By Margaret Kinnaird, Leader, Wildlife Practice and Wendy Elliot, Deputy Leader, Wildlife Practice, WWF

A camera trap image of a tiger in Bardia National Park, Nepal. In Nepal, an integrated approach has been used to reduce HWC while simultaneously recovering wildlife populations. © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US

When you think of ‘agriculture’ and ‘wildlife’ together, what comes to mind? It could be a wide range of things, depending on your perspective. But for many, the images are overwhelmingly bad — Some may see orangutans fleeing as bulldozers raze their rainforest homes to make way for oil palm plantations, elephants poisoned after destroying crops, or bees and other pollinators disappearing under a blanket of industrialised farming.

Others may envision the loss of a prime steer to predators or be unable to sleep due to fear that their livelihoods will be destroyed overnight by crop raiding wildlife. The clear narrative is that food systems that destroy and fragment natural landscapes are slowly strangling the life out of our planet’s wildlife and putting people at risk.

Agriculture is indeed the biggest driver of biodiversity loss and is an identified threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 species so far documented by IUCN as at risk of extinction. All three species of orangutan are now listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, meaning they have an ‘extremely high risk of extinction in the wild’. A major new report from WWF and UNEP outlines how conflicts between humans and wildlife (HWC) in agricultural areas are on the rise, with devastating impacts on wildlife and the farmers that lose their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives. Agricultural pollutants from pesticide and fertilizer use in particular have caused havoc on wildlife communities, including threatening the very pollinators on which agriculture depends.

But the narrative doesn’t have to read like this. The images that are less well known are those in which food systems are transforming to play a positive role in wildlife recovery. For instance, the Sabah Softwoods plantation in Borneo which is reforesting a 14km strip of land to form a ‘wildlife corridor’, allowing orangutans, elephants and a host of other species to safely move from one fragmented forest reserve into another. Or farmers in India deploying ‘robotic scarecrows’ in fields that provide alerts when conflict causing wildlife are near. Or agroecology approaches to farming that promote soil retention and embrace natural mechanisms of pest control, avoiding the pollution that is poisoning both wildlife and the ecosystem services on which we all depend. Or conservation-production systems in the large South American flooded savannas where traditional cattle ranching is practiced which supports wildlife conservation.

How an early warning system is being used as a deterrent for wild elephants in wheat fields © WWF India

We believe that food systems designed and implemented in ways that support, not threaten, our planet’s wildlife and the people living alongside them are the necessary future. But so far, these are the exception, not the norm. As the UN Food Systems Summit takes place this week, this is the crucial topic that must be tackled: How will the collective global community ensure biodiversity positive approaches to food systems are mainstreamed before it’s too late to prevent a catastrophic tipping point of biodiversity loss?

Scaling up approaches that consider ecological connectivity and human-wildlife coexistence in food production will deliver healthy landscapes that are more resilient to climate change, protect the many people living with the risk of injury and death and the loss of property and livelihoods due to HWC, provide strengthened ecosystem services such as pollination, and ensure flourishing populations of wildlife. With a connectivity and coexistence approach to food production, we have the potential to turn the tide from agriculture as the biggest driver of biodiversity loss, to agriculture as a driving factor in maintaining and recovering biodiversity.

There is some good progress to build on. In April this year, the UN General Assembly passed its first ever resolution focused on securing the connectivity of ecosystems, a fantastic step forward in the political momentum for the ecologically connected land and seascapes that we all need. Major multinationals are instilling standards requiring farms they source from to ‘maintain or establish wildlife corridors’. Groups like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development are launching ‘calls to action’ for landscape connectivity to their hundreds of private sector members.

We are also seeing progress within the Global Biodiversity Framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the first draft of which includes a target on reducing human wildlife conflict. It is yet to be negotiated and agreed by the 193 governments that are parties to the CBD, but if adopted, will be the first time the world’s governments have collectively committed to food systems that promote coexistence with wildlife. There was some irony in the movement of a herd of elephants towards the city of Kunming, where the CBD meeting will be held. Travelling over 500km from their decreasing home range, these elephants caused millions of dollars of damage to crops along the way. Perhaps they were delivering a message to the CBD delegates, as the world watched on, fascinated (photos of their antics had over 200 million views on social media.)

A herd of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in a tea estate, North bank programme, India. © Gert Polet / WWF Netherlands

The positive role food systems can play in delivering ecological connectivity and human wildlife coexistence is not just limited to charismatic megafauna like elephants and orangutans. Connectivity is just as important for smaller animals, especially pollinators like birds, bats and butterflies, and many initiatives are working with agricultural producers to ensure practices that allow for the flow of species and ecological progress — ranging from the use of hedgerows between fields by birds, small mammals and insects, to the European Green Belt, an ecological corridor stretching from the Finland-Russia border all the way to the Balkans.

So what exactly would transformation to a food production system that supports ecological connectivity and human wildlife existence look like?

At its heart, this transformation would involve establishing an interconnected relationship between agricultural areas and the broader landscapes in which they sit, expanding the scope from an on-farm agrobiodiversity focus, to ensuring food growing areas have a positive impact on the biodiversity of natural habitats surrounding them, and are designed and managed in ways that promote coexistence between farms, farmers and wildlife.

A conceptual representation of an ecological network for conservation which is the entire network of protected areas, OECMs, and ecological corridors. © Kendra Hoff, CLLC.

It would mean managing agricultural areas in ways that allow the flow of wildlife and ecological processes through them. It would mean preventing the conversion of natural habitats for agriculture in ways that cause fragmentation, and ensuring land-use planning and governance processes retain connectivity in agricultural landscapes. This could include the maintenance or restoration of wildlife corridors within large scale plantations, the maintenance of riverine habitats within farmland (which often act as wildlife dispersal areas), ensuring the ‘right infrastructure in the right places’ to prevent fencing, irrigation canals or roads blocking wildlife movement, and employing integrated and holistic measures to manage human-wildlife conflict and ensure coexistence, many of which are outlined in the WWF/UNEP report mentioned above, along with key recommendations for a variety of stakeholders. And last but not least, it would involve focusing restoration and rehabilitation efforts in the most critical connectivity areas to maximise their impact — there is no better time for this than now, as the UN Decade on Restoration kicks off.

This is all possible, with the right will. The Food Systems Summit could be an enormous step forward to the future we need — for wildlife, for ecosystems, and for the people that live in them.