challenges and pave the way for long-term resilience.