Water and food security should be at the heart of transforming to a low carbon economy

With energy availability peaking and demand still rising, many are promoting the idea of transitioning to the low carbon economy. But what are the priorities? Light bulbs? Ethanol cars? From my perspective we should be concentrating on that which we need everyday and that takes at least one quarter of our weekly budget: food and water. Food and water security should be the cornerstone of sustainable development. Already the system is failing and one billion of six billion go to bed hungry of an evening. How can we expect to support a growing population on less fossil fuel that costs more? We should start now, we have little time to loose.

Let me start with a few key concepts and then go on to explain why NOW is the time to work to create water and food security globally, and to set up the provision of water and food up so it is not fossil fuel dependent.

Key concept – Water and food security

Water security is closely linked to food security: During the second half of the 20th century, world population had a twofold increase, agriculture doubled food production and developing countries increased per capita food consumption by 30 percent. However, while feeding the world and producing a diverse range of non-food crops such as cotton, rubber and industrial oils in an increasingly productive way, agriculture also confirmed its position as the biggest user of water on the globe. Irrigation now claims close to 70 percent of all freshwater appropriated for human use.

Source: Land and Water Division FAO

Food security is one of the cornerstones of society for health, peace and prosperity. People who are well fed are also people with the means to change their situation.

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Household food security is the application of this concept to the family level, with individuals within households as the focus of concern. Source: FAO

Key concept – sustainable development

The Bruntland commission defined sustainable development thus: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

A more detailed model describes the dynamic balance between factors balance to ensure future generations the fair chance to a standard of living.


Key concept – Ecology

From an ecological point of view, a sustainable condition in an area is very much like an area of ecological maturity. Left alone, living systems tend towards ecological maturity. Key characteristics of mature ecosystems include:

• Very little leakage of mineral and biological nutrients

• High degree of capture of energy from the sun

• Retention, of especially of phosphor

• Water flow from the system is minimised, water is held as long as possible before being released as evaporation and transpiration.

• Animal populations in balance with the plant and tree population.

Mature eco-systems are able to provide a wide range of ecological services, like food, timber, firewood, water purification as well as recreational services.

Key concept – Resilience: the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks

Resilience is perhaps a more useful concept than sustainability. It describes the ability of our society to withstand outside pressures.

Systems for water and food provision need to be resilient, to be able to deal with among other things, climate change, populations pressure and fossil fuel depletion. Applicant’ solutions are judged on the resilience of their solutions. The higher the resilience, the higher the ranking of the application.

Key concept – That the right to water and food is part of human rights

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. ARTICLE 25. PARAGRAPH ONE OF THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS.

“The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights” THE UN COMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS

Food and water security are precursors of peace and thereby prosperity.

The state of sustainable development in the world today

The ambitions of sustainable development stated by the Bruntland Commission (above) and today’s situation in the world do not match. In fact, many factors indicate that societies are developing in a worrying counter-sustainable direction.

Inability to feed inhabitants


FAO estimates that 1.02 billion people are undernourished worldwide in 2009. This represents more hungry people than at any time since 1970 and a worsening of the unsatisfactory trends that were present even before the economic crisis. The increase in food insecurity is not a result of poor crop harvests but because high domestic food prices, lower incomes and increasing unemployment have reduced access to food by the poor. In other words, any benefits from falling world cereal prices have been more than offset by the global economic downturn.

Destruction of ecosystems’ ability to provide services

Initiated in 2001, the objective of The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and the scientific basis for actions needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being. Some key messages of this United Nations-backed study:

Among the outstanding problems identified by this assessment are the dire state of many of the world’s fish stocks; the intense vulnerability of the 2 billion people living in dry regions to the loss of ecosystem services, including water supply; and the growing threat to ecosystems from climate change and nutrient pollution.

? Human activities have taken the planet to the edge of a massive wave of species extinctions, further threatening our own well-being.

? The loss of services derived from ecosystems is a significant barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, hunger and disease.

? The pressures on ecosystems will increase globally in coming decades unless human attitudes and actions change.

Lack of self sufficiency, use of ghost and fossil acres in the developed world

The diagram above (courtesy of Transition training UK) shows how food security is achieved in England.

Clearly, all three means create environmental challenges as well as challenges of food distribution equity.

By importing food from other countries, taking from future generations by over-harvesting and by depleting non-renewable energy sources, the UK is living with a counter-sustainable system of food provision.


Vulnerability to fuel prices

Even if food is available, the present system creates inequalities, especially because of price. As fossil fuel is non-renewable, sooner or later demand will exceed supply and prices will soar.

“This (commenting on food price rises due to oil price hikes) is the new face of hunger. There is food on shelves, but people are priced out of the market. There are food riots in countries where we have not seen them before. We will have a significant gap if commodity prices remain this high, and we will need an extra half billion dollars just to meet existing need.” Josette Sheeran, Head of the UN’s World Food Programme February 2008

Lack of resilience in food and water provision systems

Of concern too, is that the arrangements for food provision that have developed over the recent decades lack resilience.

The following comes from Rob Hopkin’s keynote article in the magazine Resurgence No. 257 November/December 2009

Let’s take a supermarket as an example. It may be possible to increase its sustainability and to reduce its carbon emissions by using less packaging, putting solar photovoltaics on the roof and installing more energy-efficient fridges. However, resilience thinking would argue that the closure of local food shops and networks that resulted from the opening of the supermarket, as well as the fact that the store itself only contains two days’ worth of food at any moment – the majority of which has been transported great distances to get there – has massively reduced the resilience of community food security, as well as increasing its oil vulnerability. One extreme, but relevant, example of where sustainability thinking falls short was Tesco’s recent ‘Flights for Lights’ promotion, where people were able to gain air miles when they purchased low-energy light bulbs!

The turning points

Several turning points that impact food provision have happened during the last few decades.

Carbon Dioxide concentrations pass 350 ppm in 1990.

Some climate scientist, including NASA’s own expert James Hansen, believes that levels of carbon dioxide over 350 ppm (part per million) put the climate system in danger of becoming unstable, with uncontrollable warming as one possible result. Already, climate change is forcing many farmers to leave what were once fertile areas. Massive Australian rice farms, that could supply millions with rice, have been forced to close because of drought.

Fossil fuel use in developing countries surpasses that of the OECD in 2005. Competition for fuel is likely to grow, raising prices.

As much as one quarter of the world fossil fuel use is for food provision, food prices are likely to rise too.

The peak of oil production

According to some experts, including Prof. Kjell Aleklett of Uppsala University, Sweden , the peak of oil production is near or been reached already. Again, as populations increase and countries force ahead with their plans for economic development, demand pressures will raise prices, raising food prices in turn.

Agreements to limit fossil fuel use

The recent COP15 Copenhagen Accord sets the stage for reductions in fossil fuel use, which potentially reduces the amount of fuel available for food provision.

The need for true innovation

(The British department of food, DEFRA) … will discover (not so surprisingly) that real food security and real sustainability are in fact one and the same thing. JONATHON PORRITT, FOUNDER DIRECTOR OF FORUM FOR THE FUTURE WWW.FORUMFORTHEFUTURE.ORG, AND CHAIRMAN OF THE UK SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION www.sd-commission.org.uk

There is, therefore need for true innovation to provide solutions to the three challenges to increasing food insecurity:

• Effects of climate change

• Population pressure

• Fossil fuel dependence

The solutions need to be innovative rather than narrow technical solutions as they must work for those who are poor, in areas where fossil fuel may not be available, and where the climate is ever more unpredictable.


Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future

For more information on Ecological maturity,, see System Ecologist Folke Gunther’s website http://www.holon.se/folke/kurs/Ecologicaldevelopment/Maturity_en.shtml

Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins discusses resilience in relation to the UK government’s plan for a low-carbon society in Resurgence No. 257 November/December 2009


Uppsala University: http://www.tsl.uu.se/uhdsg/Publications.html

the UK Sustainable Development Commission www.sd-commission.org.uk

2 thoughts on “Water and food security should be at the heart of transforming to a low carbon economy

  • Wow! A long, learned article that never once mentions
    the elephant on the planet: the fact that the current
    human population is *many times* what the Earth can
    sustainably support.

    And food and water as “human rights”? Sorry, Nature
    doesn’t respect human rights. No doubt the inhabitants
    of Easter Island thought they had a “right” to food, even
    as they hunted to extinction everything larger than a rat.
    Dis aliter visum.

  • Thanks for your comments, Robert! 80% of all agriculture is
    still by hand. My back of the envelope calculations show
    that if we put food security at the heart of all policy
    1) Population growth will slow see http://www.gapminder.org/
    2) We allocate half of the remaining fossil fuel to help
    transition to low carbon and leave the other half ( a quarter
    of total endowment) in the Earth to ensure GHG limits.

    We might just manage to handle the Elephant.
    Otherwise I agree.
    Had I been starving on Easter Island, I’d have eaten the rat too

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