The 9 billion people question: Food security & why biodiversity is important


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12 plant crops and 14 animal species today provide 98% of world’s food needs with wheat, rice and maize alone accounting for more than 50% of the global energy intake. Photo courtesy of Peter Blanchard/flickr

BOGOR, Indonesia (10 April, 2011)_Food security has become one of the most important issues of our time. In February, The Economist published a special report on the “the future of food.” Entitled “The 9 billion-people question,” the report maintains that more food can be grown on existing land through further intensification and calls for a second “green revolution” – the development of high-yielding crop varieties and increased breeding for drought and disease resistance. The report also asserts that high crop prices stimulate demand and reduce waste.

The report comprehensively outlines the complexities related to food security and proposes some compelling solutions to achieve it, including increasing funding to the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which led the first Green Revolution. However, on one issue it falls short: it fails to recognise the importance of biodiversity to sustainable agriculture.

Policies and issues related to biodiversity conservation and food security have largely been considered as mutually exclusive with scant regard for their clear interdependence. The contemporary model of monoculture agricultural production has led to a devastating loss of biodiversity and a range of ecosystem services primarily due to land conversion. Petrochemical-based, industrial-scale agriculture also contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite considerable advances over the past 40 years, modern agriculture has not managed to achieve global food security, at least equitably. More than one billion people go to bed hungry each night and more than 800 million people suffer from nutrient deficiencies that result in long-term negative health impacts ultimately affecting their ability to feed themselves.

So what is the link between biodiversity and agriculture? Biodiversity underpins much of modern agriculture and contributes to the livelihoods of many millions of people who rely on wild-harvested resources. Biodiversity also provides the “natural capital” for ecosystem services, such as the maintenance of watershed services, soil fertility, pollination, seed dispersal, nutrient cycling, natural pest and disease control etc.; processes that are critical to the maintenance of agricultural systems.

Although many thousands of species have contributed to human nutrition, today, 12 plant crops and 14 animal species today provide 98% of world’s food needs  with wheat, rice and maize alone accounting for more than 50% of the global energy intake. The general global trend towards diet simplification has led to negative impacts on human food security, nutritional balance and health.

More biodiverse systems provide increased resilience to the effects of environmental challenges and are able to decrease vulnerability for rural livelihoods. As the elements of biodiversity used in food and agriculture has declined, agriculture becomes less able to adapt to environmental challenges, such as climate change.

Traditional monoculture production systems are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events and recent floods and droughts in agriculturally productive regions have been identified as the main cause of record high food prices in early 2011. The impacts of rising temperatures and more-extreme weather events will likely further hurt the poor, especially rural farmers and the World Bank estimates that 44 million more people have slipped back into poverty since June 2010.

As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, these problems are further exacerbated. Urban populations are particularly vulnerable to increases in food prices. Food riots in Cameroon and Haiti in 2008 and the recent regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt have been directly linked to increased prices of basic foodstuffs. Hence the high-price demand model advocated by The Economist may have significant impacts on those that need access to reasonably priced food: the poor.

A growing body of research suggests that integrating biodiversity into agriculture (“eco-agriculture” or “agro-ecology”) can improve yields, maintain essential ecosystem services and achieve more efficient and equitable food security, particularly in the face of uncertain climatic conditions. In recent publications, The World Bank, the United Nations, the UK Government’s Office for Science, along with many in the academic community propose that the challenge of feeding a projected global population of nine billion in 2050 can be achieved through more diverse production systems that promote sustainable agriculture.

The closer integration of biodiversity conservation and agriculture to achieve food security is a global challenge that will ultimately affect us all. The esteemed ecologist Hugh Possingham recently posed the question “can we have our biodiversity and eat it too?” The evidence suggests we can.


For further information on this topic and CIFOR’s latest related research, see here.

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