Page last updated at 11:25 GMT, Monday, 2 June 2008 12:25 UK

Unnatural roots of the food crisis

Gonzalo Oviedo
Gonzalo Oviedo

As representatives of the world's governments gather to address shortages in major foodstuffs and rising prices, Gonzalo Oviedo counsels them to focus on ecosystems. The modern business-dominated agricultural industry, he argues, promotes the degradation of nature - and that, in turn, means less and worse food.

Rice sacks in Thai shop. Image: AFP/Getty
Four plant species - wheat, maize, rice and potato - provide over half of the plant-based calories in the human diet

Feeding the world requires healthy ecosystems and equitable governance.

The current model of market-driven food production is leaving people hungry.

It has turned food into a commodity subject to all the market failures that create inequities and negative impacts on the environment.

We have a global food crisis.

A myriad of events are convening the international community to reflect on the urgent situation.

Just in the past month, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity focused considerable attention on agriculture and food security.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon created a special task force to respond to the crisis and soaring food prices.

And this week, in Rome, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is hosting a high-level summit on world food security, climate change and bioenergy.

But this crisis has been long coming. Unsustainable agricultural policies and technologies, inequitable trade rules, agricultural subsidies that distort the markets, and the systematic marginalisation of small producers lie at the heart of the problem.

In addition, there is chronic under-investment in agriculture in developing countries, and a real neglect of the basic premise that ecosystems have to be in good shape in order to provide good food.

Costs of production

The past 50 years have seen massive expansion of agriculture, with food production more than doubling in order to meet demand.

Red Irish lord. Image: AFP/Getty
Neglecting ecosystem concerns has provoked a fisheries crisis too

But it has left us with 60% of all ecosystem services degraded, accelerated species extinction, and huge loss in genetic diversity.

Currently, four plant species - wheat, maize, rice and potato - provide more than half of the plant-based calories in the human diet, while about a dozen animal species provide 90% of animal protein consumed globally.

We have already lost three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops.

As the agricultural frontier has expanded, those farmers previously dependant on a more diverse source of livelihood have converted to cash crops.

As traditional varieties and breeds die out, so too do the traditional knowledge and practices of local farmers. Those same practices could now be critical in adapting to climate change.

The focus on agricultural commodities rather than on food production to meet the basic needs of people has undermined diversity and self-reliance, and left farmers vulnerable to volatile markets, political instability and environmental change.

Increased food production in some parts of the world has been at the expense of natural and semi-natural ecosystems that provide us greater long-term security.

In Britain, studies have shown that hay production is higher in meadows with a greater number of species.

Amazingly, there is very little attention being paid to what fundamentally underpins all of our food systems - biodiversity and the services provided by ecosystems

In Australia, crop yields are higher in regions where native biodiversity has been preserved.

In the seas, too, areas with a higher number of conserved species generate more fish for humans to catch and eat.

There are many other examples from land and sea to show that a healthy environment means more food and a greater capacity to survive natural disasters.

The current food crisis, meanwhile, will only be exacerbated by climate change, with southern Africa and South Asia expected to be particularly badly affected.

Market transformation

So what are the solutions to feeding a growing world population in the face of climate change?

We have been hearing about a Green Revolution for Africa, major irrigation and fertilisation programmes, genetically modified seed varieties, as well as banning the use of crops for biofuel production.

Amazingly, there is very little attention being paid to what fundamentally underpins all of our food systems - biodiversity and the services provided by ecosystems, such as soil, water and resilience to disasters.

We need to attack market failures and change the economic rules of current food production systems.

Hydroponic facility in Cuba. Image: AP
Developments such as hydroponics can reduce farming's use of resources

We must eliminate agricultural and fisheries subsidies that support elites in the North, and get rid of protectionist measures in OECD countries for agricultural products.

We have to allow for value-added trade for the benefit of the South, and expand fair trade and labelling processes that create incentives and add benefits to producers in the South.

We must change food production systems, moving from the existing model based on high inputs (such as fertilisers) accessible through markets, to systems based on locally available and more environmentally-friendly inputs.

We need to create alternative trade rules and circuits that reduce the payout to middlemen and big agribusinesses.

We must have greater investment, including by bilateral and multilateral development co-operation, to support food production systems that feed the poor and supply local markets.

The governance model related to natural resources has to change. We must expand small farmers' and landless peasants' access to productive assets in countries of the South - lands, water sources and fisheries.

There needs to be a shift away from the prevailing model of concentration of land in small groups of big landowners who are dropping food production for local markets and moving to big industrial production of commodities that produce no local benefits.

Gonzalo Oviedo is senior advisor on social policy with IUCN (formerly the World Conservation Union)

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Gonzalo Oviedo? Is there a global food crisis? If so, is it partially down to the farming industry overlooking issues such as biodiversity preservation and traditional knowledge? Or has globalisation promoted the availability of food?

By 2050 world population is projected to increase to 9 Billion and by the same time It has been estimated that as much as 50% of the world's arable land may be unusable. In order to feed this burgeoning population food production will have to increase by 110%. Clearly this is not possible without a radical rethink of production techniques and dietary needs. The western diet needs to change away from its dependency on high protein meat sources and over consumption. The West has to address our wanton wastage of food where we are currently throwing away 30% of the food we buy. Governments will also have to address the thorny subject of land tenure. China and the Gulf States are already looking at purchasing land in other countries in order to feed their own populations. It may well be time for us all to look at the consequences of nationalising productive land in order to ensure an equitable distribution of food.
Peter Griffith, Much Wenlock UK

This opinion piece is completely lacking in any content. Mr Oviedo presents a lot of rhetoric backed up by a single paragraph of rather flimsy evidence. So this article makes little or no contribution to any debate.
Chris Rogers, Didcot

Can bio diversity actually produce enough food to feed the masses? Even if you diversify would you automatically have enough quantity? Will small farmers and peasants grow enough to feed the cities? Without middlemen, who will find the buyers and transport the food to them? How will food production for local markets feed the drought stricken countries of Africa? Why do so many people buy the platitudes of these liberal communist commentaries?
Paul O, Fargo USA

He certainly is right.No-one is going to change corporations and governments quickly. Change has to come from all of us as individuals.In England during the second war war the country had to use all the land to grow food or starve- we'd better get on with it all again.everywhere. Water and soil are real essentials to all crops-China knows that with it's problems as spelt out by Professor Spence in the Reith Lectures on BBC
Alastair Clarke, Stratford on Avon UK

Bettina is absolutely right. All politicians are frightened to address the issue which will preserve resources, bio-diversity and just about any other problem you care to name. There are too many people and we need to gradually reduce world population. If we do not then the wars for command of natural resources will increase along with the related horrors of killing and need. Opposing religions, peoples 'right' to have children and pursuing reduction instead of growth is not something that squares with the short term cycles of democracy is it? I am not suggesting dictatorship, just pointing out that our current systems are not built for long term solutions.
Rob Hollis, Wilmslow

Agriculture should be applauded for its achievement in supplying the needs of teh world in the past 30 years. If the cossetted western commentators would allow this trend to continue - with use of ALL available technologies - the agricultural businesses would continue to feed the world
martin smith, shrewsbury UK

Virtually nobody is addressing the fundamental problem of over-population. Most groups are seriously culpable of ignorance or burying their heads in the sand on this issue - politicions either clueless or dare not speak out, religious leaders peddling anti birth control propaganda, selfish couples with large families - the list is endless ....... A few years ago I heard a Swedish politicion promoting a higher birth rate 'so that the older generation will have enough people to look after them'! With logic like that, what hope for the second and third worlds? Education is required. We are well on our way to consuming virtually everything the earth has to offer in a century or two. Intuitively, I sense that, in the long term, the planet would struggle to support one tenth of the current population yet all the talk is about how much longer it will take to double! Population growth is the root cause of nearly all our current problems. Come on politicions, educate yourselves, stand up and be counted on a platform of population reduction!
Colin Hubbard, Altrincham, UK

So where will all we new farmers farm? Are we to empty the cities into the rural areas and "re-distribute" the land? And while we're busy doing that, who will be the doctors, artists, philosophers, politicians (no loss there!) and others who depend on exchanging their talents for food? I expect the next step to satisfy the anti-business types who have written is to intentionally shorten our lifespans back to what was "normal" at some arbitrary point in time. Granted, biodiversity and intact ecosystems are valuable, and if there were less hungry mouths in the world, would likely be more prevalent. The demand for food (i.e. agricultural commodities) drives production. Where does the demand come from? People, too many of them. I'm no philosopher, but letting them starve to balance the ecosytem is not an acceptable option.
Brent, Calgary, Canada

I work for one of the UN agencies involved heavily in food security and development. Gonzalo has made an excellent summary of our big problems and the direction we, as a global community need to be heading to solve them. Unfortunately the solutions to these problems are not widely agreed upon let alone the diplomacy issues in attempting to address them with world powers who just want to throw cash at a problem rather than make difficult changes in their our countries. For example, a key issue for many countries is as Gonzalo points out, that they have been moved towards high input crops. All of a sudden, or not so sudden if you've been paying attention, fuel and fertiliser required for the high yield crops makes the final value of the commodity out of reach for the poor in those countries. Some GM crops solve this issue, however it puts our local farmers right back in the pockets of multi-national conglomerates. If only there were generic patent free GM crops... This is by far the best piece I have read this week in the whirlwind surrounding the Rome FAO conference.
James, Australia

I suggest returning to the old joint family system which is centered around farming,cattle rearing etc. Today we live in a individualistic society where people are concerned with only their own well being. It has given rise to selfishness and narrow mindedness and a tendency to live a self centred luxury life. People have become more luxury loving these days. We should return to the joint family system or a community life. The best example of early community life can be found in the Bible in the acts of the apostles. It is high time the world turn to the scriptures and start a new life led by the spirit.
Siby Jacob, Kerala

what we need is a leader with a vision, and strong grassroots movement of concerned citizens to solve food crisis. This can be done. Change start with me and you. We have to get into politics and we must push for change. It is much better than standing and doing nothing.
Oleksiy Popovych, Edmonton, Canada

Just because we are capable of producing a gargantuan agricultural output today doesn't mean we are able to sustain it for generations to come. We have to act now if the human race is to survive.
indra, coventry, uk

Great piece but I doubt the profit clamoring corporations or the protectionist politicians will pay any attention at all.
Robert NYC, NYC, US

In this area rising fuel costs are differentialy driving down home prices. Home prices are falling far faster at the end of long commutes. People cannot afford to drive to furthest suburbia. Even in this comparatively rich area rising food costs are changing buying habits. It may well be that farmland eating sprawl will die off even as food from other continents is priced out of existence. The system may cleanse itself but at great personal cost to many. Unfortunately here in Washington State agribusiness is provided with almost free water and deeply discounted electricity. These subsidies that seem never to be mentioned are distorting food and energy policies throughout the Western States of the US.
Gerard Bentryn, Bainbridge Island, WA, USA

It's true, the corporations are running the world under the guise of governments, and corporations are driven only by bottom-line profit. They are not compassionate and they will not change tactics unless they are presented with changed incentives. Since it is government that (theoretically) has power to change the incentives through enforced legislation, and since gov is own by corporate, there is little chance of that happening. We're on our own, folks. I suggest reclaiming the lost art of community and learning how to keep old fashioned community gardens.
Morgaine Bergman, Willis, VA

Only subsidy for bio farming. The same cost for registration for what ever size farm is inspected is far to high for small growers who are now developing their own label. Drop all other subsidy. Enforce by law and not monetary bribes the replanting of bio diverse hedges that were destroyed by the careless get rich quick yuppie farmers.
Themosthandsomemanever1, UK

I agree totally. But the globals and the developed nations will never accept the core premises.
Dr Ian Sedwell, Weymouth, UK

Totally. It's called sustainability and..sharing too [in case you've forgotten how that happens.] Nice piece
has_te, Reed Point, MT, USA

A Family Garden - is it too much to expect? We'll have to change our notion of what a 'developed' society is exactly in order for us to solve the coming food crisis. The trend for 'developed' societies has been for the vast majority of the population of a given territory to live in urban centers, in a high-rise flat with a balcony with enough space for a few flower-pots perhaps, or a dormitory with a window sill or two for yet smaller flower pots, or, perhaps, a townhouse with a little plot of earth, or a stand alone home with a little bigger plot of earth - all of which are inadequate enough space for a family garden of significant enough productivity to provide enough nutrition for the average family. And thus, to compensate for this nutritional deficit in these urban areas, food must be imported in from rural areas. These rural areas suffer not only environmental and ecological harm from intensive agriculture practiced there which often make the areas undesirable for residential living, but their communities' economies also suffer the constant inflationary trend associated with intensive agriculture's unsustainable distribution / transport system.
Chris Vietorisz, Beijing, China

We peruvians are quite concerned about the soaring prices of food as we are a still developing agricultural country. We agree that food technology and agriculture should go hand by hand and that instead of radical deforestation to supply more farming lands a better government guidance in new agricultural policies should be applied.
Isabella Zolezzi, Lima, Lima, Perú

There are some good ideas here that need to happen. Unfortunately it requires that politicians agree on what needs to be done and then to implement an effective plan. The also need to understand it! If one thing is clear from previous meetings such as the one in Rome, there is a lot of talk but no backbone to implement the changes that need to be done. They will probably implement a committee to investigate the possibilies and get the report in 5 years, when it is too late and the changes suggested by the report are no longer adequate. At the end of the day they will only make the necessary changes in the face of complete disaster, and I don't think they could do it then!
Richard May, France

Yes I do agree. One of the items that change the system as we know it now is to remove all food sources from committee market. Food should not be used as poker chips to gamble with, this also applies to crude oil. Large corporations are indifferent to the needs of the people there only motivating force is how much they can return on investment, there ability to buy large portions of land is harmful to the genial public and this needs to change
D.Ryan, Hyettsville Md.

He says "The focus on agricultural commodities rather than on food production to meet the basic needs of people has undermined..." Look, it's the same thing, stupid! What does he think an agricultural commodity is, if not food production to meet the basic needs of people (eating)?
Thomas Goodey, Cuxton-upon-Medway, Kent, ENGLAND

He's right. He's been right for over the last century. It's time to pull everything away from market driven forces. They only destroy.
Watercloset, Montpelier, Vermont USA

If only more people were talking about "changing the rules." What has worked for a century is no longer working, and we are seeing so much evidence, in small and large systems, of a looming collapse -- of our climate, of biodiversity, of natural systems, even of our health. But people don't want to read bad news. At, we're trying to change that equation, by japing at these trends, while drawing attention to them. We're scared silly. I'm sure this will be edited out, but you, o editor, might have some fun on the site.
Michael Jensen, Silver Spring, MD, US

I agree wholeheartedly. But who is the 'We' that will change any of this. Fukuyama's essay 'End of History' should have a sequel 'End of National Democracy'. Neither my govt (UK) nor any other has the power to impose any of the changes suggested so I have no influence as an individual to force change. And the real power is now in the hands of the very organisations we should be reigning in. It's a dangerous situation. Maybe that sequel will be called 'End of Civilisation'.
R Gross, London

I completely agree with Gonzalo Oviedo. Supply of food has been taken over by commercial interests to make money. This may have increased food availability (and profits) in the short term but is not sustainable. This commercial supply of food is also increasingly leading to health problems amongst the populations subject to commercial supply of food. Traditional practices are sustainable, mass commercial food production is NOT! Either for the planet or for human health!
Alan M Crabb, Bristol

Biodiversity was found to be increased by organic farming in the UN's Millenium Report on human health and biodiversity. It's always been the one reason I buy organic. For me the real solution to most of the world's problems is managing our global population at a level lower than it is now by say 2 billion people with greater areas devoted to wilderness to promote diversity.
alex, Huntingdon/UK

The global over-population crisis is the root cause of so many of our problems. Every year there are millions more mouths to feed. The planet can only support a finite number of us so isn't about time we addressed the "too many people" problem before we start having wars over what little food and water is left?
Bettina, London

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