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Natural resources challenges to future food security

By Oliver Moore

What are the natural resource challenges the planet faces in a food security context? And how should researchers respond? This is the question Frank Place (ICRAF) and Alexandre Meybeck (FAO) posed at the Food Security Futures conference, held in Dublin as part of the Irish EU presidency.

This event primarily brought together research experts from the public and private sectors as well as global research organisations in advance of the larger Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice event in Dublin Castle. The latter, organised by Irish Aid and the Mary Robinson Climate Justice foundation, included representatives of civil society and the global south, politicians and Al Gore.

Food Security Futures sought to examine the contribution that public research must make to food security and nutrition, natural resource management, and climate change in order to meet the challenges of the coming years. The conference was organised by FAO and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM), led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a member of the CGIAR Consortium.

Food systems at risk. Image courtesy of FAO

Food systems at risk. Image courtesy of FAO


The food security context

The overall context was one of  persistent hunger in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, notwithstanding improved diets for most of the 20th century, and the ongoing effects of the food crises of 2007/2008. Competition for land, water and food could lead to greater poverty and hunger if not properly addressed now, with potentially severe environmental impacts. So the planet now faces a confluence of pressures on fragile soils, supplies of water and competing demands for land. Climate change and rising demand for biofuels provide additional instability in global food systems.

“We must renew efforts to address these challenges,” said Kostas Stamoulis, Director, Agricultural and Development Economics Division, FAO. “But we in FAO and CGIAR must first help the international community to refocus our commitment to sustainable agriculture and the elimination of hunger in light of these changed circumstances.”

While some commentators were quite optimistic about the possibilities of increasing production to meet demand, others were concerned about the type of food produced (Terri Raney, FAO), the climate change implications, and also the resource implications (Frank Place, ICRAF and Alexandre Meybeck FAO).

Resource challenges

For Place and Meybeck the key natural resource challenges for food security are inequitable distribution, accessibility and optimising resource use for food security. While global resources are sufficient, “the devil is in the local”.

Each of the main resource areas present challenges  There is little suitable new land, while much of what is currently available is degraded and under-performing  There are severe water stresses, which pressurise irrigated agriculture in particular. At least 29.9% of fish stocks are depleted. Biodiversity above and below ground is vitally important, yet about 900 cultivated plant species and 22% of the more than 8000 animal breeds are threatened by extinction.

By many measures, the places most in need of increased food production were the ones with the most challenges in terms of resources. Resources such as land and water are not evenly distributed, while adequate management requires difficult to find investment. Likewise distribution does not always favour the countries that are relying more on natural resources for their growth. Population growth and climate change could increase discrepancies between needs and availability, for example Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso

Systems of risk

Nine specific systems at risk were outlined:

  • Densely populated highlands in poor areas;
  • Small holder rainfed farming in semi-arid tropics;
  • Densely populated and intensely cultivated areas in the Mediterranean basin
  • Intensive rainfed cropping in temperate climate;
  • Irrigated rice-based systems;
  • Crops depending on irrigation by groundwater;
  • Rangelands on fragile soils;
  • Deltas and coastal areas;
  • Peri-urban agriculture.

The poorest and the more vulnerable, women, indigenous people, fisherfolk, are the most at risk of not having or losing access to resources. This is amplified by price spikes or general increases, when production can rise to meet shortages and population-driven demand.

Solutions and research priorities

For solutions, the authors point to the fact that resource efficiency needs to be improved at all levels, from field to landscape, along the supply chain and at the levels of diet and trade. Resources need to be assessed, measured, governed and sometimes transferred in a more optimum manner. They suggest promoting a wide practice of integrated natural resource management from field to landscape, including soil conservation, minimum tillage, use of organic nutrients, agroforestry, rainwater harvesting, micro-irrigation, integrated crop-livestock, rotational grazing, watershed protection, biodiversity corridors.

Improved dissemination systems that encompass experiential learning and sharing of knowledge. Collaboration across sectors for effective management all important resources for food production and ecosystem services should be promoted.

A food chain approach, involving all economic and policy actors, needs to happen, incorporating locally relevant programmes. More efficient, food, input and credit markets are needed and supporting infrastructure development, as well as long term commitment to natural resource management (NRM) objectives. More attention is also required to NRM-related policy instruments such as property rights, rewards for environmental services, longer term finance, and improved investments in research in agriculture and NRM. Assessment measurement and monitoring of resources needs to be improved, as does dissemination.

Priority areas for action FAO/CGIAR

  • There is a need to have a clearer picture of resource “availability’ (land, water, biomass etc) and of how it can respond to growing and competing demands
  • There is an urgent need to develop approaches and data banks that consider at the same time all aspects and impacts of resource management
  • Change the way to do research and dissemination, more local specific and farmer centered
  • Improving governance for sustainable management of natural resources, at every level, requires shared understanding of the issues, adequate assessment and monitoring tools and appropriate institutions and policies to engage all stakeholders, including with adequate assessment and monitoring tools and appropriate institutions and policies to engage all stakeholders, including with adequate science/policy interfaces.

Dr. Oliver Moore is an agri-food writer and researcher based in Ireland. @Oliver_Moore (Twitter)

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