Food for Thought

In this issue of Biodiversity & Environment Africa we touch on food. Food for human consumption, is interwoven with and deeply connected to biodiversity and the environment. They are not separate, but often compete against each other in many ways. An essential and integral part of food production is water. In sub-Saharan Africa, water supply is increasingly becoming unpredictable. Climate change is leading to irregular and unseasonal rainfall patterns, prolonged droughts, and heavy flash flooding. All these factors are tilting food production in Africa into the unknown. 

Several studies have predicted that Africa’s human population is going to double by the year 2050. That’s less than 30 years from now. Famine is already commonplace across many African countries. What will the picture look like 30 years from now? 

In a report published in 2020 by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and the World Health Organisation, found that around 690 million people in the world go hungry each day. Although this represents less than 10% of the global human population, it is still a sobering thought, especially when overindulgence is common in many places. This figure, however, does not reflect the additional millions who are malnourished and not eating healthy diets. If moderate and severe food insecurity is combined, an estimated 2 billion people don’t have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. 

The current Covid crisis may exacerbate the problem and preliminary data suggests that a further 83 to 132 million people may be added to the global figure of undernourished people. Ironically, this report has also shown that adult obesity is on the rise. This is likely due to the unsatiable demand for fast and processed foods, as well as higher intake of refined sugars. Obesity often leads to diabetes and other health complaints. There is food production, and there is healthy and nutritious food production.  

Interestingly, I have always wondered why eating healthy is so expensive and this is a question we will pose to our relevant health and organic food experts. This sentiment is echoed in the above-mentioned report where it was found that eating healthy can be up to five times more expensive than diets that meet only dietary energy needs through a starch staple. This is not only about meat/protein products, but also found with many fruits and vegetables. This can be demonstrated clearly with the price of various nuts, which provide a range of essential oils, vitamins and protein, but which, in terms of price, is insanely nuts (excuse the pun!). 

An important factor in food production is sustainability. In recent decades we have seen a surge in large-scale mechanised food production. Mass irrigation and damming projects have altered rivers and other waterways, and wetlands and floodplains have been drained, often to the detriment of communities and biodiversity living downstream to such developments. Sedimentation is another prime example of some farming methods. There has been considerable debate around cattle and dairy farming (or ranching) and its impact on the environment, notably around increased nitrogen levels, use of rangeland for grazing, as well as other detrimental environmental impacts. As a result, there has been increased social advocacy around turning to veganism, or becoming vegetarian, and reducing meat consumption. However, it must be stressed that vegetational crop production can be equally as harmful to biodiversity and the environment in terms of water consumption, land use, application of herbicides and pesticides, and the debate around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to increase production and provide resilience against climate change. 

As stated in the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) report: 

“Not all healthy diets are sustainable and not all diets designed for sustainability are always healthy. This important nuance is not well understood and is missing from ongoing discussions and debates on the potential contribution of healthy diets to environmental sustainability.”

The issues around food production and healthy diets is extremely complex and will vary between regions. Water security, and water consumption, is a major factor in food production. Providing enough nourishment for a burgeoning human population, and in association, the need for mass-producing agriculture, is another important issue to consider.

In addition, there is the exploitation of our marine resources. What once appeared to be an endless sea of protein is now becoming increasingly threatened through massive trawling and fishing operations. This is leading to increased tension between nations, as well as small local communities reliant on marine resources for their daily living. Overharvesting takes place from the local bays and ports right through to the open ocean. It appears that illegal trawling and poaching is prevalent and growing in vast oceans that are difficult to police. When offenders are caught, the penalties can often cause regional conflict between governments. There are still many maritime territorial disputes unresolved, and this leads to strained diplomacy and potential conflict between nations, as we have witnessed in places such as the South China Sea. 

In stark contrast to famine and malnutrition, a recent report published by the United Nations Environment Programme highlighted how in 2019, consumers threw away nearly a billion tonnes of food! That’s approximately 17% of all food purchased. This demonstrates how unequal food distribution, or access to food, is around the globe. 61% of this waste is generated from households. That’s food for thought. (Link to this article listed below under References.)  

In recent decades across many parts of the world, people have been flocking to cities in the hope of finding better work, social, health and living opportunities. This, paradoxically, leads to increased poverty, housing shortages, service delivery shortfalls and increased crime. Perhaps we need to invest much, much more into rural communities in terms of security, health and education and teach more people to become self-sufficient in growing and producing their own produce. Of course, land ownership is another crucial factor that needs to be addressed and which will play a critical part of future food production in Africa.   

Small-scale farming, organic farming, hydroponics, aquaponics and associated practices are worth investment and investigation, but whether these practices can provide enough nourishment, and at an affordable cost to the poor, needs further review.

In this issue of B & E Africa, we touch on the real basis of a healthy diet and in forthcoming issues will investigate the relationship between food, the environment and biodiversity.

Sustainable farming -Image by


  1. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2020. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020.

Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets. Rome, FAO.


Article and photos by: Warren Schmid

Warren holds a Master of Science degree in Ecological Sciences awarded by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He has three decades of experience in ecology, conservation science, invasion biology and herpetology. He has worked as a journalist, magazine editor, and lecturer, and has presented talks, seminars, and lectures.

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