Why is Biodiversity an important subject for the food industry?

Understand what biodiversity means to the food industry, what biodiversity indicators we can start looking at and how food companies can start integrating biodiversity in their environmental strategy today.
Jun 27, 2023

The disappearance of insects and birds, as well as the degradation of marine ecosystems, are evidence of the tangible destruction of the planet’s biodiversity. The way we produce and consume food are primarily responsible for this crisis and the food industry is in the center of it.

The global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. Agriculture alone has been identified as the threat to 86% of species at risk of extinction and accounts for roughly 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 80% of deforestation, and 70% of water consumption. This has dangerous or even irreversible consequences on ecological resilience, which directly affects businesses’ resilience.

In this article, we will talk about what biodiversity really means, the biodiversity issues the food industry faces, the biodiversity indicators that we can use, and how food companies can start integrating biodiversity in their environmental strategy today.

What is biodiversity to the food industry?

Familiar words such as ecosystem, flora, and species might first come to mind. When we talk about biodiversity, it essentially refers to everything related to nature and the living world. It’s a vast concept, but we can think about it in terms of spheres.

  1. The first one is genetic diversity, which makes the difference within a population or species and is key to resistance to pathogens.
  2. The second sphere is species diversity, which includes everything from terrestrial to marine species, such as cats, birds, and turtles.
  3. The third sphere is ecosystem diversity. The interaction between species and their environment is at the origin of ecosystem services such as pollination, pest control and water and air purification.

These services are provided free of charge by the planet, and the balance between species and ecosystems is what enables our survival. When the ecosystem is endangered, a whole range of species may also be threatened. This is why the 6th mass extinction is a subject being discussed today.

What are the biodiversity issues that the food industry faces?

There are five human pressures related to agriculture that threaten biodiversity cited by IPBES. These include (1) occupation and change in land and sea use, (2) overexploitation of resources, (3) climate change, (4) pollution, and (5) invasive alien species.

According to Elsa Maurice, Biodiversity Lead Consultant at Quantis, today many agri-food companies are working solely on climate, and it’s time to stop working in silos as the food industry is one of the only sectors that is both a source of impacts and solutions.

Today, almost half of global food production relies on crossing the Earth’s planetary limits. Food production today appropriates too much land for crops and livestock, uses fertilizers and pesticides too heavily, and irrigates excessively. It is necessary to rethink the system based on planetary limits. Although agriculture can be at the heart of the issues, it is also at the heart of the solutions.

The risks are not 10 years down the line. We’re seeing them today, as in the case of the town of Grigny in France, which has publicly demanded that Coca-Cola stop their local factory from drawing groundwater for the production of their drinks in a fight for water resources. Another example is that of LE DUFF, a leader in industrial pastries, which had to abandon the construction project of their factory in the town of Liffré. The company succumbed to pressure from opponents who cited environmental concerns as the proposed plant would consume an excessive amount of drinking water in the midst of a drought and would also artificialize 21 hectares of hedged farmlands and wetlands. The fallout from the project resulted not only in economic losses but also in the loss of creating 500 jobs, which the region of Brittany was hoping for.

These are only a couple of examples. Businesses that neglect to address biodiversity loss must prepare for substantial disruptions to their operations, supply chains, and the overall economy. Today, companies are steering blindly, and need to start thinking differently regarding their long term strategies, for example think about transforming their business model.

What indicators should food companies be looking out for?

Tackling biodiversity is unlike tackling climate change, which only has a single indicator—GHGs. With biodiversity being a complex subject, it has many dimensions. However, we do have pressure indicators (causes) such as trends in land and water use, habitat loss or quantities of fertilizers used, and we also have state indicators (effects) such as the health of species or the integrity of ecosystems.

“The big question is how to make the link between pressure indicators and state indicators.”

According to Christian Bockstaller from INRAE, that is where the interest lies in another family of indicators called predictive indicators. These indicators help link causes and effects, and estimate and simulate scenarios. They allow us to ask questions such as: what happens if I reduce the dose of fertilizers by 20% and I increase agro-ecological infrastructure by 10%? There are also Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) indicators which enable us to allocate impacts on final products.

This is quite a technical panorama, but to break it down more simply, there are a lot of indicators, and we must not rely on one single biodiversity indicator to solve all problems. Today, we have the Life Cycle Assessment, which is where we can integrate biodiversity into environmental accounting, but there are limits to this as it doesn’t take into account the systemic aspect. In short, the LCA approach is a must-have but it needs to be supplemented with other indicators that are not only qualitative but also quantitative (occupied land size, water volume). Today, what we have is more of a toolbox rather than a global indicator to explain everything hence the need to go further in our work on the links between human activities and impact on biodiversity.

📹 To learn more about the specific biodiversity indicators, watch a short clip here.

How can food companies act today?

Once again, there is no perfect singular KPI but there are several specific KPIs that are adapted to different needs and can be looked at now. Food companies need to understand the situation they’re in and use the available data from the human pressures described above to define benchmarks such as “What is our water consumption today? What will be my reduction target in terms of cubic meters of water?” You also need to reflect on the means at your disposal, and whether your choice results in a compromise. Through this, you can gain a better understanding and then be able to define strategies.

In the face of mounting pressure and accelerating efforts from independent bodies, we can expect to see 20 to 30 regulations to come in the next five years. For example, in 2024, the CSRD (Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive) will come into France, and in 2026, the CBAM (Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism) will be taking effect as part of the European Green Deal legislation. SBTn (Science Based Targets Network) is also building momentum off of SBTi (Science Based Targets Initiative).

Net-zero is unachievable without an environmental strategy that takes biodiversity into account. Now would be the time to jump on the bandwagon. However, you must bear in mind that this is also a structurally systemic issue that requires collaboration. Everyone along your entire value chain, from farmers right down to consumers must be involved.

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