Strengthening the ecological basis of food security

A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has drawn attention to the need to safeguard the underlying ecological foundations that support food production.

While pointing out the current challenges, the report also offers recommendations to shore up the ecological foundations and create the conditions for sustainable food production, thereby improving food security. These include the redesign of sustainable agriculture systems, dietary changes and storage systems and new food standards to reduce waste. The report also provides recommendations on the removal of adverse fisheries subsidies and measures for illegal fisheries, issues that have complex implications for small-scale fisherfolk in developing countries and require appropriate responses.

The report ‘Avoiding Future Famines: Strengthening the Ecological Basis of Food Security through Sustainable Food System’ is available at 

With best wishes,

Lim Li Ching

Third World Network

131 Jalan Macalister

10400 Penang



UN Report Warns Ecological Foundations that Support Food Security, Including Biodiversity, Are Being Undermined

Damage to Ecological Basis Can Be Halted Through Sustainable Measures in Context of Green Economy

Nairobi/Hyderabad, 16 October 2012 – Nairobi/Hyderabad, 15 October 2012 – The aim of achieving food security across the globe will become increasingly elusive unless countries factor the planet's nature-based services into agricultural and related planning, a report released today from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says.

Safeguarding the underlying ecological foundations that support food production, including biodiversity will be central if the world is to feed seven billion inhabitants, climbing to over nine billion by 2050 argues the study Avoiding Future Famines: Strengthening the Ecological Basis of Food Security through Sustainable Food System.

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 tonnes 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 aspects, which are being undermined by overfishing, unsustainable water use, environmentally degrading agricultural practices 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. Twelve 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.
  • 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 latest report on State of Fisheries estimated that as of 2009, 57 per cent of global marine stocks are fully exploited, 29.9 per cent are overexploited, while only 12.7 per cent are underexploited. 
  • 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.


The variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels are necessary to sustain key functions of the ecosystem. For example, a diverse range of soil organisms interact with the roots of plants and trees and ensures nutrient cycling. 

Many food production activities negatively impact on this supporting biodiversity, such as:

  • Fertilizer run-off, which causes eutrophication, poses a threat to the diverse life of lakes and coastal areas.
  • Excessive tillage – tilling to greater depths and more frequent cultivations – has an increased negative impact on all soil organisms, in particular organisms living in surface areas, such as earthworms.
  • Deforestation and pesticide contamination of lands adjacent to farmland degrade "off-farm biodiversity", impacting pollinators and natural pest control of crops.
  • Overfishing may result in the removal of important components of the ecosystem, such as algal-feeding fish in coral reef systems, with a consequence of altered biodiversity and ecological states that may be impossible to restore.
  • Aquaculture activities are also a source of pollution and biodiversity concerns as they may lead to the introduction of pathogens, strains and/or species that can alter marine habitats and diversity.
  • The destructive fishing methods mentioned above can disrupt marine ecosystems, and it may take hundreds of years for vulnerable habitats such as cold water corals and seamounts to recover from such practices.

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 ensure that their products are from sustainable fisheries and farms, up to the consumer who needs to think seriously about switching to a sustainable diet and reduce food wastage,” said Prof. 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 so as to avoid unhealthy eating habits and the associated health effects, and reduce impact on natural resources. In particular, lower consumption of meat and dairy products in developed countries should be promoted.
  • Re-consider food quality standards that lead to unnecessary wastage.
  • Design sustainable agriculture, not only on individual farms, but scaling up to the landscape and national level. Examples include improving soil management, making agricultural water use more efficient and promoting 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 beneficial 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 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.
  • Protect marine fisheries by reducing land-based pollution sources that lead to "dead zones" in coastal areas.

In summary, the scientists pointed out that to neglect the ecological aspects of food security would hamper efforts in its other four pillars. While we can’t avoid famine simply by making the food system environmentally friendly, neither can we go on producing food by wearing away its ecological foundation. In the end we’ll find – no foundation, no food, says UNEP Chief Scientist.

Additional information

The full report can be downloaded here: 

For media enquiries, please contact:

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Division of Communication and Public Information Acting Director and Spokesperson, +254 733 632 755,

Shereen Zorba, Head, UNEP News Desk, +254 788 526 000,