From a growing food crisis in South Sudan to extensive drought in West Africa, it’s clear that Africa — and the world — needs a new strategy to combat global hunger. In South Africa’s semi-arid Namaqualand region, CI is strengthening the case for agricultural systems that are based on healthy ecosystems and promote sustainable livelihoods. Learn more in John Buchanan’s post below. (A version of this blog was cross-posted on the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative blog.)
Modern food systems have been very successful at producing vast amounts of food to feed our growing world. However, this has come at a high cost. Many waterways have become depleted or greatly polluted. An expansive amount of natural habitat has been lost or fragmented due to conversion to agriculture. And this loss and degradation has resulted in a huge decline in the world’s species — a decline which must be curbed if we wish to maintain — let alone expand — global food production.
Healthy natural ecosystems are the backbone of a productive, resilient planet; they’re also essential to food security. They provide a bountiful supply of wild foods that nourish billions of people. Fish in particular represent an important source of nutrients. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, more than one billion people depend on seafood as their primary source of protein.
Ecosystems also support our ability to continuously cultivate food by providing critical services such as fresh water; nutrient cycling and soil formation; pollination; regulation of climate, pests and diseases; and the genetic diversity that may hold the key to more productive, more nutritious, or more resilient crop or livestock varieties in the future.
About 7,000 species of plants and several hundred species of animals have been used for human food at one time or another. As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment points out, some indigenous and traditional communities depend heavily on biodiversity, using more than 200 species for food. Wild sources of food are particularly important for the poor and landless. This is especially the case during times of famine, insecurity or conflict, but even in normal times many wild foods are important complements to staple foods to provide a balanced diet.
Conservation International’s (CI) approach to food security recognizes that human well-being, sustainable food production systems and healthy natural ecosystems are all interdependent. Working at the landscape and seascape scale, we aim to demonstrate how the conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, implemented together with appropriate production and harvest practices, can make food production more resilient and sustainable.
Case in point: South Africa’s semi-arid, biodiversity-rich Namaqualand region, where the majority of the population’s livelihoods depend on livestock production, yet overgrazing and degradation of freshwater resources are making it even more difficult for people to make a living. Forty percent of residents currently live below the poverty line.
The Biodiversity and Red Meat Initiative (BRI) — created by Conservation South Africa and local partners — is working with local farmers to strengthen pastoral livelihoods by reducing herd size, protecting key wetland areas and encouraging wildlife-friendly predator management (i.e. using guard dogs instead of hunting or trapping the animals). In exchange for membership, participants receive technical support and training in improved production practices, monitoring and help with infrastructure. As a further incentive, the initiative is working to create more secure markets by linking herders to a national meat processor.
By combining improved grazing practices with protection of sensitive riparian areas within a larger watershed, this project illustrates the importance of taking a broader approach to sustainable food production that not only looks at specific production practices, but also considers the role of nature in the larger production landscape.
To this end, CI is proud to join a strong set of partners in the creation of the Landscape for People, Food and Nature (LPFN) Initiative. Through this collaboration, we hope to ensure long-term food security and ecosystem health by promoting “multi-output” food production systems that are able to provide services beyond food provisioning. For example, farming systems can provide watershed services in the form of rainwater infiltration and water quality regulation. Agricultural systems also have potential to serve as carbon sinks, provide wildlife habitat, and create connectivity between natural areas in the landscape.
There is no “one size fits all” for agriculture, but these integrated approaches to sustainable food production — developed with local stakeholders and tailored to local conditions — are essential to conserving biodiversity in agricultural landscapes while meeting the needs for food production.
John Buchanan is CI’s senior director of food security.