Nutrients for All: Thriving Ecosystems for Productive, Resilient Food Systems


By Kristie Wang

Natural ecosystems ensure that vital nutrients flow from soils to food to people. Thriving ecosystems are the bedrock of healthy nutrient chains, the basis of all life on the planet.

So what’s the issue?

Degraded by human activity like unsustainable agricultural practices, ecosystems around the world and their capacity to regenerate are threatened. This escalating stress on ecosystems increases the risks and impacts associated with climate change, and limits the availability of nutrient-enabling resources for food production: water, topsoil and biodiversity.

Desertification, caused primarily by overgrazing, over-intensive farming and deforestation, is occurring rapidly in regions that include East Asia (China), sub-Saharan Africa, and even North America (West Texas, U.S.A.). The world’s fisheries are disappearing—according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 85 percent of the world’s fish species are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. And the pollution of waterways, mainly from chemical fertilization and industrial livestock rearing, have created vast aquatic dead zones.

Forests protect topsoil against erosion, prevent destructive floods (through transpiration), and foster biodiversity. Yet deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate of 16 million hectares each year (think 16 million baseball fields). According to UNESCO, 200 years ago the average depth of top soil was 21 inches. Today, it is six inches. And although our food systems would collapse without biodiversity, 200 species go extinct per day—which experts estimate is 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate of extinction.

Depressed yet? Don’t be…

The issues are dire, but the solutions are out there. Much of the degradation of our ecosystems is linked to the very system that depends so much upon it—food. Agriculture is a primary reason for deforestation in the Amazon, and worldwide it is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. But the irony is that nutrient-rich farms need healthy ecosystems. There couldn’t be a better incentive for agricultural systems to adopt ecologically sustainable practices.

As experts along the entire nutrient chain are beginning to take a systemic view, promising collaborations with the environmental sector are surfacing as effective solutions for the loss of ecosystems. For instance, Ashoka Fellow Dr. Willie Smits is helping farmers in Borneo establish sustainable livelihoods by fostering the growth of forests and wild sugar palms instead of clearing forests for monocropping oil palms. Because the sugar palms depend on secondary forests and must not be harmed during the harvesting of their juices, the farmers have a strong incentive to preserve the natural forest ecosystems.

Another social innovator from South Africa, Harry Jonas, is tackling the issue through natural justice. Jonas helps indigenous communities all over the world preserve their natural resources by translating traditional customs surrounding land management into a formal law format that lawmakers and other stakeholders can engage for legal processes. By giving indigenous communities more control over their natural resources, Jonas is also catalyzing the preservation of bio-cultural diversity and changing the landscape of environmental law. The scale of this impact is undeniable: UN agencies are now using Jonas’s protocols with indigenous communities all over the world.

Need more convincing?

Social innovators are not the only ones taking advantage of systemic thinking. There are new collaborations occurring between medical experts and environmental conservationists as well. A recent Harvard study connectedhigher incidences of disease with a loss of biodiversity, encouraging us to view conservation as more than just an ecological problem – it’s an issue of public health.

So how exactly can the agricultural, food, health, and business sectors be incentivized to protect our vital ecosystems? What other collaborative efforts do you know about? Share your idea,  and let us know your thoughts below!



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