Guest Article #19

Ecosystems Can Put the World on the Path to Resilient Food Security: Implications for Policy

With the global population approaching 9.6 billion by 2050,[1] huge demand will be placed on states and the environment to provide sufficient food. Already, 870 million people on the planet are chronically undernourished.[2] Innovative solutions are therefore urgently needed to address food insecurity.

In less than 37 years, the global population will reach 9.6 billion and the world is expected to experience significant declines in agricultural output up to about 15-20 per cent as a result of climate change.[3] Already numerous other factors like poverty, drought and environmental degradation are contributing to food insecurity. Feeding future populations will require a transformation in environmental and agricultural practices, policies and local perspectives.

Examples abound. In South Asia for instance, 20 per cent of land is expected to experience “unusual heat extremes” by 2050 with hot seasons lengthening by up to 45 days. This means that growing seasons will shorten, thereby decreasing productivity.[4] In Africa, just 4 per cent of agricultural land is irrigated[5] meaning that the remaining 96 per cent of farmers that depend on the rain to water their crops are extremely vulnerable to changes in the intensity and frequency of precipitation and to droughts.

The diversification of current food production practices is an essential task if communities are to prosper and achieve resilient food security as conditions related to the changing climate become more complicated and severe. Whilst other approaches to food security such as technical and management improvements, sustainable intensification and better supply chains with fairer distribution have a role to play, it is essential that the underpinning ecosystems and their functions are protected from further degradation. Ecosystem-based Adaptation approaches (EbA)[6] harness the capacity of nature to buffer communities against the adverse impacts of climate change through the sustainable delivery of ecosystem services. EbA benefits local communities by recognizing the inter-connectivity between ecological, social-cultural, economic and institutional structures.

Putting Ecosystem-based Adaptation Approaches in the Vision of Food Security Policies

Ecosystems support agricultural production by providing everything from water and soil resources to pollination and pest control services. For agricultural systems to be sustainable, their foundational ecosystems must be restored and enhanced. This will enable increased food production and incomes. The maintenance of healthy ecosystems underpins the resilient supply of the ecosystem goods and services that 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.

In Mozambique, for example, an investment of USD $120 per person in ecosystem-based actions provided continuous food security for 490 people, in addition to rehabilitating mangroves and reducing overfishing through the construction of crab cages and fish ponds to supplement catches. With relatively little inputs, ecosystem-based adaptation can increase yields and profits, while climate-proofing local ecosystems and improving community well-being. For the world to succeed in feeding its future population, this relatively new approach must become better understood and more frequently utilized by communities and policymakers.[7]

The Global Case for Action

Farmers rely on soil microorganisms to maintain soil fertility and structure for crop production, and on wild species in natural ecological communities for crop pollination and pest and predator control. At present, the value of these types of ecosystem services and their degradation is not built into the cost of food production. The result is that farmers are not rewarded for stewardship of their land for future generations, and food production is often environmentally damaging, whilst distribution shows great inequality.

A huge international research project on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) has drawn attention to the economic benefits of ecosystem services and calculates the costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. TEEB's synthesis report (2010)[8] argued that if the goods and services provided by the natural world are not valued and factored into the global economic system, the environment will become less resilient to shocks, risking human lives, livelihoods and the global economy.

Actions to better manage ecosystems for food security include: improve soil management to reduce degradation and erosion, store carbon, retain water, and increase soil fertility; improve agro-biodiversity, including plant, animal, fish, and associated biodiversity (and the interactions between them); and develop programs based on the progress of agricultural science and traditional knowledge, for instance, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, including better referenced and validated indigenous knowledge.

A number of UNEP papers elaborate on these themes

Ecosystem Management: Tomorrow's Approach to Enhancing Food Security under a Changing Climate' argues that global food security under a changing climate is possible if the vital role of healthy ecosystems is recognized. The researchers suggest that an ecosystem-based approach must be integrated with other measures to tackle food security under climate change, and to protect biodiversity and ecosystems and the supply of the essential ecosystem services on which humanity depends.

Using Ecosystem-based Adaptation to Tackle Food Insecurity' summarizes the food security problems facing Africa, and suggests that EbA will be one of the most effective ways of meeting these challenges. The review concludes that EbA projects are cost-effective, broadly applicable, and their spread would help reduce the occurrence of food crises and face the multiple challenges of climate change.

Avoiding Future Famines: Strengthening the Ecological Basis of Food Security through Sustainable Food Systems' provides a detailed analysis of the many factors threatening the world's food supplies and its ability to continue to generate calories and protein in the 21st century, including from fisheries. It also provides a series of forward-looking recommendations and remedies to the many grim scenarios that often accompany the food security debate.

Ecosystem-based Adaptation Approaches in Action

The following example is one of many that demonstrates how EbA approaches can assist in addressing the global food crisis. In Uganda, a project promoting agro-forestry and conservation agriculture resulted in more fertile soils and increased yields. This in turn reduced the time and cost in preparing land for farming, leaving more time available for diversification, for instance, into livestock rearing. The project also reduced the use of agrochemicals and improved biodiversity. Through EbA actions, 75,000 people benefited, while 31,000 tree seedlings were planted to enhance ecosystem productivity and boost household investment in the short- and medium-term. Chili (Capsicum annuum) production now earns poor households about $60 per week during the off-peak season and about $240 per week in the peak season. The ability to generate surplus income from agriculture has dramatically contributed to the food security of households, all while improving efficiency and encouraging better agroforestry practices.[9]

Policy Implications

The risks to food security for future populations go beyond simply providing enough food. Food production practices must be based on not only the needs of a growing population, but also the requirements of the local environment. Policy must therefore find the balance between maximizing food production and ensuring environmental protection. If the effects are to be lasting and prosperous, the end results must seek to address overall nutrition, not just calories, as well as environmental vulnerabilities. The sustainable use of ecosystems requires a finely tuned balance between demand and supply. Population increases and changing lifestyle expectations, coupled with ecosystem degradation, are likely to exacerbate what is already an imbalance. Building on the Rio+20 outcomes, which recognized the value of natural capital,[10] can help shape input to policy development that leads to enhanced food security. Such an outcome could be achieved through:

  • Strengthening ecosystems governance and institutions at local and national levels, including through collaborations between the public and private sectors, civil society and local communities. That governance ensures the maintenance and sustainable use of natural resources is an essential element to the achievement of sustainable development and poverty alleviation objectives.
  • Valuing longer-term services provided by ecosystems above short-term gain. That one of the main drivers for ecosystem degradation is economic, and that the past lack of ecosystem valuation has been a market failure must be recognized.
  • Incorporating environmental values into economic models in order to move towards sustainable development. The value of ecosystem services must be considered in planning processes and decision making at all scales, including in the development of strategies for food security, poverty reduction and human development. The TEEB demonstrates the general agreement among its scientists that including the value of biodiversity and ecosystems in wealth calculations is a “more meaningful and correct approach” than traditional gross domestic product (GDP) or income calculations, which treat most ecosystem impacts as “externalities".
  • Investing in research to find optimal long-term balance between production and environmental protection. Existing ecosystem monitoring and assessment programmes are either incomplete or only partially integrated. The money spent on biodiversity and ecosystems research and monitoring does not reflect the true value of the services they provide to enhanced food security and the global economy. More support is required for science to provide the basis for a comprehensive, science-based management approach to guide policy decisions and monitor implementation. Thus, there is need for the formulation and evaluation of economic and policy mechanisms based on four criteria: long-term environmental effectiveness; equity; cost effectiveness; and institutional compatibility of the policy combinations. Food security policymakers have much to gain from integrating ecosystem-based approaches into their policy measures.


Food security for a growing population is one of the planet's grandest challenges. Utilizing and protecting the benefits of the ecosystems supporting agricultural production will be an indispensable first step to meeting this task. If policymakers want to assure the development of a sustainable and viable agricultural sector, they will first need to better recognize the interconnectivity between economic, ecological, cultural and institutional structures. Investment in ecosystem-based approaches is one of the most important keys to job creation that simultaneously contributes to poverty reduction and to sustainable long-term food security. EbA can improve the competitiveness of domestic production, increase farmers' profits, and make food more affordable for the poor. Encouraging comprehensive policies and sizable investments in scaling-up the ecosystem-based actions that have already worked in enhancing food security is the first step towards achieving a food-secure society.

[1] Revised UN estimates put world population at over 9 billion by 2050; UN News Center; 11 March 2009.

[2] Economic growth is necessary but not sufficient to accelerate reduction of hunger and malnutrition; The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012; FAO, 2012.

[3] 4° Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts and the Case for Resilience; The World Bank; June 2013.

[4] What Climate Change Means for Africa, Asia and the Coastal Poor; 4° Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts and the Case for Resilience; World Bank; 19 June 2013.

[5] 4° Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts and the Case for Resilience; The World Bank; June 2013.

[6] 'Using Ecosystem-Based Adaptation Actions to Tackle Food Insecurity'; Richard Munang, Ibrahim Thiaw, Keith Alverson,Mounkaila Goumandakoye, Desta Mebratu, and Jian Liu; Environment; Volume 55 Number 1; January/February 2013.

[7] Adapting to climate change – one ecosystem at a time; Richard Munang and Jessica Andrews: Guardian Professional; Wednesday 7 August 2013.

[8] The TEEB Synthesis Report: Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature; A Synthesis of the Approach, Conclusions and Recommendations of TEEB; United Nations Environment Programme; 2010.

[9] Experience of supporting forest adjacent communities to promote food security and forest governance in Uganda; Kandole Annet Balewa; presentation delivered at the 'First Africa Food Security & Adaptation Conference: Harnessing Ecosystem-based Approaches for Food Security and Adaptation to Climate Change in Africa'; UN Complex, Nairobi, Kenya; 20-21 August 2013.

[10] 'Rio+20's New Tack toward Sustainable Development'; Jessica Thompson, Richard Munang: Solutions for a Sustainable and Desirable Future; Volume 3 | Issue 6; December 2012.