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World Environment Day: One Health to Secure Food System Transformation

4 June 2021
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Key Topic(s)
Greenhouse Gases

Tomorrow is World Environment Day. On this day, we are reminded of the importance of protecting the environment to safeguard our planet for future generations. However, in 2021, as we begin to look beyond the global pandemic, we are faced with a stark reminder of the links between human and planetary health, and the disastrous consequences of the destruction of our ecosystems.

COVID-19 has demonstrated the worst impacts of our encroachment on the natural world and failure to acknowledge the link between environmental and health issues, which cannot be tackled in siloes.

This year, the landmark Dasgupta report on biodiversity showed that our current demands on natural resources to produce the goods we need to live far exceed our environmental capacity. It estimated that maintaining our current rate of consumption would require 1.6 Earths. The pollution generated by our resource-intensive living standards accounts for an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year. Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 502,000 square miles of forest, an area larger than South Africa, most of it cleared for intensive agriculture.

A ‘One Health’ approach for all stakeholders, including investors, presents a way forward to avoid these complex and intersecting crises. One Health is an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes. At its core, it is based on understanding the interdependence of human and natural systems and promotes interdisciplinary collaboration to achieve better public health and environmental outcomes.

Why One Health is key to food system transformation

A ‘One Health’ approach is particularly relevant for food system transformation. The term “food system” refers to the constellation of activities and actors along the food value chain, which is the single most significant driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss and responsible for more than 20% of GHG emissions. It is no surprise then that the EAT Lancet Report called food the “most vital lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability on earth”.

Yet our current food system is failing to advance health outcomes. The most comprehensive effort to date to measure health loss, the Global Burden of Disease, established a clear connection between modern diets and a higher risk of disease and disability. In the past five decades, the human population has undergone a considerable nutritional transition towards diets rich in animal protein with annual meat consumption increasing seven-fold since 1960. Yet, factory farming is a key contributor to unhealthy diets and the high consumption of processed meats in high-income countries and increasingly in emerging countries.

Our current food systems are also contributing to serious climate risks, such as water overuse and biodiversity loss. For example, livestock farming is the human activity that most influences the deforestation of immense habitat areas to grow animal feed. Additionally, decades of producing animal proteins at scale in conditions with poor hygiene have made our food system an ideal ground for pathogen transmission resulting in increased threats of zoonotic disease and antimicrobial resistance deriving from intensive animal farming. FAIRR’s research on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in food supply chains has also shown that routinely giving large amounts of antibiotics to confined animals puts the long-term efficacy of these vital drugs at risk.

So, our food system is contributing to public health risks, harming the environment, contributing to climate change and neglecting the most basic well-being standards for animals. These risks are not just environmentally material, but also financially material for investors in the food system that must be taken into account if we are to build a safe, sustainable and equitable food value chain.

How can One Health fix our broken food system?

A ‘One Health’ approach is unique in that it encourages various stakeholders, including academics, civil society, policymakers, investors, corporates, public health and medical professionals to collaborate. Many voices speak louder than one, and this interdisciplinary approach is vital to solving many of our current challenges, from food insecurity to nature loss to antimicrobial resistance.

A ‘One Health’ approach for food systems encompasses many principles and activity streams. These include:

  • A growing acceptance that environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues cannot be tackled in isolation. For example, livestock workers and their communities faced 51% to 75% higher COVID-19 contagion rates, exposing interlocking environmental, social and governance failures at some of the world’s largest animal protein producers.

  • Shifting diets towards higher consumption of plant-based foods. This would include increasing the consumption of some groups of ‘protective’ plant-based proteins, including pulses and nuts that are nutritionally dense and require less land use and resources. Investors can support this by increasing investments in small and medium enterprises (SMEs), start-ups, and larger companies supplying protective foods.

  • Rethinking our relationship with farmed animals and adopting better welfare practices to reduce pathogen transmission and avoid giving routine or prophylactic antibiotics to animals. Investors should prioritise companies with responsible animal welfare practices and rigorous antibiotics policies.

  • Scaling up regenerative agriculture practices to maximise crop diversity and provide more nutritious diets. This approach will also reduce pollution from chemicals, biodiversity loss, water use, soil degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. The shift will require a rethinking of agricultural subsidies that promote monocropping and other unsustainable intensive farming practices. Investors have a key role to play here given the need for increased investment in regenerative agriculture and related soil technologies.

  • Using investor power to shift capital towards companies that mitigate ESG risk in the current global food system. The FAIRR Initiative is an example of an investor network deploying a One Health approach to transform global protein supply chains and improve food systems.

The first global UN Food Systems Summit will take place in September this year and presents a unique opportunity to integrate a One Health approach into high-level policymaking. With multiple stakeholders working across five action tracks, the Summit is expected to achieve unparalleled collaboration. For investors, getting involved in the Summit with a One Health approach will prove essential to mitigating the complex health and climate risks within our food system – and protecting our planet for generations to come.

FAIRR insights are written by FAIRR team members and occasionally co-authored with guest contributors. The authors write in their individual capacity and do not necessarily represent the FAIRR view.