Empowering Sustainable Agriculture

Published on 20th January 2014

A farmer is proud of her crop            Photo courtesy
By 2050, the Earth will need to feed 9 billion people with the same amount of land, water and natural resources. This means that agricultural production alone must increase by 70 per cent, according to World Bank figures. Agriculture already accounts for more than two thirds of the world's freshwater use and is a contributor to deforestation. A 70 per cent expansion in agricultural production cannot follow a business as usual scenario and still be sustainable.

Healthy Ecosystems underpin sustained and sufficient food production. Biodiversity and ecosystems deliver crucial services to humankind, from producing food to mitigating extreme weather, controlling pests, reducing the impact of disasters and keeping water clean and providing medicine. Combined, these services are estimated to be worth close to USD $72 trillion annually, according to a soon-to-be-launched study by UNEP, entitled: Food Wasted, Food Lost : Improving Food Security by Restoring Ecosystems and Reducing Food Loss.

According to the report, as much as 1.4 billion hectares of land is used to produce the total amount of food that is lost and wasted estimated by FAO at a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes a year. This translates to more than 100 times the area of tropical rainforest that is being cleared every year (13 million hectares) of which 80 per cent is used for agricultural expansion. At the same time, up to 25 per cent of the world's food production may be lost by 2050 due to climate change, land degradation, cropland losses, water scarcity and infestations. The amount lost could potentially feed up to 2.4 billion people, annually.

In order to ensure that food production is increased to meet the demands of the additional 2.6 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050, it is important that food producing ecosystems are protected and degraded ecosystems are restored. Example, 35 per cent of global production from the world-leading crops depends on pollination. This ecosystem service, valued at USD $353.6 billion annually, is currently under threat due to the loss of bees and other pollinators caused by degraded habitats.

If we truly wish to foster resilience of our agricultural systems and secure a steady supply of food for future generations, this environmental aspect must be integrated within the Sustainable Development framework.

Towards an ecosystems management approach in agricultural production - link to post 2015 agenda:

In the development of the post 2015 agenda, the world will need to bear into consideration the economic interdependencies between agricultural production and natural ecosystems. And in doing so, we must address fundamental questions: What are the values of ecosystems and biodiversity to the agricultural sector? 'How do biodiversity and key ecosystem services deliver benefits to the agriculture sector as well as to human health, livelihoods and well-being?

A new study by TEEB and UNEP WCMC, to be launched in 2014, attempts to help us do just that. Agriculture is the single most important sector in providing the basic necessities for human existence and livelihoods today. In addition to producing bioenergy and foodstuffs, it accounts for roughly 40 per cent of the world's labour force, or about 1.3 billion people.

Agricultural production depends on services provided by healthy natural ecosystems , from supporting and regulating services (e.g. pollination, water purification, soil retention), to genetic resources (e.g. wild relatives of crop and livestock can play an especially important role in adapting production systems to changing climatic conditions).

Biodiversity and ecosystem services should, therefore, be highly valued for their role in sustaining and enhancing productivity and livelihoods. Without healthy ecosystems, agricultural systems may suffer if not collapse entirely. This applies universally, regardless of the scale or type of production systems, or whether in developed or developing countries. At the same time, the interaction between natural systems and agricultural systems is much more profound in regions where smallholder production systems exist.

With much of the rural poor concentrated in fragile environments and remote areas, such smallholders are faced with high transaction costs and limited access to materials and resources. This not only limits their participation in national and global markets, but also increases their dependency upon well- functioning ecosystems. Natural capital is estimated to account for 40 to 50 per cent of what is referred to as "GDP of the poor." A profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish today's 925 million hungry and the additional 2 billion people expected by 2050.

Food waste and food loss

To bring about the vision of a truly sustainable world, we need a transformation in the way we produce and consume our natural resources. In January, last year, UNEP, FAO and partners, including Messe Düsseldorf, launched the Think.Eat.Save: Reduce Your Foodprint campaign, in support of FAO's SAVE FOOD Initiative and the UN Secretary General's Zero Hunger Initiatives. The global food system has profound implications for the environment, and producing more food than is consumed only exacerbates the pressures.

Worldwide, about one-third of all food produced, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. Food loss occurs mostly at the production stages harvesting, processing and distribution while food waste typically takes place at the retailer and consumer end of the food-supply chain.

In industrialized regions, almost half of the total food squandered, around 300 million tonnes annually, occurs because producers, retailers and consumers discard food that is still fit for consumption. This is more than the total net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa, and would be sufficient to feed the estimated 870 million hungry in today's world. Wasting food makes no sense economically, environmentally and ethically. We must reverse this unacceptable trend to improve lives.

Environmental impact

Aside from the cost implications, all the land, water, fertilizers and labour needed to grow that food is wasted not to mention the generation of greenhouse gas emissions produced by food decomposing on landfill and the transport of food that is ultimately thrown away.

For example: More than 20 per cent of all cultivated land, 30 per cent of forests and 10 per cent of grasslands are undergoing degradation; Agriculture and land use changes like deforestation contribute to more than 30 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions; Globally, the agri-food system accounts for nearly 30 per cent of end-user available energy; Overfishing and poor management contribute to declining numbers of fish, some 30 per cent of marine fish stocks are now considered overexploited.


Recognizing that agriculture, water, land, forests , food production and consumption are all connected, the answer to providing food security while maintaining ecosystems lies in pursuing a holistic approach that incorporates climate-smart agriculture and a landscape approach. A landscape approach means managing the land, water, and forest resources necessary to meet an area's food security needs and promoting inclusive green growth as one integrated system.

In Rwanda, for example, a landscape approach supported by the World Bank and the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) has included terracing on the steep hillsides, downstream reservoir protection, water harvesting through dams and reservoirs, and hillside irrigation. The approach works with the water and land as one system and has resulted in increasing the yields of smallholder farmers.

A new initiative was launched by UNEP, IFAD, FAO and partners to streamline and encourage international collaboration in areas related to the integrated management of rural landscapes for food production, ecosystem conservation, and sustainable livelihoods.

Climate-smart agriculture practices tackle both pressures by increasing resilience and lowering emissions. They include activities that sequester carbon in the soil, which also improves soil fertility and can lead to higher yields. Increasing the organic content of the soil through conservation tillage can increase its water holding capacity and resilience while reducing erosion. Reducing the use of nitrous oxide fertilizers and cutting the amount of methane released in rice cultivation can also lower greenhouse gas emissions. Diversifying crops and genetic traits of crops and tailoring techniques to shifting climate conditions without harming ecosystems can help farmers hedge against an uncertain climate.

These farming methods are paying off in countries like Zambia, where farmers using conservation agriculture have seen maize yields double and cotton yields increase 60 percent compared to fields where conventional plowing was used.

By Achim Steiner
UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director

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