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TNC, Food Security and Sustainability: Clarifying the Debate

Meliane, Imen; Deutz, Andrew 3/14/2012

The Conservancy is increasingly touting a new value proposition for conservation: Positioning nature as a solution provider to big global issues such as climate mitigation, climate adaptation, poverty reduction, water availability and food security.1 This shift is particularly the case for TNC’s engagement internationally and makes sense. Outside the United States, our activities are largely supported through public funding from international aid agencies, whose priorities are often expressed in terms of development challenges.

Food security is particularly high on various governments’ agendas and has been driving a significant part of public aid funding internationally. It also is the subject of numerous recent discussions at the Conservancy, which have raised the following questions:

  • Do some of the definitions of “food security” used internally at the Conservancy square with the definition recognized by the international community — and what are the consequences for any disparities?
  • Is conservation work that works to secure sustainable agriculture or fisheries necessarily also about food security?
  • What would the Conservancy have to change about its work to become more relevant to the international food security paradigm?

We here attempt to shed light on the issue by clarifying how the development world sees food security, highlighting some of the key drivers of such a complex issue, and suggesting a few areas where conservation may play a role. We hope to spark discussion on potential connections of the Conservancy’s work to the food security and broader sustainability agendas.

What is Food Security?

To the best of our knowledge, there is no specific definition that TNC uses for food security. We have asked some colleagues what they mean when they use the term, and the answers vary significantly.

There is, however, a globally agreed definition of “food security,” adopted at the World Food Summit in 1996:

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
FAO, which is the UN expert agency on the matter, has refined the term by establishing four dimensions to food security (FAO 2006):
  • Availability of sufficient quantities of food of appropriate quality, supplied through domestic production or imports;
  • Access by individuals to adequate resources for acquiring appropriate foods for a nutritious diet;
  • Stability — i.e., a population, household or individual must have access to adequate food at all times; and
  • Utilization and absorption of food through appropriate diet, clean water, sanitation and health care.

For the development agenda, availability has been the main focus of food security, expressed through target 1.3 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.” This focus intensified starting in 2008, when the spike in global commodity prices (through a combination of unfavorable weather events, macroeconomics and global trade factors) drove food prices up significantly and created a short-term food crisis in much of the developing world. The G8 responded in 2009 by launching a global food security initiative, and the U.S. government responded in turn by making food security one of the three new priorities of U.S. foreign assistance and reorganizing its foreign aid bureaucracy to support this objective. Other donor government and multilateral institutions did likewise, with a renewed focus on agriculture as a driver for rural economic development.

Bottom line: When the international community talks about “food security,” they mean providing enough quantity to feed the world, with immediate priority to the hungry in developing countries. Conservation and the Conservancy in particular need to reckon with this meaning when using the term in its planning and discussions with agencies and others.

Is Our Work Contributing to Food Security?

A complaint we’ve heard internally is that we have been presenting our conservation work externally as contributing to solving the food security problem when in fact we currently aren’t doing that.

We agree. Our emerging agriculture strategy is focused on increasing overall agricultural productivity — “sustainable harvests at scale” — as our Latin America program describes their work. And our fisheries work is about improving the health of the marine ecosystem and the sustainability of the overall fishery. Given the worldwide accepted definition of food security as well as the state of global and regional food security now and in the future, contributing to food security through our conservation activities would require us to identify and design strategies with clear and explicit objectives of increasing production and access to food for those who are food insecure.

Sustainable intensification of agriculture

With government and development agencies currently focusing on figuring a way to feed the additional 2-3 billion people expected by century’s end, many environmental organizations have been engaged in pushing forward an agenda on “sustainable intensification” to address the resource scarcity and ecological limits of a planet already suffering from water shortages, depleted fish stocks, biodiversity loss and the impacts of climate change. The Conservancy’s emerging global priority around agriculture clearly fits this mold. This strategy looks at ways to partner primarily with industrial-scale agribusinesses to help these corporations and their suppliers improve yields to feed a hungry and growing world while simultaneously maintaining or improving key environmental variables. For instance, in Brazil, sustainable intensification is about increasing beef and soy yields without deforesting more land and while improving water-use efficiency and reducing nutrient run-off.

Establishing the paradigm of sustainable intensification is very important work for conservation and for sustainable food production at scale. But it is not really a strategy to reduce food insecurity as the development community measures the term — food deprivation or undernourishment (when food intake regularly provides less than the minimum daily energy requirements). While the global percentage of those who are hungry has declined over the last decade, it remains an enormous challenge: One in about every seven people on Earth still suffers from hunger (FAO, 2010). In addition, the regions most at risk for hunger are also not geographies where the Conservancy has substantial presences: Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia (see Map 1).

Map 1: Level of Hunger (malnutrition) by country. Source: World Food Programme.

Our work with fisheries

We also have an emerging priority around fisheries, and some in the Conservancy would like to link that work to food security. But unlike grain production, fisheries and food security are closely linked in only a few instances — such as small-island nations of the Pacific, where coastal communities rely on fishing for subsistence and tend to have few alternatives crops or livelihood options. At the global scale, the story is different: regions with high undernourishment are net exporters of seafood to regions with high undernourishment (Smith et al. 2010), because conditions in the global seafood market make it advantageous for many countries to sell or export their seafood and generate surplus value. While that surplus value theoretically should flow to communities, in practice governance and social factors often stand in the way. Generally, the diversion of fish and fish products from local communities to the export markets tends to disproportionally disadvantage the poor (Kent, 2003).


Table 1: The juxtaposition of interventions when aiming towards food security or biodiversity outcomes (fisheries).
Interventions Food Security Objectives Biodiversity Conservation Objectives
Harvest rate
Promote maximum sustainable yields in fisheries to increase catches Reduce harvest rates to leave more fish in the sea for the ecosystem
Target fish at lower trophic level (forage fisheries) to increase amount of fish available for human consumption
Promote more efforts to fish more of these species  Reduce the effort to catch forage fish, as these species form the basis of the food chain and are essential for ecosystem function
Target high productivity areas to increase yields
Increase fishing effort in these areas Increase degree of protection in  these areas as they tend to be hot spots for biodiversity (=fish less)
Change species targeted for mariculture (to those lower in the food chain or GMOs) and increase operations and yields
Reduce mariculture because of impacts on coastal ecosystems 
Freshwater aquaculture
Increase production and culture of more species Use only local species to protect native biodiversity and reduce re-stocking programs
Market-based approaches Provide fish at an accessible price Increases prices to reward sustainability

Source: Adapted from Rice and Garcia, per. comm. 2010.

TNC needs to also carefully consider the juxtapositions, conflicts and trade-offs that arise between food security and conservation objectives when assessing whether a strategic action or interventions for fisheries conservation falls under “food security.” Table 1 (above) summarizes this juxtaposition in interventions regarding fisheries, depending if the outcomes are food security or conservation objectives.
We cannot simply assume that improving the health of fish stocks will increase food security in the places that are most insecure, absent specifically targeted interventions and strategies.
Some Next Steps
Food security will continue to be high on development agencies’ radar screens, shaping many interventions in the international arena. The underlying economic and demographic trends that shaped global commodity price spikes in 2008 and 2011 are not abating, and the climate is certainly not getting less predictable. We need to discuss openly how to position the Conservancy in that debate.
There are several ways we can address these challenges:
  1. Position conservation as a direct solution provider: but we need to be careful in identifying where our work is relevant (e.g. the Coral Triangle, East Africa), and design innovative strategies and actions that truly deliver for target food insecure populations;
  2. Use our science to improve the sustainability of other people’s solutions to food security: focusing primarily on resource efficiency and sustainability of intensifying production;
  3. Highlight conflicts and trade-offs: because win-wins will not always be possible, we may need to identify the areas where there’s a direct conflict between conservation and other development objectives.
We’re already doing #2, both in the field in North and South America and in some focused policy arenas, particularly with USAID. It is worth being even more thoughtful about this work. And we should be a lot more assertive about the contributions to global food sustainability and resource scarcity issues that we are developing through our agriculture and fisheries strategy.
The conservation community as a whole has been pretty sheepish about addressing #3, but it is worth acknowledging more openly that we don’t always live in a win-win world.
Lastly, we should have an explicit and informed conversation about the external global context of the global food security debate and what the Conservancy can do about the issue, recognizing the opportunities and constraints it may present to advance our work — particularly in agriculture and fisheries. The phrase (and those of other development challenges) will not work if we use them as buzz words to engage with development agencies or add them to proposals in the expectation that they will increase the likelihood of funding. They in fact represent areas of work that the international development community has spent decades on, refining definitions and approaches in order to maximize the benefits of its interventions. And they provide important opportunities for our work — in East Africa and the Coral Triangle, in particular — but only if we take the time to understand the global context. 

* Imen Meliane is the director of international marine policy, and Andrew Deutz is the director of international government relations for The Nature Conservancy

Image: Scene from World Food Programme refugee camp, Kobe, Ethiopia. Image credit: Giro555SHO.
1 FY12 TNC International Advocacy Plan.
FAO. 2006. Food Security. Policy Brief Issue 2. June 2006. FAO. Rome FAO. 2010. The State of Food Insecurity in the World: Addressing food security in protracted crises. FAO/WFP, Rome.
Kent, G.. 2003. Fish trade, food security and the human right to adequate food. In Report of the expert consultation on international fish trade and food security. FAO, Rome.
Smith, M.D., C.A. Roheim, L.B. Crowder, et al. 2010. Sustainability and global seafood. Science 327 (2010): 784-786.