A handful of potatoes in Kenya. As the world population reaches 9 billion, the issue of food and nutrition security has never been so important and complex. Photo by: P. Casier / CGIAR / CC BY-NC-SA

On Sept. 25, the Earth Institute at New York’s Columbia University is hosting the first-ever CGIAR Development Dialogues, a global event addressing the fundamental role of agriculture, livestock, fisheries, forestry, landscapes and food systems in achieving the new Sustainable Development Goals. The achievement of these new targets will depend on delivering integrated solutions to social, environmental and economic development challenges worldwide.

Rethinking food systems — which bring together human health, nutrition, well-being and equity — for the 21st century is a huge part of this. Despite significant progress in securing the needs of the world’s poorest, over 800 million people still face chronic hunger, and 2 billion suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies.

At the same time, climate change is expected to reduce agricultural production by 2 percent per decade until 2050, and land degradation hampers the current and future potential of production, particularly in low-income areas. As human activity pushes us beyond the planetary thresholds of the Earth’s ecosystems, our global population will reach 9 billion by 2050. The challenge of securing food and nutrition security for all has never been so complex, and so important.

The complexity of current global challenges requires taking a fresh look at how people interact with the environment in order to fulfill the goals of food and nutrition security while maintaining, restoring and securing the ecosystems upon which we are ultimately dependent. No effort toward achieving food and nutrition security will be comprehensive without squarely placing environmental sustainability as its prerequisite: healthy environments are the foundation of sustainable food systems.

To achieve this type of integration requires a landscapes- or systems-based approach — one that considers the diverse interactions and connections within an agricultural landscape that contribute to improved well-being and healthier, more resilient ecosystems. For example, building diversity into landscapes and food systems can provide multiple sources of nutrients and vital ecosystem services, and the benefits that people get from nature such as pollination, clean air and water, and natural pest and disease control.

Let us consider that there are at least 7,000 edible plant species, with thousands of varieties per species. Bananas alone, one of the world’s most important crops, could come in as many as 1,000 varieties. Each variety of a species has its own level of resistance to pests, diseases and even to extreme weather conditions — and its own unique contribution to human nutrition, wherein the intake of one variety over another can make the difference between getting the right amount of micronutrients for a healthy life, or not getting enough.

The positive links between health, agriculture and the environment are not only promising for, but a mainstay of the post-2015 development agenda. We propose that the SDGs must not be considered as individual and distinct goals, but that the specific interaction between goals must be highlighted, emphasizing environmental sustainability as a means to achieving goals of reducing poverty, eliminating hunger and providing nutritious and diversified diets.

Working with partners through the CGIAR research programs on agriculture for nutrition and health, aquaculture systems and humid tropics, our partners Bioversity International, Columbia University and Wageningen University are piloting landscape approaches in Zambia and Kenya which explore the relationship of diet diversity, ecosystems services, and sustainable intensification of agriculture; inform nutrition-based landscape interventions; and aim to improve the resilience of populations in landscapes faced with changing conditions.

In Zambia, we have been working with community members to map out their farms and the wider agricultural landscape, and use seasonal food availability calendars so they have a visual picture of nutrient-rich foods available across seasons. We are also helping to build capacity within communities by teaching them about the impact of micronutrient deficiencies both in diets for human health and in soils for crop health, for instance by teaching them how to carry out soil testing, and learning about the role of vitamin and minerals in human health and nutrition. In addition, we are also looking at how everything in the landscape is interconnected, and how choices about what to grow and where may result in tradeoffs. One example of this is how decisions to clear land for agriculture can lead to a loss of trees, as well as the ecosystem services trees provide for natural enemies of crop pests like birds, on top of being an available source of healthy indigenous fruit.  

We are making sure that community members are able to participate in focus group discussions, and that both men and women as well as younger people from the communities are all represented.

Now, we look forward to the progress of the work in furthering our understanding of the links between the environment, agriculture and health — and, moreover, to the advances the CGIAR Development Dialogues will make in identifying the incentives, institutions and interventions needed to forge these synergies in the global development goals of the 21st century.

Devex is a proud media partner of the 2014 CGIAR Development Dialogues.

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About the author

  • Ann Tutwiler

    Ann Tutwiler is director general of Bioversity International, where she helps forge effective partnerships and oversees the organization's strategic priorities and research agenda. With almost 30 years of experience in agricultural policy and development, Tutwiler previously worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Flora Hewlett Foundation.