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For centuries, Minqin Oasis, along the Silk Road in northwestern China, provided a welcome port of call to travelers, serving as a natural barrier against the unremitting dryness of the Tengger and Badain Jaran deserts. That changed in the 1950s, when Chairman Mao implemented a national plan to boost food production. The resulting cultivation, deforestation, irrigation, and reclamation of the oasis initially boosted food output, but inadvertently degraded the capacity of Minqin’s natural ecosystems to provide freshwater and prevent soil erosion. Without these critical ecological defenses, the fertile land succumbed to encroaching deserts, forcing residents to abandon their homes and farms.1

The Indonesian government is now looking to use degraded lands for future palm oil plantations to avoid clearing intact rainforests. Photo credit: Beth Gingold/WRI

Decades later and thousands of miles away, in the Gulf of Mexico, nutrient runoff from intensive crop, livestock, and biofuel production in the Mississippi River basin has cut a devastating path through coastal ecosystems and fisheries. The result is a dead zone roughly the size of the state of New Jersey.2

Unfortunately, these two examples are not isolated cases. Replicated countless times across the globe, they serve as stark illustrations of the unintended consequences of humankind’s growing demand for food. And they join a parade of ecosystem casualties from modern food production systems, including deforestation (driven by palm oil in southeast Asia and beef and soybeans in the Amazon); wetland draining to make way for arable land; and overfishing, one of the leading local threats to 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs.

In many ways the modern food production system has been a miraculous success. Dramatic increases in food production over the past 50 years have supported significant improvements in human well-being. Yet, at the same time, the relentless spread of farmland and accompanying massive inputs of chemicals have undercut the capacity of ecosystems to provide the very services that underpin food production, including freshwater, pollination, erosion control, and water regulation (see Box).3,4,5

Scientists worry that increased food production is masking a time lag between ecosystem degradation and the resulting effects on human well-being. The chipping away at the Amazon, for example, could push the entire region to a tipping point beyond which it experiences widespread dieback and transitions into savanna-like vegetation. The resulting changes in forest cover and rainfall could seriously impact both crop production and cattle ranching in the region. As climate change impacts exacerbate food production stresses on ecosystems, it is conceivable that such collapses could become commonplace. The implications for food security are serious, especially in developing countries where 2 billion rural poor depend on healthy ecosystems for sustenance.

It may be tempting to dismiss the latest concerns about food price spikes. After all, at least since Malthus, the “glass half empty” crowd has worried unnecessarily that food production would not keep up with population growth. Yet human ingenuity has always found ways to boost production by creating new varieties of plants, bringing more land into production, inventing new forms of mechanization, or introducing practices such as irrigation.

Food Production: Key Culprit in Ecosystem Degradation

Habitat conversion: Approximately 43 percent of tropical and subtropical forests and 45 percent of temperate forests have been converted to croplands.

Overexploitation: 70 percent of global freshwater is used for agriculture.

Invasive species: The introduction of aquatic alien fish species has led to the extinction of native species in many parts of the world.

Pollution: Only a fraction of the nitrogen applied as fertilizer is used by plants, the rest ends up in inland waters and coastal systems, creating eutrophication and dead zones.2

Climate change: Agriculture directly contributed to around 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 and drives additional emissions through its role in deforestation.

But this time things are different. As ecosystem services continue to degrade, soil fertility diminishes, and rainfall runoff and soil erosion increase, continuing to rely on improved seeds and chemical fertilizers is likely to yield diminishing returns. And beyond declining productivity of cropland, other worrying trends are converging to threaten food security, including rising populations, climate change, and competing demands for water, land, and crops.

These trends beg an obvious and increasingly urgent question. Can the current food production system feed a growing population in a changing climate while sustaining ecosystems? The answer is an emphatic “no.”

A new approach is imperative and overdue, one in which the world feeds more people—an estimated 9 billion by 2050—with less ecological impact. To be successful, this new approach must address both how we produce and how we use food.

Encouragingly, national governments and international institutions, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Bank, and agribusiness, have recently woken up to the scale of this challenge, and a wide range of solutions are germinating. Below, we highlight three examples of sustainable solutions that show potential for being scaled up around the world.

Money and Food Growing under Trees: Agroforestry in Niger

Despite ranking 167th out of 169 nations in the 2010 Human Development Index, Niger is the setting for a farmer-led “re-greening” movement that has reversed desertification and brought increased crop production, income, food security, and self-reliance to impoverished rural producers.

Agroforestry, the integration of trees into food crop landscapes to maintain a green cover year-round, was a traditional African farming practice until colonization introduced the mindset that trees and crops should be separated. Trees were removed from vast expanses of land across Africa, and creeping desertification ensued.

Over the past 20 years, however, development agencies and NGOs have led tree regeneration and planting efforts in Niger, transforming heavily cropped and degraded savannas into fertile land densely studded with trees, shrubs, and crops. The movement blossomed after pilot projects found that, when planted with crops, trees act as windbreaks to counter erosion, increase soil fertility by providing enriching mulch and fixing nitrogen in root systems, and provide a valuable source of wood and fodder. For good measure, they also sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The scale of the change is impressive, affecting more than five million hectares of land—about the size of Costa Rica.

By 2007, between a quarter and half of the country’s farmers were involved, and about 4.5 million people were reaping the benefits.6 Soil fertility and crop harvests have risen, spurring better diets, improved nutrition, higher incomes, and increased capacity to cope with drought. And with farmers producing more fuelwood, Niger’s previously shrinking forests have been spared further destruction.

Development agencies and NGOs adopted a combination of approaches to bring about Niger’s transformation, but three stand out:

They invested in simple, low-cost techniques for managing the natural regeneration of on-farm trees and shrubs and improving soil and water conservation techniques. They shifted away from treating forest protection as the state’s exclusive responsibility and toward generating farmer support and using “farmer-to-farmer visits” to promote improved practices. They encouraged tree tenure reform. In postcolonial Niger, the government had claimed ownership of forests and strictly controlled the harvesting of trees. Farmers were fined or even imprisoned for harvesting trees without a permit or for simply lopping off branches. But, between 1998 and 2004, government tenure reforms relaxed the rules, tipping the balance toward farmer self-interest in regenerating and managing trees on their land.

Agroforestry has potential well beyond Niger. Similar initiatives for farmer-managed, natural regeneration are now under way in Zambia, Malawi, and Burkina Faso, suggesting that agroforestry may be applicable to a broad range of food crop systems in Africa. To be successful, however, these initiatives need to be accompanied by the kind of governance reforms embarked on in Niger, blanket extension efforts, and strong buy-in from farmers.7,8

Having Your Palm Oil and Forest, Too

As we implied earlier, there is an urgent need to halt the expansion of food production into natural ecosystems whose services, in turn, underpin agriculture. A readymade solution may be at hand. Globally, more than 1 billion hectares of cleared and degraded forestlands—an area the size of Brazil—may hold potential for increased human use. And while more research is needed to know how much of this is suitable for food production, while respecting the rights of local people, restoring even a small percentage would help reduce pressure on natural ecosystems.

The government of Indonesia, home to a tenth of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests, is exploring such an approach, seeking to break the link between crops and deforestation. In May 2010 degraded land made it onto the Indonesian national agenda when President Yudhoyono declared a new strategy to develop oil palm plantations on degraded land instead of forests or peatlands.

Indonesia is at the center of the booming global palm oil industry, and its forests are shrinking, making it one of the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide. Since palm oil creates much needed revenues and jobs, Indonesia’s government aims to double current production to 40 million metric tons per year by 2020. Based on today’s yields, this increase would require new plantations covering an area larger than Switzerland.

The World Resources Institute has been working with palm oil producers, local partners, and communities in Kalimantan to make the government’s vision for restoring degraded land a reality. Our activities include mapping degraded land, legal analysis, community engagement, and capacity building for local government officials on land use planning. We have found that one key to unlocking the potential of degraded land is mapping where it exists and which areas have the potential for palm oil production. Another, albeit trickier, factor is addressing ownership and land tenure issues, and adopting fiscal and regulatory reforms that will enable optimal land use and facilitate restoration of degraded lands. In addition, if degraded land is to be put to use around the world, financial incentives may be needed to encourage companies, communities, and governments to shift planned, permitted plantations to new sites. One potential incentive is payments made under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation in developing countries (REDD).

Saving Our Daily Bread from Wastage

Food is wasted in many ways: it’s discarded, lost, or degraded or consumed by pests between field and fork. All this adds up, and an estimated minimum of 30 percent of all food grown worldwide never reaches human mouths.9 In developing countries, wastage typically occurs post harvest, while, in developed countries, consumers and the food services sector are the largest sources of wastage. Tackling food wastage offers a rare opportunity for a quadruple win-win solution by reducing pressures on land, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, reducing water use, and saving money.

Reducing food wastage is not typically discussed as a food security solution. However, as the squeeze on food supply tightens and demand rises along with population growth, this is likely to change. And a few scattered examples of success are starting to emerge, in both developing and developed countries, which could offer scale-up potential.

A UN Food and Agriculture Organization project in Afghanistan, for example, reduced post-harvest losses from around 20 percent to less than 2 percent, by improving grain storage facilities and enhancing the skills of local tinsmiths in silo construction. Silos protect food from pests, rodents, birds, and fungi. Participating farmers used silos to store cereal grains and grain legumes, creating higher incomes and longer storage possibilities.

In developed countries, too, simple changes can dramatically reduce consumption-side food waste. In the United States, where one survey concluded that 76 percent of consumers erroneously believe certain foods are unsafe to eat after the “best before” date has passed, organizations like are working to educate consumers about what food labels really mean.10 Meanwhile, in Britain, the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs is planning the release of new guidance for consumers that will reform “best before” and “use by” dates on packaged foods. In the food services industry, too, small steps can make a big difference. For example, a survey of U.S. colleges found that food waste fell 25 to 30 percent per person when trays were removed from dining halls.11 Students took less food, only going back for seconds if needed.

Tomorrow’s Approach

If the world is to feed 9 billion people in 2050 and successfully navigate ecological tipping points in the face of climate change, solutions such as the above will be needed on a global scale. Meeting this challenge will take all the ingenuity that farmers, companies, conservationists, agricultural experts, ecologists, and others can muster. The good news is that examples of “tomorrow’s approach” are already beginning to emerge. The challenge is scaling them up effectively, and in time.


This article is based on a paper for the World Resources Report 2010–2011, “Decision Making in a Changing Climate.” The topic of the next World Resources Report will be food futures.


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