Participation People

Food security within environmental limits

Prepared by the Environment and Natural Resources Service (SDRN)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division

THE ENVIRONMENTAL PRICE of food production is the loss of natural vegetation and biological diversity, soil erosion, and surface and groundwater depletion. Inevitably, there are divergent views about how land should be used - whether for industrial crops, food, nature conservation or industry. These conflicts exist for coastal and inland areas and common property resources such as forests, grazing lands and even oceans.

Clearly defined procedures are needed to satisfy different needs and interests in society, not only of current generations but also taking into account future needs. This means involving stakeholders - farmers, local land managers, non-governmental and governmental organisations, consumers and others - and evaluating the environmental costs of different land use options.

Democratic structures and public opinion on environmental issues help to identify preferences and set appropriate land use goals, including the need for access to food, and an adequate diet for a healthy, active life. Transformation of current and future food production systems requires a land or resource-use planning approach and the formulation of explicit goals for alternative land uses. Planning is also necessary to define incentives for sustainable use, and to promote changes of attitude and values toward improved land use options. Today's severe pressure on marine fish stocks is an example of how misguided policy and lack of planning can lead to indiscriminate use of a common natural resource.

The political and administrative framework within which food production can increase without leading to widespread environmental damage should have at least four main elements:

Experience has shown that countries in which there is good governance reap the benefits through more stable and sustainable economic growth. This involves promoting dialogue with all interest groups and sharing decision-making authority and control over resource allocation to district and local levels. A more enlightened role of government also implies working side-by-side with NGOs, farmers' associations and the private sector. The marginalization of women from decisions and resources also has numerous negative effects on food production. Government is in the best position to assist women in sensitizing them to environmental concerns by promoting interventions that improve their access to education and training, energy resources, and credit.

A number of governments must undertake the complex and difficult tasks of land tenure reform, channelling investment towards rural areas and enacting supporting policies that reflect a national ethic of sustainable development, reflecting, in turn, their circumstances.

Present definitions of economic viability primarily consider productivity and profitability. They do not take into account sustainability. Neither are the costs of harmful effects on the environment included in the System of National Accounts, which countries use to measure their net economic gains and losses. The loss of environmental goods and services is particularly detrimental to poorer countries, whose economies are more dependent on natural resources and are thus more vulnerable to their loss.

Intensive effort is needed to strengthen and test methodologies for national environmental accounting. This includes pricing the costs of soil and water degradation, of depletion of plant nutrients, loss of forest cover and biological diversity, practices that are economically and environmentally unsustainable.

The environmental costs of producing different crops (i.e. the potential pollution or resource degradation intensity) also needs to be calculated in order to understand the conditions required for successful production. For example, in South Africa, agricultural income has been adjusted to allow for various kinds of environmental damage, such as soil erosion, acidity, salinization and loss of plant nutrients, that arise from food production.

For economic, political, food security or other reasons, many countries will continue to promote policies that are expedient in the short-term, but eventually become environmentally degrading and contribute little to sustainable economic development. Whereas regulatory (command and control) structures often create new problems, fiscal measures to promote environmentally-friendly techniques and economic incentives have been found to be cost-effective in correcting policy and market failures.

These include charges for the destructive use of natural resources (e.g. farming on steep slopes, destruction of hedgerows or windbreaks) or for emissions based on the costs of meeting agreed target concentrations (the "polluter pays" principle). Change may also be accomplished by methods which offer rewards or penalties proportional to the environmental damage caused.

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