Food Security: making the ecosystem connections

16 May 2013 | News story

Worldwide, 870 million people go hungry every day. With the world population projected to exceed nine billion people by 2050, global agricultural output must expand by an estimated 60% to meet global food needs.

These were the introductory words and the challenge posed to participants meeting at the recent International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition, organised by FAO in Rome from 13-15 May.

Expanding global agricultural outputs by 60% to ensure future food security, can this be done?

To answer this question, it is important to go back to the roots of food production: nature. We find that making the ecosystem connection is the vital link towards sustainable solutions. "Ecosystem goods and services make critical contributions to food security by supporting the availability, access, and use of foods, both farmed and wild, and by strengthening the stability of food systems", said Cyrie Sendashonga, IUCN Global Policy Director during her keynote speech at the conference.

To give some examples, soil processes and wild pollinators are critically important to agricultural productivity – and therefore food availability; forests provide access to food both directly (through the edible wild plants and animals found there) and indirectly (via forest-product income that can be used to buy food); medicinal plants contribute to people’s health, making their utilization of food more efficient and beneficial for their bodies; and healthy wetlands and mangroves help protect coastal areas from flooding, which increases the stability of food production from nearby fields and fish ponds.

Ecosystem degradation and weak ecosystem governance do therefore not only compromise the ability of developing country populations to farm, access and use food effectively, but it also adversely impacts food security policies. "This is the crux of the matter, ecosystem degradation and weak ecosystem governance can undermine the effectiveness and impacts of food security policies, while inappropriate policies can damage ecosystems and their ability to support food systems", said Chris Buss, Coordinator IUCN Forest Conservation Programme.

The rural poor and vulnerable groups, including women and children, are most at risk. For example, bushmeat in the Congo Basin alone feeds nearly 100 million people – both urban and rural dwellers – and is important in many other forested regions of the world. Fish provides more than 1.5billion people with 20% of their average per capita intake of animal protein.

"An ecosystem-aware approach to food security policy-making goes beyond the conventional focus, which is generally on productivity, trade and macro-economic issues. Instead it takes a big-picture view to the development of sustainable food systems. Such an approach aims for more than alleviating hunger, it embraces the goal of building long term food resilience", said Mark Smith, Director IUCN Global Water Programme.

Food resilience is the capacity of ecosystems to support food production and the ability of people to produce, harvest or buy food in the face of environmental, economic and social shocks and stresses. This focus on resilience is critical if food security objectives are to be achieved and sustained over the long term. IUCN supports policies which strengthen food resilience by addressing three key issues: diversity, natural infrastructure and social justice.

Food security policy-makers in developing countries therefore have much to gain from integrating ecosystem management and good ecosystem governance into their policy measures, and collaborating with other sectoral policy-making initiatives to ensure they consistently support food security. Effective policies also address the social aspects of the ecosystem connections to food security by strengthening, for example, land tenure, access rights to natural resources, local organizations, and gender equality.

An IUCN paper entitled 'Food Security Policies: making the ecosystem connections', was presented during the conference and is available for downloading in English, French, and Spanish.