UNEP and IWMI Advocate Agroecosystems to Improve Food, Water Security

By Dana Drugmand 

With the world population already at 7 billion, producing food in environmentally sustainable ways will be one of the key challenges we face this century. Investing in the connections between ecosystems, water management and food production will be an important part of the solution to reducing hunger, poverty, and ecological degradation, according to a report produced jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

Maintaining ecosystem services will be critical to ensuring long-term food security, according to the report from UNEP and IWMI. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

An Ecosystems Services Approach to Water and Food Security, which was launched during World Water Week in Stockholm back in August, addresses the question of how it is possible to boost food security without severely depleting water resources and while keeping healthy ecosystems intact. The report notes that water scarcity is one of the key factors limiting food production. At the same time, current agricultural practices are putting huge strains on water resources. Groundwater levels, for example, are declining rapidly in major food producing regions such as the North China Plains, the Indian Punjab, and the western United States.

As UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner writes in the report’s preface, “ensuring food security, managing water resources and protecting ecosystems must be considered as a single policy rather than as separate, and sometimes competing, choices.” The report recommends managing agricultural areas as agroecosystems, which provide ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, soil formation, water purification and flood control that are critical to ensuring a sustainable and stable food supply. Measures such as diversifying crop production, implementing agroforestry, and improving rainwater collection should boost crop yields and build resilience to make agriculture less vulnerable to climate change. The report also offers specific recommendations for a more holistic approach to managing drylands, wetlands, crop systems, fisheries, and livestock systems. And maintaining ecosystem services in agroecosystems will require collaboration among multiple sectors, including agriculture, water, forestry, fisheries, livestock and wildlife management.

An ecosystem services approach to agriculture could help reduce poverty and improve the livelihoods of the rural poor, according to the report. Other potential benefits of this approach include more efficient use of natural resources such as water, a reduction in the 5-10 million hectares of farmland that are lost each year to degradation, and fewer yield losses due to pests and diseases, droughts, and floods.

Enhancing food production does not have to come at the expense of resilient ecosystems. According to David Molden, Deputy Director General for research at IWMI, “The various political, research and community alliances now emerging are challenging the notion that we have to choose between food security and ecosystem health by making it clear that you can’t have one without the other.”

Do you know of other sustainable approaches to agriculture that have the potential to improve crop yields without depleting the natural resource base? Tell us in the comments section!

Dana Drugmand is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet. 

To read more on agroecology and ecosystem services, see: New UN Report Illustrates the Potential of Agroecology to Feed the Hungry, De Schutter calls for local agroecology and accountability in food systems, Briefing serves up food for thought on global hunger, and A Greener Revolution

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