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Deep Dive

Why Supporting Food Systems and Protecting Biodiversity Need to Go Hand in Hand

Phasing out or repurposing incentives harmful to biodiversity is critical for sustainable development. What can we learn from existing efforts in the United Kingdom, India, and Brazil?

By Claire McConnell, Facundo Calvo on November 6, 2023

In December 2022, signatories to the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biodiversity adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). Target 18 of this framework requires signatories to identify, phase out, or repurpose subsidies harmful to biodiversity by 2025.

This article explains why phasing out or repurposing incentives harmful to biodiversity is critical for achieving global objectives on climate, the environment, and sustainable development. It draws on existing knowledge to offer suggestions for how state and non-state actors can begin to operationalize target 18 of the GBF. 

Food systems rely on biodiversity yet drive biodiversity loss 

Biodiversity is the bedrock of the global economy and millions of lives and livelihoods, yet we do not invest enough in protecting it. The World Economic Forum estimates that around USD 44 trillion in economic value generation—representing more than half of global GDP—is dependent on natural capital, such as soil, air, and water. Around USD 22 trillion of this is classed as moderately or highly dependent on nature.

We depend on nature’s goods and services for food and water, fuel, shelter, and broader health and well-being. And yet, existing financial markets, trade, and economic systems have so far failed to conserve, invest in, and sustainably manage the natural capital upon which our lives and livelihoods depend. Between 1992 and 2014, for example, produced and human capital grew by around 50% and 13%, respectively. In the same period, natural capital declined by almost 40%. The UN estimates that the associated loss of ecosystem services could decrease annual global GDP by as much as USD 2.7 trillion by 2030.

Financial markets, trade, and economic systems have so far failed to conserve, invest in, and sustainably manage the natural capital upon which our lives and livelihoods depend.

Biodiversity is particularly crucial for the sustainability of our food systems, yet these very food systems are the leading drivers of biodiversity loss. Global food systems currently threaten 86% of at-risk species and are expected to drive approximately 70% of the projected loss of terrestrial biodiversity. Continued loss of biodiversity threatens pollination, natural pest control, and soil health—all ecosystem services upon which agriculture, global food security, and approximately 2.5 billion livelihoods depend. 

In particular, the production of cheap food through large-scale, industrial agriculture and associated practices fuels biodiversity loss and degradation. For example, it can lead to the loss of natural habitats due to agricultural expansion and land conversion, soil degradation and water contamination from the overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and reduced soil health and biodiversity due to practices such as intensive tillage and monocropping. A radical overhaul of food systems is necessary if we are to reverse current trends and meet climate, biodiversity, and development challenges head-on. 

Repurposing agricultural support is crucial for protecting biodiversity 

Much of the USD 700 billion in domestic support provided by governments annually to their agricultural sectors incentivizes these harmful practices. Subsidies that incentivize increased agricultural production, including those for inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, can be environmentally damaging and have been linked to increased land conversion, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity and ecosystems. Fertilizer subsidies, for example, have been linked to both direct negative impacts, such as groundwater pollution and depleted soil health, and indirect harm through increasing carbon dioxide emissions. Pesticide subsidies have likewise contributed to groundwater, surface water, and soil contamination and negatively impacted populations of birds, insects, and soil and aquatic organisms. With public support to the agriculture sector projected to increase to USD 1.8 trillion by 2030, it is imperative that the harmful impacts of current financial support are addressed swiftly. 

The current financial support can and should be examined and, where appropriate, repurposed or reallocated to policies and practices that better conserve biodiversity. That process can help decouple food systems from biodiversity loss and contribute to closing the USD 700 billion annual nature financing gap.  

It is imperative that the harmful impacts of current financial support are addressed swiftly.

Repurposing public support for biodiversity can also have important co-benefits for the climate. While climate change is the second-largest driver of biodiversity loss after food production, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that forests, mangroves, seagrasses, and other natural carbon sinks currently remove over half of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere and are vital in efforts to limit climate change. Despite this, efforts to address climate change and biodiversity loss have been largely siloed to date. And certain policies targeted solely at reducing emissions, such as the use of agricultural land to produce biofuels, can actively contribute to biodiversity loss. In contrast, findings from a 2021 IPBES-IPCC workshop on biodiversity and climate change show that policies that focus on conserving biodiversity also support climate outcomes. Exploring synergies between climate and biodiversity is therefore imperative.

The GBF, agreed at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP 15) in December 2022, complements existing international frameworks and processes, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. It presents a target for signatory governments to redirect existing domestic support and, in turn, contribute to closing the global biodiversity financing gap. Demonstrating strong domestic commitment to the GBF and biodiversity outcomes supports an environment that fosters leveraging private sector investment to close the remainder of the financing gap.  

Several governments have already begun exploring how to better support biodiversity outcomes within their agricultural sectors.

Funding for farmers to deliver environmental goods and services in the United Kingdom

In 2021, the British government introduced the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELM) to replace the European Union Common Agricultural Policy, under which British farmers had previously received direct payments based largely on the amount of acreage farmed. Under the ELM, from 2024 to 2027, untargeted direct payments linked to land are being phased out, and farmers will instead receive funding for delivering environmental public goods, such as habitat restoration, improved soil health, and animal welfare.

The ELM constitutes a suite of three complementary funding instruments: 

  • the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), which pays farmers for adopting and maintaining sustainable practices to conserve and enhance the environment alongside food production; 
  • Countryside Stewardship, which provides funding for farmers and other land managers who are protecting and enhancing nature; and  
  • Landscape Recovery, which provides financial incentives for landowners wishing to undertake more radical, longer-term work to restore habitats and deliver climate and environment outcomes.  

ELM piloting is scheduled to end in 2024, after which all three funding instruments will be fully available. Direct payments will continue to be gradually phased down and eventually phased out by 2027. By 2028, farms should be well placed to produce food by means that deliver on climate, environment, and biodiversity outcomes and are economically viable without subsidy. From 2028 onward, public support will be targeted exclusively at delivering environmental and animal welfare outcomes that buttress the sustainability and profitability of farmland.

Although the piloting phase is still underway, there are several lessons we can draw from the United Kingdom experience to date. Policies have been co-designed with the farmers who interact with them to ensure that the ELM responds to their needs and is sustainable in the longer term. Across this 7-year transition period, these policies are continually piloted, reviewed, and adjusted as necessary to ensure that they are a good fit for farmers and that instruments are delivering on intended outcomes. Support for training and business planning is provided to help farmers plan and adjust to new policies, as well as to support farmers investing in the necessary research and development throughout the transition period.

Support for organic farmers to improve soil health in India 

Launched in 2015, Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) functions as an extension of the Soil Health Management (SHM) program and is part of a package of programs intended to promote organic agriculture under the overarching umbrella of the National Mission of Sustainable Agriculture. PKVY aims to incentivize efforts to improve soil health by providing support to farmers to group themselves into organic “clusters” and offering up to USD 612/ha over 3 years to support access to relevant training, Participatory Guarantee Schemes certification, and the marketing of produce. Just over 60% of this support is targeted at organic inputs, which should also help reduce India’s agricultural dependency on chemical fertilizers.

As of 2019, there were almost 1.4 million organic producers in India, making it the country with the highest number of organic producers globally. The Government of India aims to convert 14 million ha by 2025, underpinned by PKVY and several complementary programs that encourage organic farming practices.  

Climate adaptation and mitigation support for Brazil’s agricultural sector 

The Brazilian Agricultural Policy for Climate Adaptation and Low Carbon Emission (ABC) was launched in 2010 to increase Brazil’s agricultural productivity sustainably. Building on phase one, the second phase—known as ABC+—runs from 2020 to 2030 and aims to build the adaptive capacity of Brazil’s agriculture sector to mitigate climate impacts, reduce greenhouse gases from the sector, and improve both the efficiency and resilience of production systems. To this end, support is targeted at three main pillars of work: 

  • integrated landscape management, incentivizing environmental compliance and linking production with conservation on agricultural lands; 
  • interlinkages between mitigation and adaptation efforts, with a focus on conservationist policies (e.g., intercropping) that restore, recover, and preserve natural resources; and 
  • the promotion and adoption of sustainable production systems, practices, products, and processes, including, for example, integrated crop-livestock-forestry systems, agroforestry, and reclaiming degraded pastures.  

ABC+ is national in scope yet designed to be both inclusive and flexible to account for the breadth of both farming practices in Brazil—family, commercial, indigenous—and the diversity of the Brazilian biomes. State and municipality ABC+ Plans bring together local and national governments to ensure that support is targeting policies and practices that are context-specific.  

The plan is also iterative, and biannual reviews and updates are conducted to review the technologies, practices, and goals set out under ABC+ and respond to societal changes and demands on an ongoing basis. 

What is needed to support countries in efforts to repurpose or phase out subsidies harmful to biodiversity? 

The case for repurposing for biodiversity is clear, and the timeline for doing so is tight. While certain governments are already taking steps to repurpose their public support of agriculture in ways that promote the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity, much remains to be done to encourage such efforts. Two areas of action stand out.

The case for repurposing for biodiversity is clear, and the timeline for doing so is tight.

First, policy-makers need practical guidance on which types of subsidies are most harmful to biodiversity—and in which contexts—and on promising repurposing approaches.  

Relevant evidence, including data and analysis generated through dedicated national assessments, is essential for targeted and effective repurposing efforts. It can aid in identifying which subsidies to repurpose and how, as well as which indicators to use in monitoring and evaluating the progress and impact of repurposing efforts on biodiversity. In turn, documenting repurposing efforts and their impacts, as well as continuing to build up existing databases of case studies, can be used to inspire and generate lessons and examples of good practice for policy-makers elsewhere.  

Much research has been done on the impacts of agricultural practices on biodiversity loss, but navigating this research and identifying the specific impacts of subsidies can be onerous. Further efforts are needed by the research community to produce and disseminate relevant evidence in a way that is easily accessible. These efforts should include knowledge products and activities specifically tailored to policy-makers working on repurposing for biodiversity and continuing to refine online platforms that assemble data, analysis, and case studies that are particularly relevant to this topic. Making such targeted evidence more readily accessible can also help facilitate informed engagement between different stakeholders in repurposing efforts.  

Second, greater coherence on biodiversity is needed across relevant international governance frameworks and processes.  

For example, ongoing World Trade Organization negotiations on domestic support for agriculture could be a key pillar in efforts to advance biodiversity goals at the multilateral level. Revamping international rules on agricultural support, such as on the use of coupled subsidies, can promote biodiversity goals by disciplining the use of domestic support that has been shown to be particularly environmentally harmful. In this way, World Trade Organization rules could help support the GBF goal of eliminating, phasing out, and reforming incentives that are harmful to biodiversity. They can also provide appropriate flexibility for governments to repurpose their agricultural support to achieve better environmental and biodiversity outcomes. In this regard, they could advance the GBF goal of scaling up positive incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.  

Promoting synergies between global objectives on biodiversity and climate within international processes and forums is also vital if we are to achieve the pace and scale of action required to meet the targets, not only of the GBF but also of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. The forthcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28) must acknowledge and build on progress made at the CBD COP 15. Both negotiated and non-negotiated outcomes on agriculture and food systems should reflect the critical need to address climate and biodiversity together.  

This acknowledgment could include a strong signal of the importance of the role of nature and biodiversity for climate mitigation and adaptation as part of the global stocktake, highlighting the vital role that prioritizing biodiversity and ecosystem conservation and restoration in food systems will play in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and limiting warming to below 1.5°C. 

It could also include agreement among parties that at least one of the workshops under the Sharm el Sheikh Joint Work on Implementation of Climate Action on Agriculture work plan should explore the synergies between climate and biodiversity in food production—including how practices such as agroforestry and agroecology can enhance biodiversity, improve soil health, increase the adaptive capacity of food systems, and reduce climate-related food losses. 

The future of our food systems, food and nutrition security, and billions of livelihoods worldwide depend on our ability to better value and invest in nature’s goods and services. Target 18 of the GBF has the potential to help catalyze the transition of our economies away from a focus on short-term profit generation and toward long-term value creation and investment in natural capital.