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Report: Modern agricultural methods unsustainable

From the print edition

A new report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said the world must protect the ecological foundations that support food production to ensure a sustainable food supply for a population expected to grow beyond 9 billion by 2050.

The report, “Avoiding Future Famines: Strengthening the Ecological Basis of Food Security through Sustainable Food Systems,” warns that modern agricultural techniques and unsustainable diets in developed countries, among other things, are chipping away the planet’s ability to produce food. It was presented Wednesday, the first day of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this week.

“The era of seemingly everlasting production based upon maximizing inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, mining supplies of freshwater and fertile arable land and advancements linked to mechanization are hitting their limits, if indeed they have not already hit them,” said U.N. Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “The world needs a green revolution but with a capital ‘G’: one that better understands how food is actually grown and produced in terms of the nature-based inputs provided by forests, freshwaters and biodiversity.”

The report focused on agricultural production and fisheries management. Of the world’s marine fisheries, according to 2008 estimates by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 53 percent is fully exploited, 28 percent is over-exploited, 3 percent is depleted and 1 percent is recovering from depletion. Overfishing, loss of coastal habitat, consequences of global climate change, destructive fishing practices like trawling and the degradation of coastal waters from inshore pollutants like agro-chemicals are the major threats to marine fisheries, according to the report.

Inshore fisheries are threatened by dam projects, agricultural runoff and pollution from other development activities.

Agricultural food production, according to the report, is threatened by its own activities including the uses of agrochemicals and pesticides, deforestation to make new farmland and competition for water.

“The environment has been more of an afterthought in the debate about food security,” said UNEP’s top scientist, Joseph Alcamo. “This is the first time that the scientific community has given up a complete picture of how the ecological basis of the food system is not only shaky but being really undermined.

”Besides threats to food production, the report also pointed out that approximately 1.3 billion tons of food produced for human consumption are lost or wasted each year due to inefficiencies in the global food-distribution system.

“The solutions are to be found along the whole food value chain, from the farms that need to grow food more sustainably, through the large companies that need to certify that their products are from sustainable fisheries and farms, up to the consumer who needs to think seriously about switching to a sustainable diet,” Alcamo said.

Besides promoting more sustainable diets (less meat-heavy diets, particularly for urban residents), the report makes other specific suggestions for protecting the ecological bases of world food production. 

In agricultural terms the report suggests the construction of centralized food storage facilities to help small-scale farmers prevent spoilage and food loss.  Increasing the sustainability of small-scale and national-level farming operations through soil management, integrated nutrient management and efficient water use would help protect the world’s food-production base, the report said.

Ending government subsidies of fishing that promote over-exploitation of resources is a major step to ensuring sustainable fisheries harvests, the report said. Each year global fishing fleets are subsidized to the tune of $30 billion. The report recommends other financial measures including reigning in over-harvesting of fish stocks worldwide as well as the development of protected marine areas and the reduction of terrestrial sources of pollution that can affect fish populations.

Famines and food shortages are likely to occur in the future, the report notes, but taking action now to strengthen the world’s food production base could help reduce the damage when food starts to be scarce.

The researchers admitted making changes won’t be easy.

“Of course we have to deal first and foremost with all the socio-economic issues having to do with food security, questions of access and affordability of food and so on,” Alcamo said. “But ultimately we won’t have enough food to distribute unless we find out a way to produce it sustainably without destroying its ecological foundation.”

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