We present an extensive literature review exploring the relationships between food insecurity and rapid biodiversity loss, and the competing methods proposed to address each of these serious problems. Given a large and growing human population, the persistence of widespread malnutrition, and the direct and significant threats the expanding agricultural system poses to biodiversity, the goals of providing universal food security and protecting biodiversity seem incompatible. Examining the literature shows that the current agricultural system already provides sufficient food on a worldwide basis, but in doing so methodically undermines the capacity of agroecosystems to preserve biodiversity. However, the available evidence emphasizes the interdependence of biodiversity and agriculture, and the important role each plays in the maintenance of the other. Thus, our review supports the claim that the solutions to the problems of widespread food insecurity and biodiversity loss need not be mutually exclusive, and that it may be possible to address both using appropriate alternative agricultural practices.
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The definition of food security used here and in the rest of this work is: physical and economic access by all people in a society at all times to enough culturally and nutritionally appropriate food for a healthy and active lifestyle (FAO 1996). Under this definition, obesity and hunger are equally considered to be problems of food security. Both are related in great part to the structures of government subsidies, global trade, narrowing of the food base, inequality, poverty, and lack of food sovereignty. And it may be possible to address both to a great extent by changing the focus of agricultural production to a food system focused on substantive equality, local production, biodiversity, and dietary diversity (Frison et al. 2006; Friel et al. 2007). Insofar as these issues converge, obesity will be (indirectly) addressed in the present work; but the primary focus will be on the hunger and nutritional insufficiency aspects of food security.
One newer component increasingly included in this list is a specific call for locally-focused food systems, such as the “nearness principle” of the Danish Research Centre for Organic Farming (2000). Locally-based food systems may cut down on resource consumption and pollution produced by the long-distance transportation of foodstuffs and agricultural inputs, and also may increase transparency and reduce alienation between producer and consumer by facilitating direct contact between these groups (Heller and Keoleian 2000; Pretty et al. 2005). (See also Note 25.).
Alternative systems may also have lower run-off of nutrients than conventional systems, meaning in turn higher resource use efficiency (see Note 23). This use efficiency further means that less energy is used to recover, produce, transport, and apply nutrients.
The stated percentage (0.7%) is potentially an underestimate. Willer and Yussefi specifically note that their data only cover 63% of all countries. Additionally, home and urban gardens, subsistence agriculture and other parts of the “informal economy,” as well as uncertified de facto organic systems constitute an unknown quantity of additional land under alternative agriculture. Such systems are often nearly invisible or overlooked in large surveys, including the country-wide surveys of organizations like the FAO (pers. obs.; Young 1999; Pretty and Hine 2001; Greene and Kremen 2003; Pretty et al. 2003; Willer and Yussefi 2007). The recent negative economic climate has highlighted the potential and growing importance of informal and small-scale efforts, such as organic urban and community gardens, to significantly contribute to local food security, equity, and sustainability (Smit and Nasr 1992; National Gardening Association 2009). However, the significance and size of these efforts are poorly studied, and have been called into question by some researchers (Ellis and Sumberg 1998).
Briefly summarized, the precautionary principle indicates that when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that new procedures and technologies may pose the risk of serious, irreversible, or widespread harm to public or environmental health or sustainability, they should be tightly regulated or wholly prohibited, regardless of a lack of full scientific certainty of the likelihood, magnitude, or causation of such harm, until it can be affirmatively shown that the new technology poses little or no significant risk.
Increasing demand for biofuels is predicted to also contribute significantly to continued deforestation and biodiversity loss. In addition to direct negative effects on biodiversity, the rise of biofuels may form positive feedbacks with global climate change, forest dieback, and continued agricultural expansion, all of which in turn can contribute to further deforestation and biodiversity loss (Sawyer 2008; Searchinger and Houghton 2008).
It is important to note that the most impressive advances in intensified conventional agriculture have been in increasing yield per unit labor (by 120 times, or about 45 times if one counts indirect labor costs) by replacing it with less energy-efficient subsidies (e.g., mechanization, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers). In contrast, alternative agricultural methods usually use increased labor inputs to increase yield per unit area (Pimentel and Dazhong 1990).
Of course, sufficient global or even regional yields are not enough to guarantee food security in its full sense, as outlined in Note 1, because having enough food in an area does not guarantee equity of access or distribution such that adequate food is available to everyone in a society. Overwhelmingly, widespread hunger has been linked to poverty, political or structural problems, and other exigencies, and seems to only rarely occur due to an actual acute lack of food availability (Sen 1984; Patnaik 1991). This necessarily means that sufficient yields from any production method will not and often cannot provide food security in and of themselves, though sufficient yield is by definition a prerequisite. This is discussed briefly in the Conclusions, but as has been noted throughout, the larger context of food systems and food institutions is important but beyond the scope of the present work.
This is further emphasized by the fact that the numbers do not take into account waste in the food system. Food waste from retailers, consumers, and food service in the US may make up as much as 27% of the total food supply. On-farm losses—including losses due to increasing mechanization—mean that the total proportion of waste is higher still. It is unknown how much of these losses are recoverable, but even low levels of recovery in the US would potentially feed tens of thousands of people a year (Kantor et al. 1997). If food waste in other countries is on the same order of magnitude, waste recovery efforts could potentially feed millions of people.
Dahlberg (1993) points out that genetic and biological diversity undergirds all of the functional resiliency and regeneration of living systems, upon which the subset of human systems are dependent for survival. In this way, biodiversity has primacy over simple resources (renewable and non-renewable). This is further reinforced by the non-substitutability of many biological systems and resources; that is, contra classic economic theory, many natural resources cannot be substituted by increased use of an alternative but rather are unique and irreplaceable. Dahlberg likens this to the loss of one or two letters of the alphabet and the words that contain them, and the difficulties in language that would result. Such non-substitutability applies to many crucial elements of production agriculture, especially biodiversity, and is a basic principle of the field of ecological economics; see e.g., Prugh et al. (2000) and Daly (1996) in addition to Dahlberg.
Citing Rosset, Vandermeer and Dietsch (2003) concluded that land reform (breaking up the inequitable concentrations of land possession present in most of the world) and redistributing the land among small producers would be the most sensible short-term solution. This, along with secure land tenure, has significant potential to aid food production, in addition to its roles in democratization and larger political reform (IAASTD 2009). Generally speaking, land reform is of a piece with food sovereignty and other broader food system issues that will need to be dealt with in order to achieve sustainability, food security, and conservation (see also Notes 15 and 25, and Conclusions).
If this makes the popularity of conventional farms perplexing, bear in mind that a primary advantage of conventional techniques is that they are much less labor intensive: a single agriculturalist can work far more land using conventional methods. Conventional methods’ use of synthetic inputs also externalizes a number of societal and environmental costs, meaning that society subsidizes lower apparent production costs through decreased health, biodiversity and environmental quality. Direct monetary subsidies can also dramatically favor large farms over small ones (USDA 2009).
A full analysis of the dynamics of farm size is not possible in the present work. However, it is important to note the “Goldschmidt Hypothesis”: that community welfare will be significantly higher in regions where agriculture is organized around smaller-scale farms than in regions dominated by a small number of large farms (Goldschmidt 1978). In the 60 or so years since his original study, a number of restudies by sociologists have “offered at least tentative support for his conclusions” (Lyson et al. 2001); and few direct refutations.
The number of ecological niches is, roughly speaking, the number of resource and habitat “openings” that organisms may occupy and exploit.
Although this may describe both conventional and alternative agriculture, alternative agriculture tends to more frequently emphasize rotations, increased fallows, and cover cropping rather than bare fallows.
“Functional groups” are groups of organisms that perform similar or the same ecological roles, such as respiration or nitrogen fixation.
Although a generalized narrative is attempted here, it is vital to note that there are considerably variable results in research on soil responses to cultivation. Hooper et al. (2000) provides some indications of the complexities and disagreements within the literature; Neher (1999) provides a more specific review of soil community reactions to agriculture; a more recent but less specific overview is provided in Kibblewhite et al. (2008).
Such loss of diversity may also compound future problems. A number of domesticated biological resources and genetic material are very likely not sustainable independent of the conservation of a stock of wild resources. Protection of on-farm cultivar diversity and wild relatives (“in situ conservation”), as well as a recognition of the importance of ethnographic and cultural knowledge in the use and propagation of biodiversity, will be needed along with off-site (ex situ) preservation in order to respond to the local needs of marginal farmers and future social or environmental changes (Altieri et al. 1987; Weissinger 1990; Dahlberg 1993; Jarvis and Hodgkin 1999; Almekinders and Elings 2001).
Organic monocultures, of course, present many of the same problems as conventional plots. The notable exceptions to this are a) lower run-off of agricultural nutrients (see Note 23), b) avoidance of synthetic pesticides’ detrimental effects on health and biodiversity, and c) lower fossil energy use and costs. The latter of these benefits may also disappear if organic nutrients (i.e., from animal manure or “green manure” crops) are not sourced on-site or locally (Pimentel et al. 2005), resulting in the contradictions of so-called “industrial organic” agriculture (Pollan 2006).
It is of course not necessarily true that the non-synthetic fertilizers and pesticides used in alternative agriculture are always applied appropriately and always experience lower run-off. However, recent studies have observed comparable or significantly lower levels of nutrient leaching in some alternative systems (Kramer et al. 2006; Tonitto et al. 2006).
In an extensive consensus review by Hooper et al. (2005), it was concluded as “certain” that system responses to biodiversity and biodiversity loss could be idiosyncratic (depending on ecosystem and its particular species and functional groups, for example); that some systems are initially insensitive to diversity, but that “more species are needed to insure a stable supply of ecosystem goods and services” over larger areas and time periods. They had “high confidence” that certain species combinations were complementary (meaning that they could increase productivity and nutrient retention as compared to a less diverse system); and that under similar conditions, susceptibility to invasion by exotic species was generally lower with higher diversity, and that having a range of species with different responses to disturbance can help increase stability, meaning that maintaining a diversity of species with diverse characteristics helps maintain a range of management options. However, determining the relationships between biodiversity and different ecosystem properties was found to require significantly more research, greater experimental work, and incorporation with the effects of various other drivers of global change.
Since the original writing of this paper, local food has gained increasing attention and popularity, especially in the US and Europe. This can be seen in a number of recent popular books, such as The 100 Mile Diet (Smith and MacKinnon 2007) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Pollan 2006), and in the popular press. Groups such as Slow Food and various urban gardening movements seem to be on the upswing, as is the growth of farmers’ markets (USDA 2006). And of course, questions related to local food systems continue to be examined in the academic literature (see Pretty et al. 2005). It is not, however, solely scale or localness that are important, but also the democratization and effective decentralization of responsibility and power within local geographies—issues of social justice and equity that once again link to the production and distribution of food at scales involving, but extending beyond, the local (Prugh et al. 2000; Batterbury and Fernando 2006; Breitbach 2007). These issues cannot be fully addressed here, but they do reinforce previous points regarding regional food security and food sovereignty. Additionally, the case studies to be presented from Brazil and Cuba remain considered food initiatives par excellence by many, and can be considered of a piece with larger trends towards land reform and local and just food systems.
Brazil, as with other developing countries, will face significant challenges to food security, conservation and the overall economy with global climate change and the rise of biofuels (see Sawyer 2008). Cuba will also doubtlessly be affected, but anticipating the nature of the effects is made difficult by its rather unique sociopolitical situation and political economy.
Although Rocha (2007) does not explicitly mention or define “agency,” she considers “the whole article to be in fact a justification of the importance of agency,” and that “we cannot achieve the first Four A’s of food security without agency.” (pers. comm.). For an example of an in-depth case study analysis using Rocha’s framework, see Chappell (2009).
While “putting a price on nature” is anathema to many concerned with biodiversity, a blanket refusal to place economic value on such things risks sending the signal to markets that it has zero value. Rather like the value of a “statistical life” used in the calculation of how parties at fault should economically compensate people for deaths of their loved ones, it may sometimes be a necessary evil. However, the danger of sending the signal that nature has zero value must be weighed against the compaction and loss of information and constrained understanding of value embodied in a market approach. Only vigorous public discussion combined with further research will allow us to determine when such an economic approach is effective, wise, or ethical.
American Dietetic Association
Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development
Integrated pest management
Integrated plant nutrient systems
National Research Council
Secretaria Municipal de Abastecimento
United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Millennium Project
World Health Organization
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The authors would like to thank J. Vandermeer for his help and mentorship, and K. Avilés Vázquez, S. Hepburn, S. Philpott, M. Reiskind, E. Werner, and R. Nussbaum for their helpful comments. Thanks also go to S. Uno, E. Peterson Dickson, and I. Carbonell for help with translations of some foreign language references. This paper also greatly benefited from conversations with the members of the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group, with special thanks owed to G. Smith, C. Badgley and I. Perfecto, and from additional comments by L. DeLind, H. James, and four anonymous reviewers. D. E. Nelson provided editorial assistance. All errors are ours. MJC received financial support from the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education Foreign Language and Area Studies Program, the National Security Education Program David Boren Fellowship, and the University of Michigan’s Merit Fellowship Program and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. LAL received support from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program of the University of Michigan.
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Chappell, M.J., LaValle, L.A. Food security and biodiversity: can we have both? An agroecological analysis. Agric Hum Values 28, 3–26 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-009-9251-4
- Alternative agriculture
- Food security
- Organic agriculture
- Political ecology