New Report Warns Ecological Foundations that Support Food Security Are Being Undermined


A Transition to a Green Economy Can Assist in Fast Tracking Food Security and More Diverse and Productive Landscapes

INDIACSR News Network

Rio de Janeiro: The world urgently needs to focus on maintaining and boosting the underlying ecological foundations that support food production, which face growing threats from human activity, to help ensure food security for a growing population, a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said.

The report, Avoiding Future Famines: Strengthening the Ecological Basis of Food Security through Sustainable Food Systems, finds that food security must embrace the environmental services nature provides if the world is to feed its seven billion inhabitants – a population predicted to climb to over nine billion by 2050.

Inefficiencies  along the food delivery chain further complicate the challenge, and the report highlights that an estimated one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, amounting to 1.3 billion tons per year.

The debate on food security so far has largely revolved around availability, access, utilization and stability as the four pillars of food security, barely touching on the resource base and ecosystem services that prop up the whole food system.

The report aims to increase the focus on these crucial environmental aspects, which are being undermined by overfishing, unsustainable water use and other human activities. It also frames the debate in the context of the Green Economy, calling for food production and consumption practices that ensure productivity without undermining ecosystem services.

“The environment has been more of an afterthought in the debate about food security,” said UNEP Chief Scientist Joseph Alcamo. “This is the first time that the scientific community has given us a complete picture of how the ecological basis of the food system is not only shaky but being really undermined.”

While pointing out the current challenges, the report also offers a clear way forward to shore up the ecological foundations and improve food security. It issues recommendations on the redesign of sustainable agriculture systems, dietary changes and storage systems and new food standards to reduce waste.

“The era of seemingly ever-lasting production based upon maximizing inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, mining supplies of freshwater and fertile arable land and advancements linked to mechanization are hitting their limits, if indeed they have not already hit them,” said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “The world needs a green revolution but with a capital G: one that better understands how food is actually grown and produced in terms of the nature-based inputs provided by forests, freshwaters and biodiversity.”

The report, produced in collaboration with other international organizations including the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Bank, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Resources Institute (WRI), took a holistic approach to analyzing the food system. Eleven scientists and experts authored the report, covering many different areas of expertise including food consumption patterns, agricultural production, marine fisheries and inland fisheries.

They found that while agriculture provides 90 per cent of the world’s total caloric intake, and world fisheries provide the other 10 per cent, these life-supporting industries face many threats, all of which are exacerbated by underlying driving forces such as population growth, income growth and changing lifestyles/diets linked to urbanization.

The report identified the following specific threats to these systems:


Competition for water. Some experts believe that future food demands need to be met by additional irrigated land, but there is already strong competition from rapidly growing domestic and industrial water withdrawals,

Conventional agricultural practices have a variety of ecosystem impacts, such as a reduction of on-farm biodiversity and attendant increase in pests and disease, soil loss, eutrophication and contamination of ground water

Traditional agricultural practices, if practiced inappropriately, can lead to severe land degradation

Deforestation and pesticide contamination of lands adjacent to farmland degrade “off-farm biodiversity”, impacting pollinators and natural pest control of crops

Climate change and its impacts will compound the preceding threats to agriculture by shifting crop-growing zones and bringing an eventual decrease in crop productivity.

Marine Fisheries

Overfishing is the foremost force in undermining the ecological basis of fisheries. The FAO estimated that as of 2008, 53 per cent of global marine stocks are fully exploited, 28 per cent are overexploited, 3 per cent are depleted, and 1 per cent are recovering from depletion

Loss of coastal habitat such as coral reefs and mangrove forests. At least 35 per cent of mangrove forests and 40 per cent of coral reefs have been destroyed or degraded over the last decades

Bottom trawling, dredging and destructive fishing practices such as the use of dynamite and cyanide, which lead to habitat loss or modification

Degradation of coastal water quality. Nutrient runoff causes coastal eutrophication, zones of severely reduced dissolved oxygen and depleted aquatic life. Over four hundred dead zones have been identified in coastal areas

Climate change will lead to warmer water and a more acidified ocean, with many impacts on marine fisheries. The IPCC projects a global loss of 18 per cent of the world’s coral reefs in the next three decades, shrinking a crucial fish habitat.

Inland Fisheries

Infrastructure developments such as dam construction in river catchments are destroying or modifying inland fishery habitats. More than 50 per cent of the world’s large rivers have been fragmented by dams on their main channel and 59 per cent on their tributaries

Land-use change and removal of vegetation cover leads to increased runoff, erosion and sediment pollution of water. Human activities have increased sediment flow into rivers by about 20 per cent worldwide

Agricultural expansion disrupts connectivity between floodplains and rivers – floodplains provide some of the most productive habitat for inland fisheries.

Agricultural runoff and domestic and industrial wastewater discharges are degrading the quality of many inland waters. Wastewater loadings to inland waters in Africa may increase by a factor of four to eight between the 1990s and 2050.

While the problems are many and varied, the report issues a raft of recommendations that can shore up the ecological foundations and create the conditions for sustainable food production.

“The solutions are to be found along the whole food value chain – from the farms that need to grow food more sustainability, through the large companies that need to certify that their products are from sustainable fisheries and farms, up to the consumer who needs to think seriously about switching to a sustainable diet,” said Mr. Alcamo.

“Of course, we have to deal first and foremost with all the socio-economic issues having to do with food security – questions of access and affordability of food, and so on,” he added. “But ultimately we won’t have enough food to distribute unless we find out a way to produce it sustainably without destroying its ecological foundation.”


Among the key recommendations for ushering in more sustainable agriculture and fisheries are the following:

Build centralized storage and cooling facilities for small-scale farmers to help get their produce to market faster, thus avoiding food loss

Promote sustainable diets to avoid that the trend that as consumers become more affluent their diet often becomes unhealthier, in particular promoting lower consumption of meat and dairy products in developed countries

Re-consider quality standards for food that lead to unnecessary wastage

Design sustainable agriculture, not only on individual farms, but scaling up to the landscape and national level. Examples are improving soil management, making agricultural water use more efficient and integrated nutrient management

Sustainable agriculture can be scaled up by supporting farmers, extending land tenure rights to farmers to encourage stewardship and rewarding farmers and farming communities for ecosystem stewardship

Economic strategies consistent with green economy thinking are also fundamental to scaling up sustainable agriculture, such as:

Eliminating subsidies that contribute to overfishing (the global fishery sector receives up to US$25-30 billion) and habitat destruction, and redirecting funds into investment for sustainable fishery management and capacity building.

Providing incentives for sustainable fisheries such as subsidies for conversion of fishing gears to less-damaging alternatives

Introducing fiscal measures such as taxation and levies on harvest volume and increased fines on illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing

Draw  small shareholders into the global food economy and make them part of the system of certifying sustainable practices in agriculture and fisheries

Where technically feasible, maximum sustained yields” of marine fisheries should be calculated and adhered to with enforcement arrangements and economic incentives. In poorer countries and for small-scale marine fisheries, a “co-management” approach can work in which fishers might agree to fish size or species limitations, seasonal closures of fisheries

Establish networks of Aquatic Protected Areas

Conserve marine fisheries by reducing land-based pollution sources that lead to “dead zones” in coastal areas

In summary, the scientists pointed out that hunger cannot be alleviated nor famines avoided by simply shoring up the ecological foundation of the world food system, but that to neglect this aspect would hamper efforts in the other four pillars of food security.


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