January 01, 2012

The Global Food System, Environmental Protection, and Human Rights

Carmen G. Gonzalez

The global food system is exceeding ecological limits while failing to meet the food needs of a large segment of the world’s population. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) more people are undernourished today than 40 years ago. Approximately 925 million people experience chronic food insecurity, and we are not on target toward achieving the Millennium Development Goal of cutting world hunger in half between 1990–92 and 2015. See FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2010 (2011). The widespread industrialization of agricultural production places enormous pressure on the world’s ecosystems, causing soil degradation, deforestation, loss of agrobiodiversity, and the contamination and depletion of freshwater resources. Agriculture, a major source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, contributes to climate change; and climate change threatens global food production by increasing the frequency and severity of droughts, floods, and hurricanes, depressing agricultural yields, and placing yet additional stress on finite water resources. This article examines the underlying causes of the converging food, agrobiodiversity, and climate crises and proposes integrated measures that the international community might take through law and regulation to promote a more just, resilient, and sustainable food system. Agriculture is currently the principal driver of biodiversity loss, primarily through the conversion of forests, grasslands, and wetlands to large-scale agricultural production, but also through unsustainable rates of water use, pollution of lakes and rivers, and introduction of nonnative species. The United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that approximately 60 percent of the ecosystem services examined have been degraded or used unsustainably to satisfy growing demands for food, water, timber, and fuel. This degradation of ecosystem services disproportionately impacts rural poor and impedes efforts to combat poverty and hunger. See Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Synthesis Report: Ecosystems and Human Well-Being (2005).

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