Agriculture & Food


The Global Food Crisis of 2008 thrust agriculture into the international spotlight, underlining the persistent human and environmental vulnerabilities associated with the prevailing system of food production. At the same time, the fisheries sector is facing a crisis of similar magnitude: fish stocks are collapsing and actions undertaken by governmental and international institutions are failing to halt their demise.

While the green revolution and new agricultural technologies have vastly improved yields in some regions, the FAO reports that over one billion people – one in six worldwide – still suffer from chronic hunger and undernourishment in 2010. Additionally, modern agricultural production has caused significant ecological damage, exacerbating the food security crisis, and impeding the environment's capacity for ecosystem service provision that underpins food production and human survival.

The global food system is a complex web of production, processing, storage and transportation that moves agricultural and fisheries products from field-to-fork, or from capture-to-consumption, through a traditionally resource-inefficient series of activities. Scientists, policy makers and producers of food agree that these global agri-food supply chains are unsustainable and that new incentives for increasing resource efficiency in the sector are crucial to meeting the challenges before us.

In 2008 the UN Secretary General formed the High Level Taskforce on the Global Food Security Crisis. In addition to the short-term challenges associated with planning for rising food insecurity in a growing number of countries, the taskforce has identified a much more complex long-term challenge: How to increase food production and distribution by 50% by 2050, to accommodate the basic nutritional requirements of a mid-century population of 9.1 billion? Feeding an additional 2.3 billion people presents an unprecedented global challenge as it is. However, when taking the current status of the environment into account, the magnitude of the problem increases significantly:

It is expected that climate change, water scarcity, land degradation and additional damage to the environment will result in agricultural losses, to current production levels, averaging 25% globally. When combined with the need to produce 50% more food to feed 9.1 billion people in 2050, global food production must increase in real terms by 75%, in 40 years time, to provide enough food for human survival.

Food Production and the Environment:  a Challenging Relationship

This complex challenge brings us back to our roots, literally. For while technological advances will continue to play a role in addressing the ongoing crisis, the production of food and fish remains dependent upon well-functioning ecological systems that support natural habitat, water, nutrients, soils, climate, and insects. However, the current global food system has already had profound effects on these essential foundations:

  • During the second half of the twentieth century, 2 billion hectares of arable lands were degraded due to poor agricultural practice.  2 to 5 million hectares are added to this figure annually.
  • Fresh water supplies are globally over subscribed, with at least 70% of fresh water being consumed by agriculture.
  • Nearly 21% of fossil fuel used by humans goes into the global food system.
  • Agriculture contributes more than 30% of total global green house gas emissions.
  • Agricultural expansion is responsible for 80% of deforestation.
  • Global fish stocks have declined by 75%, due to uncontrolled overfishing and habitat degradation. Aquaculture, which utilizes wild-caught fish as feed for farmed species, does not relieve pressure on wild stocks. For example, 20 kilograms of wild-caught feed is generally required to produce just 1 kilogram of farmed tuna.
  • Food production is the world’s largest driver of genetic erosion, species loss and conversion of natural habitats.

Sources: UNEP, FAO, IPCC, Worldwatch Institute

Building Sustainable Supply Chains:  A New Paradigm for Food Production

Both government intervention and private sector investment will play key roles in addressing this challenge, and their collaboration will be central to transforming global agri-food supply chains into models of sustainable production and consumption.

UNEP-DTIE is convening actors across the sector, working closely with national policy makers, agri-food producers, and global retailers to build public-private and business-to-business partnerships that harness the power of markets to promote sustainability throughout all stages of agri-food supply chains. The sustainable supply chains approach utilizes innovative market-based tools - from field-to-fork and capture-to-consumption - to provide incentives for sustainable management of the agri-food natural resource base, and for the socioeconomic wellbeing of chain actors. When tools are targeted to build sustainability-related value and to deliver sustainability-related returns, the sector becomes rooted in a new operational paradigm and strategic planning across the chain can be coordinated for the long-term viability of the resource base and the industry.