I have been meaning to write this post for a while. It is about the interaction between food insecurity and the illicit bushmeat trade, the most significant threat to species extinctions. The bushmeat trade is a critical issue in the wildlife conservation arena, yet I feel that many people are not aware of it, nor the circumstances surrounding it. At the same time, I believe that many people are not aware of the present and future threats to food security, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
The following information has been obtained predominately from, 1) The Future of Food and Agriculture: Alternative Pathways to 2050 (hereinafter referred to as “the FOA report”), a report released by the Food And Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, and 2) Climate Change and National Security: A Country Level Analysis, a book edited by Daniel Moran, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. I believe these sources to be credible, and the information that they contain is pertinent to understanding the future of food security on a global level. I have quoted them heavily, copying and pasting key passages to express key points and overall trends. I have tried to provide a succinct, summarized reconstruction of the comprehensive information contained within these two publications, while injecting a few thoughts along the way in support of my concerns regarding the connection between decreasing food security and the increasing bushmeat trade.
As you read through this post, I encourage you to think about this question, how will a worst case scenario in food security impact wildlife populations, especially in the low- and middle-income countries that harbor so many of the planet’s extraordinary animals?
Bushmeat: Driver of Extinctions
When I hear the word poaching, my mind drifts to dreary scenes of the carcasses of Africa’s most charismatic wildlife scattered upon a reddened earth with tusks and horns hacked off. I envision rolling seas and Japanese whaling vessels hauling minke whales up blood-stained ramps. However, until recently, I didn’t know the severity of the impact of bushmeat hunting on wildlife populations. I didn’t know that many species of great apes, monkeys, bats, rats, snakes and other wildlife are poached at unsustainable levels to meet demand within the illicit bushmeat trade. As such, I was surprised when I read the following quote on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website:
“Although habitat loss is a major cause of wildlife decline, the most immediate threat to the future of wildlife in Africa and around the world is the illegal trade and consumption of ‘bushmeat.'”1– U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
This trade not only threatens the species hunted, but all the wildlife that prey upon these animals. For example, one of the two leading threats to African lions is prey base depletion “fueled by the increasing bushmeat trade.”2
Clearly, the trade in bushmeat is a significant risk to species extinctions. As such, ensuring food security on a global level will be a critical factor in protecting the planet’s extraordinary wildlife. However, the future of food security is anything but certain.
The Increasing Threat of Food Insecurity
Demand for Food is Increasing
The global human population is expected to reach 11.2 billion by 2100.3(p8) This alone will increase demand for food significantly over the coming years. However, at the same time, per capita annual income growth, urbanization, relative price changes, technological change, value chain developments and globalization are contributing to an increase in per capita calorie intake, as well as to a shift in the composition of diets.3(p12) Globally, the income of the average world citizen is almost USD 11,000/year, which is twice the 1970 level of just over USD 5,500.3(p10) “Rapid income growth in emerging countries has given rise to a global middle class, with food consumption preferences characterized by a greater demand for meat, fish and dairy products and other more resource-intensive items.”3(p12)
How will we handle the growing demand for food? The answer seems simple at first, we’ll just have to produce more, right? According to experts that’s not possible without dramatic changes to the way we manage land and produce food.
Degraded Lands & Stressed Water Resources Limit Productivity
According to the FAO report, “Approximately one-third of the world’s farmland is moderately to highly degraded.”3(p26) Globally, there are few opportunities left for further expanding agricultural areas. Moreover, much of the available land is not suitable for agriculture, and using it for agricultural production would incur heavy environmental, social, and economic costs.”3(p26)
“In many low-rainfall areas of the Near East, North Africa and Central Asia, as well as in India and China, farmers use much of the available water resources, resulting in the serious depletion of rivers and aquifers. In some of these areas, 80 percent to 90 percent of water is used for agricultural purposes. In this context, FAO estimates that over 40 percent of the world’s rural population lives in basins that are classified as water-scarce. Due to water scarcity, the rate of expansion of land under irrigation is slowing substantially in these areas.”3(p26)
“Given these limitations in land and water resources, it is likely that the additional amounts of food needed in the coming decades will have to be produced mainly through yield increases, rather than through major expansions in cultivated areas. Unfortunately, since the 1990s average annual increases in the yields of maize, rice and wheat at the global level have reached just over 1 percent (much lower than in the 1960s), while those of soybeans and sugarcane were below 1 percent. In the last 20 years, yield growth has slowed, with recent studies even suggesting that in selected regions yields are already close to their maximum potential.”3(p27)
Agricultural Investments are Lacking
With land and water resources tapped out, increasing yields will be dependent upon increasing investments in agriculture and agricultural innovation. While the value added through investments in high income countries is increasing, that in low-income countries, particularly Near East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin American and the Caribbean is on the decline. Limited investments in low- and middle-income countries is extremely concerning and will affect future agricultural performance, adaptability to climate change, capability to develop sustainable agricultural practices, and employment and income-generating opportunities.3(pp28-30) “Moreover, decreasing growth rates of global crop yields, land degradation and water overuse, as well as increasing levels of crop and animal diseases and growing antimicrobial resistance, all raise concerns and call for more investment in agriculture.”3(p30)
Climate Change Negatively Impacts Food Security at the Global Level
The threats of climate change on agricultural productivity are many. “Different social groups and countries display varying degrees of vulnerability to climate change, depending on their exposure to climate variation (changing temperatures, rainfall levels, etc.), the sensitivity of their livelihoods to climate change (percentage of income or GDP made up of agriculture, forestry or fishing), and their adaptation capacity (proximity to flood plains, length of coast line, etc.).”3(p31)
“A meta-analysis of 1,090 studies (primarily on wheat, maize, rice and soybeans) under different climate change conditions indicates that climate change may significantly reduce yields in the long run.”3(p31)
“Climate change is already affecting the aquatic environment, for example through changes in sea-surface temperature, ocean circulation, waves and storm systems, salinity content, oxygen concentration and acidification. This will all have an impact on global – and particularly regional – fisheries.”3(p31)
“The impacts of climate change are also expected to affect aquaculture, including through the gradual warming and acidification of seawater, sea level rises and resultant salt water intrusion, as well as through extreme events such as changes in the frequency, intensity and location of storms.”3(p32)
“Higher temperatures and less reliable supplies of fresh water are also expected to create severe hardships for small-scale livestock producers, particularly in arid and semi-arid grassland and rangeland ecosystems at low latitudes. Furthermore, higher temperatures and water scarcity will have a direct impact on animal health and reduce the quality and supply of feed and fodder.”3(p32)
Regional Climate Change Impacts on Food Security are Severe and Projected to Worsen
The effects of climate change in Asia, Africa, and South America are already severe and projected to worsen. These continents hold many low- and middle-income countries that are ill prepared to make the technological advances necessary to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Many of these countries are also plagued by weak governance, which may become a source of increasing political, economic, and social instability as climate trends worsen.
I provide a few regional and nationwide examples here. I have extracted these examples from the book Climate Change and National Security: A Country Level Analysis. The book was published in 2011. It is important to note that “since 2005, [greenhouse gas (GHG)] emissions have broadly approximated levels projected from the most severe climate change scenario considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”3(p32) As such, worse case scenarios may very well be the reality.
The Tibetan Plateau
“One of the most severe threats concerns the Tibetan Plateau region, which is potentially a hot spot with respect to both climate and conflict. The Tibetan Plateau, which has been called both ‘the reservoir at the top of the world’ and ‘the water tower of Asia,’ is the source of most of Asia’s major rivers. As global temperature rises, Tibet’s glaciers are melting and grassland permafrost is thawing at an alarming rate. The region’s warming climate is causing glaciers to recede at a rate faster than anywhere else in the world, and in some regions of Tibet by 3 feet per year. These changes will have an impact on the millions living downstream in China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Vietnam, and other countries that are dependent for their water supply on the waters of such rivers as the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Indus, Sutlej, and Brahmaputra. It has been estimated that almost half the world’s population lives in the watersheds of rivers whose sources lie on the Tibetan Plateau, and at least 500 million people in Asia and 250 million people in China are at risk from declining glacial flows on that plateau.”4(pp16-17)
In China, present climate change impacts “include extended drought in the north, extreme weather events and flooding in the south, glacial melting in the Himalayas, declining crop yields, and rising seas along heavily populated coastlines.”4(p10)
“A commonly cited statistic is that China feeds more than 20 percent of the world’s population with 7 percent of the world’s arable land. Climate change is expected to decrease the stability of agricultural production, causing larger variations in crop productivity. Scientists predict a 5 to 10 percent decline in overall crop productivity in China by 2030 as a result of climate change, and a decline of up to 37 percent in rice, maize, and wheat yields after 2050. This marks a serious challenge for the country’s long-term food security. If this decline in supply were to result in global scarcity and elevated food prices, it could have particularly severe impacts in Africa, where food insecurity is a grave threat.”4(p13)
“The effect of climate change on the glaciers of China’s Tibetan Plateau will have severe repercussions for the country’s lakes and river systems. The total area of its western glaciers is projected to decrease 27.2 percent by 2050. During this same period, glacier thawing will increase water discharge by 20 to 30 percent per year until water levels peak between 2030 and 2050. This increased water discharge would then decline as the glaciers disappear. The mountain and highland lakes that rely on inland glaciers for recharge, such as the lakes on the Tibetan Plateau and Pamir Plateau, could initially enlarge as a result of glacier melting but will eventually shrink as the glaciers are reduced over time. The Yellow and Yangtze rivers, which support the richest agricultural regions of the country and derive much of their water from the Tibetan glaciers, will initially experience floods as the glaciers melt, and then drought, once the glacial runoff is gone.”4(p11)
As with China, India holds more than a sixth of the world’s population. As such, its agricultural woes impact a significant percentage of humanity.
“Water shortages will affect the country’s agricultural production, especially in the already-arid regions of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. [Shortages] could curtail agricultural production even in India’s granary states of Punjab and Haryana. A depletion of internal food supplies would mean inflation in food prices, which would affect the poorer sections of India disproportionately. Added to this is the increasing global demand for food, shortages of supply in the global market in general, and the price increases that would follow from the increasing need to import food.”5(p75)
“The melting of snow from the Himalayan glaciers means that India’s major rivers – especially the Ganges, its tributaries, and the Brahmaputra – could alternate between abnormally low flows in the early summer and winter months and extraordinarily high flows during the monsoon, posing the double risk of drought followed by flood. The glaciers on both sides of the Tibetan Plateau and its Himalayan rim, which are the source of water for the Indus, the Ganges, and Brahmaputra, along with several river systems in China and Southeast Asia, have been melting rapidly…”5(p75) “India’s vulnerability in this respect is amplified by the fact that more than 60 percent of its population still depends on the vagaries of the monsoon for subsistence farming. The impact of climate change would therefore depend on whether the annual Indian monsoon, which is the single biggest influence on agriculture, will remain stable and cover its normal area during the June-August period of the year.”5(p75) “If monsoonal rains become increasingly erratic as a consequence of global warming, there will likely be serious food shortages in the regions that depend on them, unless new farming technologies are implemented quickly. [However,] the agricultural sector, on which a large majority of the population depends for basic sustenance, has been growing at the lowest rate of any of India’s economic sectors in recent years. The economic reforms initiated since 1991 have primarily affected services and industry. Increased food imports are a very constrained solution, because of the likelihood that major food shortages in India will be echoed elsewhere in the world, and because the cost of imported food exceeds what those Indians most likely to be affected will be able to pay.”5(pp75-76)
“Another major issue facing India in the climate area would be a rise in sea levels. India has a coastline of 12,700 kilometers [~7,891 miles]. According to one study, a 1-meter rise could cost the economy approximately 2 trillion rupees [~USD 27 billion] due to the impact on fisheries, shipping, and port facilities in the three main cities of Chennai, Mumbai, and Calcutta, while displacing 7.1 million Indians. This will also have an impact on agriculture due to the loss, by flooding, of low-lying arable land along the coastline. Fisheries would also suffer, and the effect would be devastating for those who rely on small-scale traditional fishing.”5(p76)
With over 164 million people, Bangladesh is the world’s eighth most populous country. “Bangladesh’s location, combined with the dominance of floodplains and low elevation from the sea, has made the country exceptionally vulnerable to ongoing climate change.”6(p103) The livelihoods of millions of Bangladeshis are at risk from “sea-level rise, severe storms, repeated floods, increased water salinity, and worsening water scarcity.”6(p112) These events “will directly affect the availability of food”6(p112) and make the country dependent upon the international food market.6(p112)
In brief, “the impact of climate change on Bangladesh is as follows: A one-meter rise in sea level would submerge one-fifth of the country by 2050-2075. Cyclones would be creeping deeper in the delta because of saline intrusion. Cyclone velocity would increase, and storms would be increasingly more intense.”6(p104) “Floods would be more frequent; irregular rainfall would make it difficult for farming; and the North-West would become drier increasing the chances of greater food insecurity.”6(p104)
Northern Andes Region: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, & Peru
“In Latin America as a region, according to the IPCC, by 2030 the number of people under water stress will increase from 7 million to 77 million.”7(p249) In particular, “the countries of the northern Andes region [, including Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru,] will face a number of challenges as a result of climate change.”7(p248)
In Bolivia, “glacier loss is one of the most important challenges, and the impact of glacier loss in the Andean western half of [the country] may lead to particularly disruptive consequences. Currently, the residents of La Paz and El Alto rely on glaciers for a third of their water consumption.”7(p252) “Glacier loss is also an issue in Ecuador, whose Andean capital city [, Quito,] also depends heavily on glaciers for water…”7(p254)
In Peru’s southern departments of Arequipa, Moquegua, Puno, and Tacna, climate change is expected to drive declines in rainfall.7(p254) “Less rainfall would have a negative impact on agricultural productivity in this already-arid region.”7(p254) Additionally, water scarcity is expected to fuel interdepartmental feuds and intrastate territorial conflicts.7(p254)
“For reasons having to do with chronic poverty, weak governance, and high dependence on agriculture, Africa is the region estimated to be most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.”8(p235)
Given the size of the African continent, the direct impact of climate change varies among nations and regions. Some countries, such as those of the Maghreb, including Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia are projected to experience severe impacts. Others, including Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, are expected to fare better with regard to direct climate impacts. However, weak governance may exacerbate the effects of even modest climate events.
The Maghreb: Algeria, Libya, Morocco, & Tunisia
“Climate change will affect the Maghreb in profound ways because is it already characterized by exceedingly fragile environmental conditions.”9(p189) “The Maghreb’s geographical position and complete lack of temperate climes renders it more intensely vulnerable to climate change dynamics…”9(p190)
“For Morocco, 99.5 percent of the population is deemed “short of water.” According to the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, the long-term outlook is worse than dire. The Maghreb and the broader Mediterranean Basin will experience extensive drying associated with an expansion of the Hadley circulation cells at 30 degrees north and 30 degrees south latitude. The mean annual rainfall is expected to decrease by as much as 20 percent along the Mediterranean Coast between 2080 and 2099, with summertime temperatures anticipated to increase for the 2070-99 period by up to 9 degrees Celsius.”9(p190)
Within the Maghreb, “the water table has decreased in recent years, which has contributed to the salinization of coastal groundwater, low potability, and low freshwater volume. As for soil, the region has experienced both intensive erosion and significant degradation, and the ‘development’ of forested areas will only [further] exacerbate these trends. All four countries have been vulnerable to desertification. The Jifara Plain in Libya’s northwest and the Ouergha watershed in Morocco are especially vulnerable to decreases in rainfall. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 97 percent of the Libyan population, and 80 percent of Moroccans were already at risk from desertification in 1997.”9(pp193-194)
“Using IPCC projections, regional specialists within the FAO [have] argued that water runoff (the difference between rainfall and evapotranspiration) will decline, the number of dry days is expected to increase, and surface temperatures are expected to rise. The result is a decrease in the yields of key crops, the possible extinction of some species, and a silting of rivers and dams.”9(p194)
Additionally, the FAO has expressed concern “about the impact on rangelands for livestock, because reduced rainfall and increased evapotranspiration will cause significant changes in vegetation cover and organic carbon storage in the ecosystems. Livestock pests and disease distribution and transmission may also result in new epidemics.”9(p194)
“Climate-related changes that could lead to increased drought, rainfall variability, and desertification in this ecologically and politically fragile region are likely to adversely affect agricultural production of both food and cash crops, specifically corn.”10(p206) According to the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute, “Côte d’Ivoire is likely to experience substantial declines of more than 20 percent of the growing season by 2050 in six different agroecological zones…”10(p207) In the southern part of the country, increasing sea level rise and severe storm events could lead to increased erosion of barrier beaches and possibly affect densely populated urban areas and economically important coastal fisheries and palm oil plantations.10(p207)
“By 2030 considerable parts of Nigeria may confront issues related to climate change, which could seriously affect agricultural production, water availability, and coastal environmental conditions. Desertification in the north and erosion in the middle belt and south of the country are major concerns, placing 90,0000 and 134,000 square kilometers of arable land at risk of degradation as a result of climate change, according to government estimates.”10(p211)
“In the semiarid steppe environment of northern Nigeria, which makes up one-quarter of the country’s territory, there is a potential for a significant decline in agricultural production due to increased drought and rainfall variability associated with global warming.”10(p211)
“The anticipated decline in future water availability has serious implications for Nigeria, especially given the sizable population living in the semiarid north and the rapidly growing urban areas in the south. As in the case of Côte d’Ivoire, the United Nations also projects that Nigeria will see its national water situation deteriorate from one of ‘abundance’ to one of ‘stress,’ with an anticipated decline from about 3,000 cubic meters per capita per year in 1990 to about 1,300 by 2025.”10(p211)
“In recent decades, the country has experienced severe agricultural and livestock losses, along with extreme human suffering and fatalities stemming from prolonged droughts…”10(p215)
“As in the case of Côte d’Ivoire, the mixed rain-fed and semiarid agropastoral systems practiced in these more Sahelian regions are likely to experience negative consequences due to declining agricultural productivity and water availability. Estimates for changes in agricultural productivity due to global warming by the late twenty-first century indicate that Senegal may experience a ‘very serious’ downturn in food production, possibly at a rate eight times the expected level of global decline.”10(p215) In terms of water supply, in 2000, “two-thirds of the Senegalese population already experienced water scarcity conditions, a figure expected to increase to almost three-quarters by 2030.”10(p215)
“The country’s important artisanal fishing industry is also considered at risk due to the effect of rising ocean temperatures on nutrient availability in the marine food chain.”10(p216)
Southern Africa (Lesotho, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe)
In many parts of Southern Africa, “temperatures have been increasing steadily [and] droughts have been more frequent and severe, [a significant concern in a] region that is sensitive to freshwater availability. As these climatic changes have taken hold, we have already witnessed evidence of some of the intermediate effects of global warming in the form of declining agricultural production, freshwater scarcity, economic decline, and increased migration.”8(p243) It has been projected that “Southern Africa can expect a significant decrease in moisture during the growing season, leading to declines in food production and a reduction in the flow of the Zambezi, Limpopo, and Save rivers.”8(pp235-236)
Southern Africa is “particularly sensitive to change in its water resources.”8(p235) “For instance: the Okavango Delta is Botswana’s only source of surface water; Zimbabwe is expected to reach its water resource development capacity by 2035; and South Africa’s industrial and mining heartland, Gueteng, reached the limits of its water resources in the 1980s, such that it became necessary to import water from Lesotho.”8(p235)
In South Africa, climate change may lower “agricultural production, [and] it is estimated that climate changes will increase the proportion of South Africans living on less than 1,000 cubic meters of freshwater per year from 55.4 percent of the population to 58.2 percent – an increase of 2.7 percent – by 2030.”8(p236)
“Estimates for Zimbabwe show smaller increases in the average temperature, but more dramatic agricultural and freshwater availability effects. The combination of an increase in temperature and higher levels of evaporation are expected to have more serious impacts on Zimbabwe’s agricultural performance.”8(p236)
“Lesotho is already struggling to cope with overgrazing, soil erosion and exhaustion, desertification resulting from demographic pressures, and periodic droughts.”8(p236)
Similarly, the projected climate changes for Swaziland will interact in complex ways with its current environmental problems of overgrazing, soil depletion and degradation, droughts, and limited supplies of potable water.”8(p236)
Lastly, Southern Africa “has a number of elements that make conflict over access to freshwater likely, [including] preexisting water scarcity, a high proportion of people living within river basins, many rivers whose watersheds are shared among several countries, and a history of international tension and competition over water resources.”8(p238)
Food Insecurity: Driver of the Bushmeat Trade
In light of the foregoing, it seems probable that low- and middle-income countries will be increasingly plagued by food and water shortages in the coming decades.
How will this affect the demand for bushmeat?
“Unsustainable hunting for consumption and trade of wild meat (bushmeat) by humans represents a significant extinction threat to wild terrestrial mammal populations, perhaps most notably in parts of Asia, Africa and South America.”11
“[Bushmeat] has long served as a principal source of protein and a key contributor to the food security of millions of people across the developing world, most notably in Africa, Latin America and Asia.”12 This is especially concerning given that these regions, 1) are projected to see significant increases in population numbers, 2) are at the highest risk of maintaining/obtaining food and water security, and 3) are, in many areas, already reliant upon an unsustainable bushmeat trade to meet food demands.
Furthermore, in many parts of the developing world, climate change is expected to increase conflict. Political and social turmoil have been linked to significant declines in wildlife populations. Drivers of species decline that can accompany social and political unrest include “lack of adequate protected areas for wildlife, inadequate law enforcement, and lack of management capacity in range countries…”13
In the past decade, many African countries have experienced conflict ranging from election violence to civil war, including Burundi, Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, Mozambique, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Nigeria.
Insuring Food Security is Critical to Saving Wildlife
Imagine a future in which severe food shortages plaque vast regions of Africa, Asia, and South America. I believe this scenario could easily drive unprecedented rates of poaching, resulting in rapid extinction events at local, regional, and national scales.
Decreasing food security threatens decades of conservation progress made by scientists, conservationists, and volunteers. Decreasing food security undermines our conservation victories and devalues the worth of the billions of dollars that have made these achievements possible.
I doubt that even the unified strength of high-income nations, non-governmental organizations, and non-for-profits can protect wildlife from the most fundamental needs of humanity, these are, the needs to eat and drink.
How Do We Reduce the Need for Bushmeat?
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
The United Nations (UN) has developed the Sustainable Development Goals.
Image Credit: United Nations Sustainable Development Goals https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/poverty/
These 17 goals “are the [UN’s] blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, and peace and justice.”14 Supporting these goals is a critical step in doing our part to reduce the human impact on this earth. However, the UN has been criticized for neglecting to include the most important issue of all in its blueprint to a sustainable future, this is, stemming human population growth.
The size of the global human population and its continued growth are the underlying causes of humanities most pressing environmental problems. These two factors, combined with an unsustainable way of existence, drive the overconsumption of resources, resulting in climate change, pollution, deforestation, species extinctions, loss of biodiversity, food insecurity, and so on.
Any attempt to remediate the troubles of our time must begin with a concerted global effort to check human population growth. To do otherwise is to swim against a very big tide.
Women’s Education to Reduce Fertility Rates
Of all the Sustainable Development Goals, I believe that education is one of the most important. Education, and especially women’s education, correlates highly with lower fertilities rates. “Educated women are known to [make] informed reproductive and healthcare decisions. These result in population stabilization and better infant care reflected by lower birth rates and infant mortality rates (IMRs), respectively.”15
Globally, fertility rates are declining. Continued investments in education will bolster this decline. In high-income countries, we can all partake in the improvement of education by voting for measures that increase educational funding and support teachers. However, population growth projections are the largest in low- and middle-income countries. Slowing population growth in Africa and Asia is critical to ensuring global food security. As such, support for national and intergovernmental educational programs and donations to non-governmental organizations devoted to improving education, specifically women’s education, are of paramount importance. Donations to schools, such as the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, and non-profits, like Room To Read, are excellent ways to support women’s education in the developing world.
Improving Education Among all Nations to Reduce Demand for Resource Intensive Foods and Excessive Waste
“Agricultural production is expected to rise worldwide in response to population growth, dietary changes and increased incomes. Raising consumer awareness about environmentally sustainable and healthier diets, reducing food waste, pricing food to reflect the negative externalities of its production, and limiting the use of grains for biofuel production will all be critical to curb the demand for agricultural products.”3(p14)
Healthier Diets and Lifestyles Can Reduce the Strain on Food Production
“Rapid income growth in emerging countries has given rise to a global middle class, with food consumption preferences characterized by a greater demand for meat, fish and dairy products and other more resource-intensive items. While progress in increasing overall calorie availability globally is welcomed, concerns have arisen about the accompanying shifts in dietary patterns away from staples such as cereals, roots and tubers and towards increasing consumption of livestock products, vegetable oils, sugar, and processed and fast foods. This “nutrition transition” has also been seen as a tendency towards the convergence of diets to the Western European or North American model, and in turn linked to the increasingly widespread prevalence of overweight, obesity and non-communicable diseases.”3(p12)
Interestingly, “in high-income countries, obesity prevalence is highest among the poor, while overweight is prevalent across all wealth groups. In contrast, in low-income countries, the prevalence of overweight and obesity is higher among wealthier individuals than among poorer individuals.”16(p1) In high-income countries the link between poverty and obesity occurs because, 1) low-income “families choose high-fat foods dense with energy – foods such as sugars, cereals, potatoes and processed meat products – because these foods are more affordable and last longer than fresh vegetables and fruits and lean meats and fish,”17 2) “poor neighborhoods have a disproportionate number of fast food chains and small food stores providing cheap, high-fat foods,”17 3) “economic insecurity – such as trouble paying bills or rent – leads to stress, and people often cope by eating high-fat, sugary foods,17 and 4) low-income families can lack the financial resources to engage in physical activity (i.e., unsafe neighborhoods, gym memberships, recreational equipment…) and lead more sedentary lives.18
All nations can play a part in reducing the strain on food production by improving nutritional education and access to healthier foods. At the same time, governments can improve overall health and well-being by investing in programs that promote more active lifestyles among lower-income demographics.
Reducing Food Waste
The figures on food waste are staggering. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, “roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year – approximately 1.3 billion tonnes [~1.43 billion tons] – gets lost or wasted.”19 “Every year, consumers in [developed] countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes [~244 million tons]) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes [~253 million tons]).”19 “If just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.”19 “At the retail level, large quantities of food are wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasize appearance.”19 In other words, enormous amounts of food are discarded simply because it doesn’t meet the “appearance standards” of markets or restaurants.
In the United States, the “Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more food reaches landfills than any other material in our municipal solid waste (MSW), making up over 24 percent of MSW…”20 “In 2018, approximately 103 million tons of wasted food were generated in the industrial [food and beverage manufacturing and processing], residential [households], commercial [restaurants, fast-food chains, catering, sports venues, hotels…], and institutional [schools, colleges, universities, military installations, hospitals, correctional facilities, nursing homes…] sectors. Excluding the industrial sector, approximately 63 million tons of wasted food were generated in 2018.”20
Clearly, food waste is a significant threat to food security. “By managing food sustainably and reducing waste, we can help businesses and consumers save money, provide a bridge in our communities for those who do not have enough to eat, and conserve resources for future generations.”21 Individually, we can make changes at home to reduce our food waste. These changes include storing food in storage containers; freezing food; preparing, cooking, and freezing perishable meals ahead of time; using foods that are past their prime in smoothies, soups, and casseroles; ordering only what you can eat and/or saving leftovers when eating out. To learn more, see the EPA’s recommendations on Reducing Wasted Food At Home.
Fighting Climate Change
“Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”22
Climate change is a clear and present danger to global food security. The most fundamental contribution people can make to reverse the climate change trend is to stop denying climate change. With matters related to planetary conditions, we must believe scientists, not politicians. Scientists devote their lives to their areas of expertise. They travel the world and process volumes of data to reveal trends in the Earth’s systems. They use historical data to develop mathematical models that are used to project future events in both the short and long term. Politicians on the other hand, serve the interests of industry and economy in the short term. Politicians are not experts in science. They have not devoted their lives to the study of the Planet. Most have no sound understanding of statistics, physics, chemistry, or any of the other disciplines that provide for the understanding of scientific research. Would you ask an accountant to design a spaceship to travel to Mars? Of course not. You would employ the combined knowledge of thousands of experts. Why would anyone rely upon the words of a politician to build their understanding of the Earth’s natural systems? Politicians possess neither the education, nor the experience to provide such guidance.
Mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change begins with reason. We must trust the consensus of the majority of experts. And in so doing, we must collectively support policies founded upon the consensus.
Individually, we have to strive to develop lifestyles that promote a sustainable human existence. A recent publication, The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government Recommendations Miss the Most Effective Individual Actions, conducted by researchers as the Lund University Centre for Sustainable Studies and the University of British Columbia, identifies “four lifestyle choices that most reduce your carbon footprint.” These are, 1) eat plant-based diets, 2) reduce air travel, 3) live car-free, and 4) have fewer children.23 Admittedly, I look at these lifestyle choices and see the challenges inherent in each. However, small changes in our individual lifestyles can collectively amount to tremendous progress towards sustainability. Our “sacrifices” do not need to be immediately monumental to affect tremendous change. Furthermore, dietary changes, telecommuting for work, and having fewer children can all lead to significant improvement in physical and mental heath.
Change: Hurdles and Rewards
Plant-based diets can be costly, especially when comprised of organic foods. Meat alternatives, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are not yet affordable for everyone. And developing the nutritional education required to create a healthy plant-based diet requires both learning and the time to figure out what diet works for you. Furthermore, many people simple have no desire to give up meat. However, if we truly want to ensure food security for our children and future generations, we must reduce our individual impact on the planet. The production of meat, fish, and dairy products is resource intensive. In a future characterized by resource scarcity, we will have to embrace every agricultural efficiency. We can all reduce our intake of animal-based foods. Eating less meat- and dairy-based fast-foods is a great place to start. Over time, we can move toward increasingly plant-based diets, and for many of us, we may dramatically improve our physical health in consequence.
Air travel has certainly made the world a whole lot smaller. It provides the opportunity for everyone to travel to every part of the globe. It enables families and friends to spend time with one another far more often than would otherwise be possible. As such, for individuals, reducing air travel requires a deeper analysis of personal needs and desires. For example, if time with family is of upmost importance, perhaps we should consider jobs closer to home? If we want to travel and see the world, perhaps we can reduce our carbon footprint by taking longer trips less often? And while exotic journeys appeal to us all, we don’t have to travel far to discover incredible beauty and exciting adventures. Air travel is all about destinations. Few people truly enjoy long hours in a cramped airline cabin. It is possible to create far more memorable journeys with other means of travel. Increasingly, motorcycles, cars, and trains will become all-elective and powered from renewable energy, providing the opportunity for ecofriendly sight-seeing all along the journey to a destination. For companies, air travel has been essential for business development and growth. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that telecommuting is not only effective, but costs reductive. Desirable business outcomes can be achieved with substantially smaller office spaces, or none at all.
Living car-free presents unique challenges for everyone. It is simply not an option for many people. In the US, many cities do not provide the public transportation infrastructure needed to facilitate a car-free lifestyle. Yet, despite this, enormous gains can be made through small lifestyle adjustments. For example, combining errands can drastically reduce fuel consumption. “Several short trips, each one taken from a cold start, can use twice as much fuel as one trip covering the same distance when the engine is warm.”24 Running errands via carpooling and public transit with family and friends can become a fun experience in and of itself. And active transportation (biking, walking…) offers obvious health benefits. At the same time, as mentioned above, the increasing prevalence of hybrid and all-electric vehicles will greatly reduce carbon emissions, especially as electrical grids become more reliant upon renewable energy sources. By embracing these new technologies (instead of resisting them) and making small changers in our transportation habits, we can greatly reduce our carbon footprint.
Having fewer children is an obvious solution to reducing global population growth and easing the demand on the Planet’s resources. The irony is the choice to have more children creates increasing disadvantages for them. In other words, it’s an “advantage” only to the parents, and that’s when overlooking the physical and emotional effects that many parents suffer from the burden of care. For most families, having fewer children reduces the financial burden of raising them and increases the number of opportunities that can be provided to them. Fewer children can also equate to greater savings, resulting in more financial security, and less stress and anxiety.
Lastly, we can also offset the environmental impact of our choices by investing in the conservation of nature. For example, the carbon footprint of motorized recreation (e.g., aircraft, boats, 4×4, ATV…) can be offset by donating money to organizations that plant trees or protect forests. Likewise, we can offset the impact of our travels through donations as well. Offsets may not afford an entirely balanced approach to reducing our impact, but their use is significantly better than doing nothing.
Overall, I firmly believe that we can develop sustainable lifestyles while creating far more rewarding ways of living. We will free our minds of all the things we think we need and discover all the wonders we truly desire. And in the process, we may greatly improve our physical and mental health.
Ending Corruption & Strife
While it is obviously important for high-income nations to respect the sovereignty of low- and middle-income countries, the suffering of innocent civilians as a consequence of political turmoil must not be overlooked. Multilateral efforts must be made to ensure that all people can enjoy the benefits of peace, justice, and strong institutions. This is the foundation upon which nations can develop food security and prevent environmental degradation. Efforts to improve the political, economic, and social institutions of developing nations are critical to alleviating the burden on the natural world. Those of us in high-income countries must support the programs of governments, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, and non-profits working to develop stronger institutions in low- and middle-income countries.
Conclusion: The Road Ahead
Humanity is a global community of ~7.6 billion people. But we are not alone. We share this earth with trillions of other lifeforms. And we all share, in our own unique ways, in the struggle for survival. While it is easy to see our own struggles as individual, the reality is that they are communal. The ecosystems of the world cannot function if their components have been destroyed, and the societies of humanity cannot function without ecosystems. Consequently, human survival hinges on the conservation of the natural world. If we wish to see the magnificence and utility of nature protected in perpetuity, we must develop a sustainable human existence at the global level. We must work together to ensure that no nation is left behind as we develop more equitable, healthy, and sustainable ways of living. And we must provide for the needs of all people if we are to prevent the destructive consequences of deprivation.
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