Supermarkets and biodiversity

Individuals and businesses alike are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of their actions. Campaigners have drawn the public's attention to local, national and global environmental threats, and the links between these and their everyday decisions. Publicity around issues such as genetically modified organisms and organic food has contributed to a greater awareness of where our food comes from and the crucial importance to the environment of how it is produced.

The increasing use of the term "biodiversity" signifies the recognition that one of the most crucial aspects of the environment is the diversity of life on our planet. Biodiversity is commonly defined as

"the variability among living organisms and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems."

It therefore embraces the variety of all life on earth. At the Earth Summit in 1992, 150 nations signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), agreeing to act to conserve biodiversity, to use its components sustainably, and to share its benefits equitably. The convention recognised the important contribution that the private sector can make towards these aims, by developing their own biodiversity strategies in line with local and national biodiversity priorities.

Food retailers have some direct impacts on biodiversity, for example from the construction of new stores and from the effects of transport. These impacts should be identified and minimised through corporate policy such as environmental management systems. Under the Race to the Top indicator framework, these direct impacts are covered in the Environment module. But retailers also have significant influence over the indirect impacts of activities within their supply chains on biodiversity and landscapes. For food production and retail, the key impacts of the CBD will be increased onus on producers and retailers to confirm that their products have been produced in a "biodiversity-friendly" manner (WBCSD / IUCN, 1997). It is these indirect impacts that this module addresses.


Food production practices

Food production practices can have a major impact on biodiversity, both positive and negative. This applies both to domesticated crops and livestock grown all over world, and to products sourced from the wild, such as fish. As the gatekeepers of the modern food system, retailers are in a prime position to encourage their suppliers to adopt more sustainable production methods, to bring real biodiversity benefits.

By encouraging more sustainable land management practices, retailers can in turn help to conserve countryside character. Agriculture has done more to shape the UK countryside than any other industry, and many of the landscapes and habitats we value today are the by-products of past land management practices. However, the intensified drive for food production from the mid 20th century onwards has led to major changes, such as hedgerow removal, land drainage, widespread use of agri-chemicals, ploughing up of flower-rich grassland and overgrazing of moorland. Much of our landscape is now more open and uniform. Retailers can help to reverse these trends by encouraging their suppliers to adopt land management practices that help to maintain the environmental quality and diversity of the countryside.

However, simply adding extra conditions of supply to already demanding production specifications is not the whole answer. All actors in the food system must recognise the need to reward and share the costs of higher standards. In many cases this might involve lobbying governments to provide incentives. Sometimes it may be a question of informing consumers about the impacts of different production practices so that they can make a reasoned choice in favour of sustainable food products, paying premiums where necessary. In all cases, retailers should aim to work with suppliers towards long-term improvement of standards, and to provide support for the shift to more sustainable practices where appropriate. Finally, retailers and other stakeholders, including their critics, must be prepared to have a rational and realistic debate about how standards can be raised in an equitable and long-lasting manner.


Key Issues

This module seeks to identify key issues which impact on biodiversity and countryside character, and what actions UK supermarkets can take to minimise these impacts. There are many other issues that could also have been included here, but these are considered by the Race to the Top alliance of organisations to be highly significant representative issues on which retailers can act. Each of the issues is accompanied by an indicator that will be used to track positive supermarket action on biodiversity and landscapes.


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