People in the Sid Valley have responded enthusiastically to the many initiatives to increase biodiversity in our patch. But did you know that we can vote with our forks and eat our way to a cleaner, greener environment?

We love to eat, and we love nature. We need to eat well to keep healthy, and we need to be part of a healthy ecosystem. So can we eat our way to biodiversity? Yes we can, according to a new UN-backed report from the Chatham House Energy and Resources Programme: ‘Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss’ – but only if we reform our whole system of producing and consuming food.

Sidmouth Herald: Purple sprouting nearly ready for eating In a local allotmentPurple sprouting nearly ready for eating In a local allotment (Image: Charles Sinclair)

The report concludes that intensive farming systems present the biggest threat to biodiversity and are key drivers of climate change. It shows that the current system of global food production makes it economically rational to encourage the overproduction and overconsumption of unhealthy food, and to accept a shockingly high level of food wastage, whilst locking us into an environmentally damaging cycle of ever-increasing pesticide use and depletion of natural resources. According to Professor Tim Benton, co-author of the study, there is an inverse relationship between the amount of food produced and biodiversity – the higher the yield, the lower the biodiversity. Yet we, and our planet, depend on this biodiversity for our survival.

According to the report, the solution to this unsustainable situation is clear – and achievable. The existing ‘cheap food’ paradigm is based on producing ever more food, quickly and cheaply, without taking into account the hidden costs to biodiversity and to our own health. These costs are externalised – the public purse is raided in an attempt to monitor and clean up the pollution to air, soil and water resulting from intensive farming, whilst the NHS picks up the tab for the effects of obesity and diseases caused by unhealthy eating patterns.

So a whole new paradigm is needed – one which recognises that the way we grow and process our food is integral to our health and the health of our planet. This new approach would incentivise nature-friendly farming. A shift towards plant-based diets and away from meat and dairy would free up land to allow nature to thrive. Farmers would be supported in moving away from intensive, pesticide-heavy crop production and factory farming. Government investment in organic and high-welfare food production would help make healthy food available for those on low incomes. Many small-scale farmers and growers, both in the UK and globally, are attempting to work with rather than against nature, and local food hubs are springing up in some areas, but these sterling efforts are hampered by the current system, geared as it is to intensive food production. There are plenty of inspiring initiatives which deserve our support, but they won’t become mainstream under the prevailing model of food production and distribution. As Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London points out, the UK needs a biodiversity friendly food strategy at the centre of its policy making.

The campaigning organisation Compassion in World Farming recently organised a webinar on the Chatham House Report. At the meeting, Philip Limbery, CEO of that organisation, recalled an occasion where he had watched a tractor ploughing a huge field. He was initially surprised to note that there was a complete absence of birds following the plough. Then it dawned on him – there were no birds because the soil contained no worms for them to feed on. It was dead soil which would need a massive dose of fertiliser to become productive. This experience had lodged in his brain as a graphic image of the need to reform our whole system of food production.

The message is clear – one way of making a home for nature in the Sid Vale is to look to our diets and support the campaign for change in our food system!