Stopping the sixth extinction: Food security


Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

How can we restore our planet to health? From replenishing biodiversity to enforcing legal protection, Salt asks the experts for their opinions on managing the Earth’s health in a critical time. Welcome to the seven-part ‘Stopping the Sixth Extinction’ series.

Simply producing more and more food will not solve the world’s hunger problems, but there is a solution, writes Duncan Williamson.

It has become increasingly apparent in recent years that our food system, on land and sea, is one of the driving forces behind environ- mental destruction. It is the leading cause of land use change, the biggest enabler of deforestation, it uses 70 per cent of available freshwater, contributes around 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, is the biggest cause of biodiversity loss and has resulted in widespread overfishing.

Food has an impact on all areas of human wellbeing, particularly on health. More than one billion people are undernourished worldwide. Over half the world’s population is malnourished, eating too much or too little. 805 million people are hungry, and this statistic is based on the assumption that those consuming food have the calorie requirement associated with sedentary lifestyles. When you include active people, like farmers, the figure rises to 1.5 billion. There are also two billion people who lack the basic micronutrients for a nutritious diet.

For too long the mantra from government and others has been that we need to increase food production to ensure food security, implying that increasing food production alone will solve the problem. This increase is anything between 60 per cent and 150 per cent. This might not be possible and is definitely not needed.

Food companies understand food security through a narrow lens of security of supply. This is very short term and does not take into account all the other elements, and in the long term it might be detrimental to their business model.

We need to start thinking in a new way.We need to develop a food system that is resilient and resource-efficient, which supplies good, nutritious food to all, not just calories. It must leave space for forests – the lungs of the planet – as well as soil, land and aquatic biodiversity, and healthy ecosystems.

For WWF UK a good way forward is to deliver food security that brings together the social, economic and environmental aspects found in the five pillars of food security: availability, access, utilisation, stability and sustainability. In the year 2015, the post-2015 development summit and the climate conference in Paris are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to develop a new system that brings together development and environment, whilst challenging the developed world to change its own model as we strive towards a more equitable system. If we focus on one or the other – either hunger or the environment – we will eventually come to a crunch point where moving to a sustainable system will be a lot more painful. Instead we should address the two together.

The good news is we already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. We are making huge strides forward in our understanding of agricultural practices, technology and diets. We need to capitalise on these findings.

It is only by recognising the equal importance of all the aspects of food security –accessibility, availability, utility, stability and environmental sustainability – that food companies will collectively be able to make the changes necessary in their business practices to secure sustainable food supplies in the medium and long term.

In the coming years the food we eat will change. What we are able to feed our children and grandchildren will depend on what we do about climate change, hunger and equality now. We know what needs to be done. The narrative must be inclusive and move away from producing more or gaining security of supply. Businesses need to work together, to be collaborative. Government must step up and use its position to enable the change. We need to look at what we grow, and how we grow it. We need to promote sustainable diets, less wastage and a more equitable system.

Businesses, government and civil society need a fuller understanding of the breadth of the food security challenge, and their individual positive long-term contributions to addressing it in order to deliver the robust and sustainable system set that is so desperately needed.

Other articles in the Sixth Extinction series:

Stopping the sixth extinction: Mobilising corporate businesses

Stopping the sixth extinction: Beyond GM food

Stopping the sixth extinction: Habitat creation

Stopping the Sixth extinction: Ecocide law

Stopping the Sixth extinction: ‘Innerpreneurship’


Photo credit: CIFOR from Flickr