The environmental dimension of agriculture production is fundamental to reducing hunger and improving food security. The challenge is of staggering proportions, and the world must act, now. As the World Food Summit adopts policies and a Plan of Action, environmental and natural resource considerations must occupy a central place in the proposed measures.
Feeding another 3 billion people by the year 2030 - a likely scenario - will require rapid gains in agricultural production. Achieving those gains without damaging natural resources on which both agriculture and life itself depend will require a different approach to food production than has been used in the past - an approach that builds on ecological principles such as diversity, resilience and efficient energy use. The knowledge is there. What is needed is the political will.
"This Summit is a wake-up call the world has long needed," said Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). "The time has come to transform agriculture. It is essential that environmental perspectives become a vital element in our endeavour to increase global food production. Increasing food production in a sustainable fashion should be the overriding objective of our new strategy - a strategy to transform agriculture into a powerful vehicle for both poverty alleviation and environmental conservation."
Environmental considerations are reflected widely in the draft Action Plan. Environmental and natural resource degradation as a constraint to achieving food security; sound management of natural resources; urgent action to combat land degradation; control of overfishing; conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity; the promise of, and cautions entailed by, biotechnology development; actions to implement global environmental conventions and agreements; management of water resources; reducing deforestation and so on, are all reflected in the draft text.
The challenge is to achieve and sustain food security within nature's limits. Both the supply and demand side of the issue have to be sensitive to the environmental dimension.
Today, more than 800 million people in developing countries face chronic undernutrition. Moreover, rapid population growth heightens the need to intensify and expand agricultural production. However, the environmental price can be high. Pushing against resources limits to increase food production can damage or degrade the environment in many ways.
Expansion of agriculture onto less suitable land (often through deforestation) exposes fragile soils to the dangers of erosion and nutrient depletion. Felling and drainage of mangrove forests and other coastal wetlands destroys spawning and feeding grounds for fisheries. The conversion of forests and other natural habitats to food production has been the primary reason for the loss of biological diversity. Almost 70 percent of those stocks of marine fisheries for which assessments are available are being fished at levels close to or beyond the maximum sustainable yield.
Applying intensive production techniques to increase output from lands already under cultivation could both provide enough food to meet the needs of expanding populations and relieve pressure on marginal lands and vulnerable ecosystems. But, intensive food production can also take a heavy toll on the environment; poorly managed irrigation can lead to salinization and waterlogging; reliance on a few high-yielding varieties of plants and livestock has eroded biodiversity; intensive aquaculture systems can cause degradation of wetlands.
However, there is hope. Scientists are confident that technical options are available, and can be developed further, to provide enough food for future populations without harming the environment. The draft Action Plan agrees - based on the premise that the world has the technology, resources and skills required to produce adequate food to eliminate starvation.
One key element to achieve this in practice will be regular natural resource and environmental assessment and monitoring of the impacts of current practices, and feeding this information back to policy-makers and producers. Here, UNEP, as a leader, catalyst and coordinator, as a bridge between science and policy, will play a vital role.
Environmental management is another key area. Effective ways of reconciling global and regional management objectives with national policies and programmes for food security can be demonstrated, particularly taking into account the needs of people in marginal and fragile areas. UNEP could help put together and disseminate case study analyses, (best practices), of improving food security through better natural resource and environmental management practices.
In partnership with CGIAR and others, the avenue of guiding agricultural technology research in a direction that is responsive to the needs of vulnerable areas is also promising.
But, food production is only one part of the solution. The right public policies, quality of governance, social and economic development are critical to ensuring that people are able to buy the food they need.
The draft Plan of Action does not envisage special mobilization of new or additional international resources, to help implement its recommendations. It places implementation responsibility squarely on the shoulders of individual countries, while recognizing that international cooperation can and should play a supportive role. It asks for an optimal allocation and use of available resources, and greater inter-ministerial and inter-agency coordination. Moreover, it emphasizes the role of the private sector, trade and markets.
"Integrating the development dimension of incomes and employment with the environment dimension will be a major challenge for individual countries", said Ms Dowdeswell. "Working with governments and our partners to ensure that the environmental dimension of achieving food security is addressed will be a major challenge for UNEP."
The World Food Summit will meet at the level of Heads of State or Government, in Rome, Italy, from 13 to 17 November 1996.
For more information:
In Rome: Mr Uttam Dabholkar, Director of Policy, UNEP, c/o World Food Summit Secretariat
See FAO information on WWW: World Food Summit
In Nairobi: Mr. Robert Bisset, Media and Information Officer, UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya Tel: (254-2) 62 3084, Fax: 62 3692, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
UNEP News Release 1996/62