Averting Food Waste & Loss Through Harnessing Ecosystems Based Approaches: Towards Avoiding A Food Insecurity Crisis in Africa

richard-munang-unepinnerBy Richard Munang,
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

With the global population approaching 9.6 billion people by 2050, huge demands will be placed on governments and the environment to provide sufficient food. Already, the world is searching for solutions to a series of global challenges unprecedented in their scale and complexity. Food insecurity, malnutrition, climate change, rural poverty and environmental degradation are all among them. Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly vulnerable to these threats because both supply-side and demand-side challenges are putting additional pressure on an already fragile food production system. Indeed, current systems of production will only be able to meet 13 percent of the continent’s food needs by 2050, while three out of four people added to the planet between now and 2100 will be born in the region.

More than half of the world’s ecosystems are either degraded or used unsustainably. This is particularly true of food-producing ecosystems, including aquatic-, agro- and forest ecosystems. Degraded ecosystems means loss and waste of potential food available for human consumption.For example, food losses and waste due to degraded agro-ecosystems are particularly striking and soil erosion, which is the most common form of land degradation, is responsible for the annual loss of about 10 million hectares of crop land globally, a rate that is 10 to 40 times greater than soil renewal (Pimentel 2006). Yield losses of as much as 4-10 per cent in crop production in drylands are incurred due to land degradation, desertification and drought (UNEP 2012a). Reductions in food production also come from the loss of ecosystem services such as insect pollination – essential to food production. Nicholls et al. (2013) estimate that 35 per cent of global crop production depends on insect and animal pollination and the current depletion and death of insects, including in particular bees, is likely to have dramatic consequence on food production. Similarly, much potential food is lost in the world’s fisheries due to over-harvesting and overexploitation of the global fish stocks. It has been estimated that, in 2000, 15 per cent of global fish harvest was lost due to the impacts that overfishing had on fish stocks (Srinivasan et al. 2010. Forests provide a variety of food including fruits, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, roots, honey, bushmeat from wild animals, birds and insects. As an example, forest insects form part of the traditional diet to about 2 billion people in Africa (van Huis et al. 2013). Food from forests is under threat from rapid deforestation, and an alarming 13 million hectares of forest is lost each year due to deforestation and natural events (FAO 2010a) – the equivalent to an area about the size of England or 36 football fields per minute. In order to meet current and future food demands while at the same time preserve the world’s ecosystems and sustainably utilize their full food producing potential, new and more intelligent/precautionary management practices must be implemented in agriculture, fisheries, and forestry amongst many other ecosystems across the world, such as ecosystem based approaches which recognises the interlinkages between ecosystems and goes beyond managing single species or ecosystem functions in isolation.

In this context, building resilient and highly productive food systems in agriculture-dominated landscapes is imperative. Unfortunately, past attempts to solve this problem have largely focused on mechanized large-scale farms practicing monoculture that disrupt and deplete natural soil processes and contribute to global climate change, undermining long-term productivity and creating a cycle of chemical dependency. Achieving food security in the context of Sub-Saharan Africa is unimaginable without climate change adaptation and practices that not only support food production to meet people’s nutritional needs, but that also prevent soil erosion, conserve and provide clean water, recycle nutrients, and support the pollinators and biodiversity that underpin agricultural productivity. This calls for solutions based on ecological foundations. Ecosystem-based adaptation provides flexible, cost effective, and broadly applicable alternatives for building robust food systems that require fewer inputs while reducing the impacts of climate change.

According to Steiner 20111, it is imperative that a new agriculture be found to feed the world’s population both efficiently and equitably. Increases in food production over the past fifty years have come at the cost of biodiversity and ecosystem service provision, yet there is considerable evidence that diverse agro-ecological systems can be equally  productive, if not more so in terms of actual yield outputs, notwithstanding the biodiversity benefits of such approaches.

With this fierce urgency of now, UNEP and FAO co-organized the First Africa Food Security and Adaptation Conference on 20-21 August 2013, bringing almost 800 delegates from across the continent and they backed Ecosystems-Based Adaptation Approaches as the first step towards enhancing food security and adapting to climate change. The delegates adopted a declaration calling for funding and up-scaling of Ecosystems Based Adaptation Approaches in order to build resilient food systems and adaptation to climate change in Africa. The African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN) to adopt the recommendations and declaration of the First African Food Security and Adaptation Conference and integrate Ecosystems-Based Adaptation Approaches into their regional Flagship programs. http://www.unep.org/newscentre/Default.aspx?DocumentID=2725&ArticleID=9598&l=en

Managing landscapes and seascapes on a multi-functional basis that combines food production, biodiversity conservation and the maintenance of ecosystem services should be at the forefront of efforts to achieve food security and climate change adaptation. Investment in ecosystem-based adaptation is one of the most important keys to contribute to poverty eradication and to sustainable long-term food security.

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