A new vision for food

Creating a shared global food system that supports the health of people and ecosystems

Late last year, I spent time with leaders and members of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, also called the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. We celebrated the return of bison to their ancestral lands in what is today known as South Dakota. Together, we watched as five dozen bison were released onto the tribe’s Wolakota Buffalo Range—around 28,000 acres of native grassland that is home to North America’s largest herd owned and managed by Indigenous people. Over the past five years, WWF has invested around $3 million in restoring bison, or buffalo, to tribal lands here and throughout the Northern Great Plains to promote a healthier ecosystem and help restore the important ecological, economic, and cultural benefits that bison provide to Indigenous communities.

Once numbering in the tens of millions, bison have long played a critical role in the lives of Indigenous peoples, who relied on these magnificent mammals for their meat, hide, and fur; many revered them as sacred. By the late 19th century, though, the species had been nearly eradicated by white settlers and hunters. The decimation of bison herds left Native American communities without their primary food source, negatively impacting their health and culture while degrading the ecosystem, which had evolved with the bison in a symbiotic relationship over thousands of years.

Illustration of cow and plants

It was humbling to be part of this bison homecoming event, which was especially meaningful because the herd had been transferred from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. The Lakota creation story says its people originated there, together with the buffalo, which the Sicangu Lakota consider to be their ancestor. It was also inspiring to see how today this community has aligned its values, heritage, identity, and resources to build toward a future that safeguards their food sovereignty, livelihoods, and the grasslands ecosystem—and restores the spiritual and cultural relationship between the bison and people.

I left the Sicangu Nation hopeful for their future and with a deeper understanding that WWF’s work to support bison restoration is about more than returning North America’s largest mammal to the land. This work is starting to right historic, systemic, and painful wrongs. Our partnership values the spiritual connection of people to place and supports Indigenous communities as they manifest their own food and conservation future. But there is so much work to do.

That got me thinking about WWF’s work worldwide. WWF is dedicated to protecting nature and transforming food systems to be more regenerative and resilient. Our vision is that global food systems provide healthy, nourishing food for all in ways that also protect and restore nature and the climate. Producers of food themselves, especially local and Indigenous communities, must be at the center of the story if we are to successfully grow the movement for food systems change. While our approach is, and should be, science-based and metrics-driven, it must also be underscored by the lesson I learned from the Sicangu Lakota: that the connection between people and nature is critical to the success of our shared conservation agenda.

Societies have been shaping and sustaining the diversity of nature on Earth for more than 12,000 years. Indigenous and local communities have always been essential stewards of nature. In fact, species loss and ecosystem degradation often occur when Indigenous peoples are dispossessed of their lands and, as with the Sicangu Lakota, prevented from effectively governing the places that remain under their control.

Supporting Indigenous peoples in securing and exercising their legitimate rights over their lands is not only the right thing to do, but necessary if we want to achieve our conservation goals. And safeguarding and restoring ecosystem resilience is essential to supporting their survival and well-being.

Today, technological advances in agriculture and food production have enabled the feeding of billions of people, but this progress has not come without a cost. Mass production and the commodification of agriculture and food have not solved all the world’s food and nutrition security issues; in many respects, they have created new challenges. Agricultural production is currently responsible for 70% of biodiversity loss and represents 70% of global water use. And in a negative cycle, climate change, exacerbated in part by agriculture, is impacting our ability to produce food as it drives the loss of pollinators and wreaks havoc on freshwater supplies.

The systems that should nourish and sustain us are moving us away from human and planetary health, spurred on by policies, lobbies, and entrenched interests that devalue our connection with the land and its importance in sustaining life in favor of profit.

There are ways to produce food for a growing global population that don’t cost us the Earth. We need to collectively make food production smarter, use land and freshwater resources more efficiently, emit less carbon, drastically reduce waste throughout supply chains, and recognize small-scale food producers as guides and knowledge-holders—and as part of the solution. Indeed, they’re often nature’s guardians and conservation’s biggest allies. (See examples on the following pages.)

Illustration of woman and food crops

Around the globe, we work with communities and food producers who deeply value their relationship with—and their right to manage—the lands and waters where they live. To support them in driving and implementing solutions, we need to connect local conditions to global forces, and to build bridges between civil society, government, and the private sector to innovate market-based, sector-wide solutions.

We can change our food production systems for the better by rethinking our public policies, halting forest conversion for food production, and safeguarding our freshwater systems and natural habitats to conserve critical landscapes and the ecosystem services they provide.

Supporting more regenerative agricultural practices will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve water quality and usage, and ensure we’re wasting less. And by helping to create more equitable, sustainable food systems, we can also alleviate food insecurity, especially in communities that rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Throughout all these efforts, we must remain aware that, as with the Sicangu Lakota, work that supports local and Indigenous people as stewards of their own land is the way to secure resilient solutions that last—and that innovation isn’t only about high-tech gadgets and satellite technology (although those matter too; see pages 48–49). Innovation is also about listening to people, learning from their wisdom and experiences, and creating genuine partnerships that support them.

We’re taking the same approach outside the Northern Great Plains, as agricultural encroachment in places like the Amazon, Africa’s Kavango Zambezi landscape, and Southeast Asia threatens biodiversity hot spots without solving people’s food security issues.

Our success won’t be won by a single project, practice, or innovation. We need a shared vision and a portfolio of scaled innovations, solutions, and projects to transform our current food systems and deliver positive outcomes for food security, livelihoods, and justice and equity within nature’s limits—always with people at the center of our vision.

There are so many opportunities to drive innovation, gain efficiencies, increase productivity, and partner with people—if we shift our focus and work together to do so.

As senior vice president for freshwater and food at WWF-US, Melissa D. Ho drives transformational initiatives that increase the sustainability of agricultural systems and water conservation for the benefit of people and ecosystems.

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