Nature’s Contributions to a Food Secure Future: Summary of Findings from the IPBES Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
While people across the globe have access to more food, energy, and raw material than at any point in human history, nature is declining globally at unprecedented rates, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely. This is the main finding of the largest and most comprehensive global assessment of the state of nature to date, published in 2019 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Nature’s declining capacity to regulate environmental processes — such as improving air and water quality, sequestering carbon, building healthy soils, and providing coastal protection from storms — will undermine progress toward 80 percent (35 out of 44) of the assessed targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans, and land. These results suggest that nature conservation is not a “niche” issue or special interest, but fundamental to human development. Despite its dire conclusions, the IPBES report also outlines opportunities to chart a development path that nourishes rather than depletes our natural environment through swift and bold action.
According to the IPBES assessment, 75 percent of the Earth’s land and 66 percent of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. Eighty-five percent of global wetlands, critical ecosystems that store floodwaters, purify water, and provide fish and wildlife habitat, have been lost. One million species around the world are threatened with extinction, many within decades, including 500,000 terrestrial species that do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival. More than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost one-third of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. The report identified sea and land use change and direct exploitation of species as the two greatest threats to nature, with increasing threats from climate change, pollution, and the spread of invasive alien species.
Nature’s Contributions to Food Security and Nutrition
The results of the IPBES assessment have implications for the long-term sustainability of USAID’s food security and nutrition investments. While the value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300 percent since 1970, farms are supplanting critical natural ecosystems that trap carbon and support the environmental processes essential for agriculture. More than three billion people worldwide face decreased crop and livestock production because they live in land degradation hotspots that cover 29 percent of the Earth’s land surface (Le et al., 2016). The report also found that global agrobiodiversity has decreased and crop wild relatives are threatened by habitat loss, reducing the pool of genetic variation that underpins the resilience of agricultural production. Declines in soil biodiversity decrease the nutritional quality of food crops, with disproportionate impacts on subsistence farming communities vulnerable to micronutrient deficiency (Antunes et al., 2012). IPBES scientists estimate that the loss of wild pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and bats will reduce annual global crop output by $235–577 billion. These losses will not be isolated to particular regions or food types: more than 75 percent of global food crops—including fruits, vegetables, and some of the most valuable crops such as coffee and cocoa—rely on pollinators.
Billions of people around the world also depend directly on wild species for food and sale. About three billion people depend on wild-caught fisheries for food, nutrition, and jobs. Wild fish are some of the most nutritious foods available and provide essential nutrients for healthy childhood development. At least 10 percent of the global population could face deficiencies of micronutrients like zinc, iron, and vitamin A and fatty acids like DHA omega-3 due to declines in fish catch (Golden et al., 2016). Other wild foods sustainably harvested from natural areas such as berries, leafy vegetables, mushrooms, and insects are also rich in micronutrients and supplement carbohydrate-rich diets common in many developing countries (Bharucha and Pretty, 2010; Hickey et al., 2016); they also serve as safety-net foods during times of crisis (Powell et al., 2013). The destruction of habitats that harbor nutritious wild foods and overexploitation of wild species — particularly overfishing of an estimated one-third of total marine fish catch — threaten food security for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
The Path Forward
The IPBES authors call for “transformative change” to stem nature’s deterioration and show through modeling future scenarios that, despite the severity of threats and lack of progress to date, opportunities exist to change future trajectories through actions that address the root economic, social, and technological causes of nature’s deterioration. Many of the report’s solutions are based on approaches USAID is already implementing. But the authors argue that solutions must be scaled up quickly through bold actions and commitment from local to global levels.
Solutions outlined in the report include adopting integrated and cross-sectoral approaches that consider trade-offs of food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and biodiversity conservation. Among the report’s high-level recommendations are calls to produce and consume food sustainably and to promote sustainable governance and management of landscapes and seascapes. Increasing demands for food could be met without expanding agriculture’s footprint by sustainably increasing yields, addressing dietary choices, and reducing waste, among other measures.
A food-secure future requires fully accounting for nature’s contributions to food systems and conserving the natural ecosystems upon which food security and nutrition depend.
Antunes, P.M. et al. Linking soil biodiversity and human health: do arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi contribute to food nutrition, pp. 153-172 in Soil ecology and ecosystem services. Wall, D.H. et al., eds. (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2012).
Bharucha, Z. and J. Pretty. 2010. The roles and values of wild foods in agricultural systems. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365: 2913-2926.
Diaz, S. et al. 2019. Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change. Science, 366:eaax3100.
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Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Summary for Policymakers of the Global Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz et al., eds. (IPBES Secretariat, 2019).
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