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Saturday, June 3, 2017

We are not alone

Achieving sustainable and dignified life for all on an increasingly small planet
By Robyn Alders, Richard Kock for Environmental Health News

On March 5, 2017, novelist Paulo Coelho wrote on Twitter that "Save the planet" is just an expression of arrogance. The planet was here before we arrived, and will kick us out if we don't respect it. He’s absolutely correct.

It’s not only us humans who are in danger of being kicked out. Declines in wildlife populations and habitats have occurred in parallel with an increasing human population and expansion of ‘modern’ agriculture. 

Most of the damage has been done in our lifetimes—a direct result of the post-second world war push for global food security.



Large organizations were born to carry this responsibility, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Bank. These agencies developed a sophisticated program to support low- and middle-income countries with agriculture based on Western food systems and technologies, promoting increasing industrialization and production gene-trait linked plant and animal breeding for selective crops and livestock farming. This indeed led to massive increases in production and food availability.

This system ultimately globalized, under the influence of a free flow of capital. Some would argue that the ages of famine are over as a result, but are they? Unfortunately, despite the abundance, malnutrition rates have not diminished significantly with undernutrition remaining a significant problem in many low-income countries, while obesity and micronutrient deficiencies have become major issues globally.

So, we’re producing more food but it’s not reaching us in a form that is good for us and it certainly negatively impacts a range of terrestrial and marine ecosystems globally. Agricultural externalities are massive.

The most serious being loss of land and its productivity to most all other species, other than humans and their domestic animals, resulting in catastrophic declines in biodiversity.

While the agricultural process inevitably leads to pathogen generation and disease risk, degradation of soils, pollution, and eutrophication are leading to estuarine dead zones from agricultural outflows, extending hundreds of kilometers into the oceans.

Agriculture is also incredibly thirsty and an estimated 90 percent of readily available fresh water is needed to sustain our food systems, while precious deposits of phosphorous and other minerals continue to supply the fertilizer factories, subsidized to ensure the agri-machinery never rests.

We choose to believe that the convergence of trends such as unprecedented human and domestic animal population growth, rapidly changing environment, the emergence of non-communicable diseases as major causes of mortality, climate change and weather variability provide us with an opportunity to re-examine the ecosystems that sustain human society.

The principle of obtaining food from our environment is not wrong, where else would it come from? It is how we do it that is negligent. It ignores our responsibilities to renewal of resources and the rights of existence for all life forms on Earth.

We should focus on sustainable food and nutrition security and conservation of biodiversity to yield positive outcomes for both human and environmental health. Such an approach helps us to focus on the health and nutritional requirements of humans, domestic animals and wild animals in relation to local and global ecosystems.

It may not be possible to change the path that agriculture has taken, over the short term, but there are steps that can be taken. Neglected or underutilized crops and sustainable harvest of wild food have the potential to play a number of roles in the improvement of food security. 

These include: a way to reduce the risk of over-reliance on very limited numbers of major crops and animals; a way to increase sustainability of agriculture through a reduction in the carbon footprint of agriculture and maintenance of biodiversity; a contribution to food quality; and a way to preserve and celebrate cultural and dietary diversity.

Dietary diversity and reduced greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of animal-source food produced can be promoted through the consumption of all edible parts of the carcass, including highly nutritious offal.

In our recent paper, we argue that adopting a nutrition-sensitive landscape approach would improve consumer understanding of food systems, nutrient cycles, ecosystems services and potentially bolster links between dietary diversity and biodiversity. This argument is based on over 50 years of combined on the ground research in Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania.

Robyn Alders is an Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Security at the University of Sydney and Richard Kock is a Professor of Wildlife Health and Emerging Diseases at the Royal Veterinary College, London.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.