Forest edge

#11 A Global Food System Compatible with Biodiversity and Climate

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Thinking globally

It is common knowledge that, as a system, the human body functions through healthy organs. But it seems that we often overlook the fact that a system on a larger scale, the biosphere –the thin layer sustaining life on Earth– operates through functional biomes. We know them as oceans and reefs, mangroves and wetlands, forests and savannahs, steppes and deserts, tundra, and taiga. Each of them is made by networks of ecosystems, woven by the richness and composition of species, spun by genetic diversity. As a whole, in physicochemical interaction with the atmosphere, it creates an interconnected supra system that regulates itself, just like a living organism. James Lovelock used to explain it in such an accessible language until recently –Lynn Margulis until over a decade ago– but forever in their written words.

Unless we see the Earth as a planet that behaves as if it were alive, at least to the extent of regulating its climate and chemistry, we will lack the will to change our way of life and to understand that we have made it our greatest enemy.

James Lovelock

Embracing a global perspective can be challenging for our brains, particularly in modern societies with a deficit of nature. However, Gaia facilitated this task through a myriad of examples and metaphors. It brought a repertoire of connections that can support a critical pedagogy, from primary to higher education, that fosters complex, systemic thinking to face global challenges. A compendium of dynamics that helps political leaders to understand the need for global governance beyond their local and national viewpoints. But also an inspiration for professionals and scientists, sometimes under the blinders of a commodified education and science, which reduces the holistic view into the interest of a particular industry. Although specialization consolidates and advances disciplines, global problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss require transcending them. This implies looking beyond our Petri dish and fostering the flows of relational knowledge across disciplines, from the humanities to ecology.

A question of limits

Organisms and their communities flourish within constraints and restrictions, such as thermal tolerance, resistance to water stress, or resource-based growth. Thinking globally means comprehending that the world economy is also bounded by biophysical limits. Fifty years after "The limits to growth" of the team led by Donella Meadows, our economies continue to operate under the dogma of infinite growth on a finite planet. We extract more than the Earth regenerates. We pollute more than the planet can absorb. This not only generates systemic crises, social injustices, territorial inequalities and intergenerational debts, but also puts at risk the biogeochemical systems that maintain the planet’s conditions in the ideal ranges for life.

Planetary limits. "Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, updated to Wang- Erlandsson et al. 2022.

The biosphere regulates the atmospheric composition of greenhouse gases, thus maintaining the planet from freezing or overheating.  Plants, algae, and cyanobacteria fix and reduce CO2 into sugars from sunlight. So much that terrestrial and marine ecosystems buffer more than half of the emissions from human activity each year (30% and 26%, respectively). But ecosystems are running flat out because we shatter their gears with habitat loss and the sixth mass extinction. We bring them closer to critical thresholds that, when exceeded, produce irreversible changes by losing their self-regulation mechanisms. We begin to understand it in the Amazon, where deforestation contributes to drying up the water pump that feeds the flying rivers on which the rain in the region depends. The reduction of rainwater to critical levels in tropical forests prevents them from maintaining their photosynthetic activity throughout the year, which feeds back the problem.

These turning points are thus climate-tipping points. However, they are not reflected in the climate predictions, they are not linear (think about the extremes of past years), and they are terrifying for climate scientists or anyone who understands the urgency of the climate crisis.