The Environmental Food Crisis

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In 2008 food prices surged plunging millions back into hunger and triggering riots from Egypt to Haiti and Cameroon to Bangladesh. Whereas fuel prices, which also surged, have fallen back sharply food prices remain problematic with wheat, corn and soya still higher than they were 12-18 months ago.

In order to understand the factors underpinning the food crisis and to assess trends, UNEP commissioned a Rapid Response team of internal and international experts. Their conclusions are presented in this report launched during UNEP’s 25th Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

Several factors have been at work including speculation in commodity markets, droughts and low stocks. The contribution of growing non-food crops such as biofuels is also discussed. Importantly the report also looks to the future. Was 2008 an aberration or a year foreshadowing major new trends in food prices and if so, how should the international community respond?

The experts argue that, unless more sustainable and intelligent management of production and consumption are undertaken food prices could indeed become more volatile and expensive in a world of six billion rising to over nine billion by 2050 as a result of escalating environmental degradation. Up to 25% of the world food production may become ‘lost’ dur- ing this century as a result of climate change, water scarcity, invasive pests and land degradation.

Simply cranking up the fertilizer and pesticide-led production methods of the 20th Century is unlikely to address the challenge. It will increasingly undermine the critical natural inputs and nature-based services for agriculture such as healthy and productive soils; the water and nutrient recycling of forests to pollinators such as bees and bats.

The report makes seven signifcant recommendations. These include real opportunities for boosting aquaculture and fsh farming without intensifying damage to the marine environment alongside ones highlighting the opportunities for mini- mizing and utilizing food wastes along the supply chain right up to consumers.

In response to the food, fuel and fnancial crises of 2008 UNEP launched its Global Green New Deal and Green Economy initiatives: food is very much part of the imperative for transformational economic, social and environmental change. We need a green revolution but one with a capital G if we are to balance the need for food with the need to manage the ecosystems that underpin sustainable agriculture in the first place.

This report will make an important contribution to the debate but equally it needs to trigger more rational, creative, innovative and courageous action and investment to steer 21st Century agriculture onto a sustainable Green Economy path.

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

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