World Resource Institute

Tomorrow's Approach: Food Production and Ecosystem Conservation in a Changing Climate

By Janet Ranganathan and Craig Hanson, World Resources Institute

Question Four: Must we fundamentally change course to conserve ecosystems in a changing climate? Do we need to adopt a fundamentally different approach to conserving ecosystems and their services in a changing climate?

This paper examines a triple challenge: the interlinked and intensifying problems of climate change, ecosystem services degradation, and the need to double food production to sustain a growing global population. It describes the dominant influence of food production on ecosystems and the associated risk of ecosystems reaching tipping points beyond which they lose the ability to provide people with food and other vital services. It then offers two approaches to help conserve ecosystem services in a changing climate - a tool for integrating climate change and ecosystem service risks into decision making and a framework for reconciling food production and conservation goals. The paper's central argument is that in order to meet food security and conservation goals we need to move from managing ecosystems for food at the expense of other ecosystem services to managing ecosystems for food plus other nature-based services.

Conservation vs Food Production: a False Dichotomy

It is tempting, given the question's use of the term "conserving ecosystems," to focus this answer on the 14% of the terrestrial system that is protected. Such a response, however, would miss the elephant in the room. To conserve ecosystems in a changing climate, we must instead focus on how they are used and managed in the remaining 86% of land cover. Food production currently dominates that use, with 40 percent of the Earth's land cover managed for crop production and pasture. [1]

To date, the focus on managing ecosystems for food production has resulted in significant benefits for humans. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that globally human well-being has improved over the past 50 years, as measured by the UN human development index. We live longer, are better nourished, literacy rates have risen along with educational attainment, and per capita GDP is rising.

Yet, as human well-being has improved, the health of ecosystems has declined. Humans have degraded the majority of ecosystem services""capture fisheries, freshwater, pollination and many more""while enhancing a few food services. [2] Food production is a major force behind every direct driver of ecosystem degradation identified by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005 (see Box 1).

Box 1: Food production as a major driver of ecosystem degradation

Habitat conversion: Approximately 43% of tropical and subtropical forests and 45% of temperate forests have been converted to croplands.

Over exploitation: 70% of global freshwater use is by agriculture, reducing its availability for other uses.

Invasive species:  The introduction of aquatic alien fish species has led to the extinction of native species in many parts of the world.

Pollution: Only a fraction of nitrogen applied as a fertilizer is typically used by plants, the rest ends up in inland waters and coastal systems, creating eutrophication and dead zones.

Climate Change:  Agriculture directly contributed to around 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 and drives additional emissions through its role in deforestation.

Source: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005; WRI CAIT

Minqin Oasis in Western China, for example, historically served as a natural barrier against the dryness of the Tengger and Badain Jaran deserts. In the 1950s Chairman Mao implemented a national plan to boost food production, entailing cultivation, deforestation, irrigation, and reclamation. The long-term consequences on other ecosystem services such as erosion control and freshwater were devastating. As a result, the Minqin oasis has been swallowed by deserts, leading to abandonment of once productive land. [3] In the U.S. midwest region, the production of crops, livestock, and biofuel has degraded coastal ecosystems. [4] In the Gulf of Mexico, nutrient runoff from farmland has created a dead zone approximately the size of New Jersey which has degraded fisheries and is expected to worsen with climate change. [5]

Can this paradox [6] of improving human well-being by increasing food production at the expense of other ecosystem services that humans depend on continue? Scientists worry that time lags may exist between the degradation of ecosystems and the resulting effects on human well-being. And that these may lead to tipping points past which damage to ecosystems is irreversible. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment identified several examples of irreversible ecosystem change, such as the sudden collapse of chronically over-exploited North Atlantic cod stocks in the late 1980s. As climate change impacts exacerbate food production stresses on ecosystems, it is conceivable that such collapses become commonplace, with enormous implications for food security, especially in the developing world where two billion rural poor depend on ecosystems for sustenance and livelihoods. For example, the Amazon provides critical water and climate regulation services that the region's agricultural sector depends upon for its survival. Yet scientists fear that ongoing deforestation combined with climate change could bring the Brazilian Amazon to a tipping point beyond which it experiences widespread dieback and transitions into savanna-like vegetation. The reductions in rainfall would devastate efforts to raise crops and cattle in the region. [7]

Further upping the food production/ecosystems health challenge facing policymakers, population growth and rising per capita incomes are expected to double the world's demand for food in the next 40 years, according to UN food and agriculture chief, Jacques Diouf. [8]

Avoiding Ecosystem Services Tipping Points

To conserve ecosystems in the face of climate change, confronting the elephant - the way we meet our needs for food - must be a prime focus. And our approach to conserving ecosystems must ensure that they are not pushed beyond dangerous tipping points. Future approaches to conserving ecosystems must tackle the three interlinked challenges of climate change, ecosystem services degradation and rising demand for food (figure 1).


- Climate change

Climate change affects the quantity and quality of food and other ecosystem services. Moderate warming (1-3ºC) is expected to benefit agriculture in mid to high latitudes, but to decrease yield of cereals in low latitudes (medium confidence). [9] The loss of ecosystem services is likely to be a major source of surprises from climate change. [10] While ecosystems have adapted before in response to shifts in climate, their resilience this time is undermined by existing and growing human pressures. Future food production must therefore reduce its pressure on ecosystems and plan for the unexpected, such as changes to freshwater, natural pest regulation and pollination services.

- Ecosystem service degradation

The majority of ecosystem services globally have been degraded, including those that underpin food production (Table 1). [11] Crops, livestock and aquaculture are among the few ecosystem services that have been enhanced. The degradation of ecosystems services is expected to grow significantly worse in the first half of the 21st century, with climate change possibly becoming the dominant driver by the end of the century.[12]

Table 1: Global status and trends of ecosystem services that underpin food production


Genetic resources



Regional and local climate regulation

Erosion regulation

Water purification


Natural hazard regulation

Water regulation

 (for example, flood protection)

Disease regulation

(for example, natural pest regulation)

Carbon sequestration

Source: Adapted from Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005

Doubling of food demand

The focus on increasing food production needs to continue, if we are to sustain previous gains in human wellbeing, feed a growing population and lift millions out of poverty. But increasing food production at the expense of other ecosystem services and climate change cannot be sustained indefinitely. Approximately 13 million ha of forest, for example, are lost annually, primarily as a result of the expansion of land used for food and fuel. [13] Deforestation is a significant cause of climate change and results in the loss of ecosystems services that are critical inputs to agriculture, including erosion control, climate regulation, pollination and water regulation. Yet, projections estimate conversions of an additional 120-240 million ha by 2030, much of it in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa and much of it for food production. [14]

Win-Win Strategies for Ecosystem Services, Food Production and Climate Resilience

Addressing the intertwined challenge of meeting rising demand for food and conserving ecosystems in a changing climate will not be easy. It will require policy makers at all levels of society adopting different approaches to conserving and managing ecosystems that factor in climate change and other drivers of ecosystem change. Two such approaches are described below: 1. integrate climate change and ecosystem service risks in decisions that affect ecosystems and 2. reconcile food production and conservation goals.

1. Integrate climate change and ecosystem service risks in decisions. Future ecosystem use decisions, particularly those that involve food production, should assess the risks associated with their dependence and impact on ecosystem services and how these risks will be altered by climate change. Box 2 outlines a rapid assessment tool for this purpose, based on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment conceptual framework and the World Resources Institute's subsequent work. [15] [16]

Box 2: Climate change and ecosystem service risk tool applied to agriculture in Southern India

Step 1 Prioritize ecosystem services by systematically evaluating the risk arising from the dependence and impact of a decision (agriculture) on each ecosystem service present. Food production in Southern India depends on or impacts freshwater, pollination, water regulation, erosion regulation, pest regulation and nutrient cycling.

Step 2 Analyze trends in each priority ecosystem service, including the affects of climate change and other drivers of ecosystem change. Freshwater: climate change will decrease overall rainfall, while increasing intensity of rain. The increased rain intensity will increase runoff and decrease groundwater recharge rates; Pollination: increased temperatures will stress existing pollinators as well as plant pollination systems.

Step 3 Identify risks and opportunities resulting from trends in priority services. Freshwater: responsible for 90% of draws, agriculture will cause demand to outstrip supply in nearly all areas of Southern India by 2020 leading to reduced availability of water for irrigation; Pollination: reduced yields in insect pollinated crops, heat dries maize silk, eroding its pollinating capacity.

Step 4 Develop strategies for managing risks. Freshwater: switch to crops that use less water and are more tolerant to extreme weather events, improve water efficiency and restore landscape to manage water flows; Pollination: reduce non climate stresses on pollinators  such as use of integrated pest management, plant wildflowers to increase habitat and switch to wind pollinated crops that are less sensitive to rising temperatures.

This comprehensive tool identifies the direct drivers of ecosystem change, including climate change, in a particular setting, and assesses both risks and opportunities stemming from a decision's dependence and impact on ecosystem services. It can be applied by policy makers working in different sectors and at multiple scales, from field to forest or watershed from to national to regional and local levels.

2. Reconcile food production and conservation goals. Future approaches to food production must first and foremost recognize its interdependence on a basket of ecosystem services and develop strategies to sustain them in the face of climate change. To achieve this, food security experts need to work alongside agriculturists and biologists to maximize food production while minimizing further ecosystem and biodiversity loss. Three key strategies can help meet this goal:

Restore degraded lands

There is an urgent need to halt the expansion of food production into natural ecosystems in order to conserve ecosystem services and biodiversity. Globally, over one billion hectares of land is believed to have restoration potential for increased human use - a global combined area greater than China. [17] More work is needed to determine which of this is suitable for food production, taking into account water availability, climate change and social factors. Restoring even a small part of this for food production would help reduce pressure on natural ecosystems. In Indonesia, for example, the World Resources Institute is seeking to develop a scalable model for diverting new oil palm plantations that would otherwise replace virgin forests onto degraded land. [18] This ensures that oil palm plantations can keep expanding to meet demand""generating local revenues and jobs while reducing deforestation. [19] Similar opportunities exist to divert the expansion of cattle ranches in the Amazon region to degraded lands.

Increase productivity on existing farmland

While intensification doesn't immediately come to mind when thinking about conservation, it is nevertheless a key strategy to reduce stress on natural ecosystems. The challenge is to find ways to produce more food without unwanted ecosystem trade-offs. As noted by Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division at a 2009 Congress on Conservation Agriculture in New Delhi. [20] "In the name of intensification in many places around the world, farmers over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated, over-applied pesticides. In doing so we also affected all aspects of the soil, water, land, biodiversity and the services provided by an intact ecosystem. That began to bring yield growth rates down." Food production needs to be redesigned to be both more productive and synergistic with other ecosystem services. Public subsidies and tax incentives, for example, should be used to compensate farmers for managing their lands in ways that sustain beneficial ecosystem services to society. To contend with climate change, farmers need location-specific information on ecosystem services and changing climate conditions. This should be combined with research on how improved practices can address climate constraints on crops. For example, rainfall may remain plentiful in parts of Africa but be concentrated in shorter time periods. Ways to minimize run-off and soil erosion and store water to extend growing seasons will thus be important. [21]

Manage demand for food

Opportunities for managing demand for food in both developed and developing countries include changing diets, reducing food waste and advancing programs that encourage sustainable food production. The world's livestock sector is growing at an unprecedented rate driven by rapid growth in demand for animal protein as a result of population growth, rising incomes and urbanization. [22] Animal protein requires more land, water, and energy to produce than plant protein. Education programs can help consumers make informed choices on the environmental and health benefits of food choices. There is also a need to spur and scale up demand for sustainably produced food. This can include promoting the use of certification and labeling programs for sustainably produced agriculture commodities.

Table 2: Making food production and conservation equal partners

Today's approach - food rulesTomorrow's approach - equal partners
Enhance single ecosystem services e.g., crops, livestock, aquacultureManage the bundle of ecosystem services that underpin food production
Expand agriculture into forestsRestore degraded lands, increase productivity on existing farm land
Incentives/subsidies focus on increasing commoditiesIncentives/subsidies focus on increasing regulating ecosystem services and biodiversity
Underinvestment in extension servicesStrengthened extension services, providing advice on climate change and ecosystem services
Manage for predictable outputManage for uncertainty
Meet rising food demand by managing supplyMeet rising food demand by managing demand and supply
Improve yield through increased inputs e.g., fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides, and energyImprove yield through crop diversity, plants adapted to changing climate and wise use of inputs
Efficiency - focus on laborEfficiency - focus on land, water, and energy
Manage land at farm scale for food at expense of other servicesManage landscape mosaics, grow food in ways that synergize with natural ecological functions of landscape
Conservation is separate from food productionConservation is an integral part of food production

If, by 2050, the world celebrates success in providing food security and in navigating ecological tipping points in the face of climate change, it will be because of the ingenuity of farmers and conservationists, agricultural experts and ecologists in finding ways of learning and acting together across scales and disciplines. In addition, political leaders will have supported much larger investments in research and training, and in monitoring the interaction of agriculture with ecosystem services and how the supply of services may change and be sustained in the face of climate change. Table 2, above, provides a snapshot of how food production may change in the decades ahead. The good news is that examples of "tomorrow's approach" are already beginning to emerge. The challenge now is to scale them up in a changing climate.

Acknowledgements: The authors gratefully acknowledge the helpful input they received from Polly Ghazi, Frances Irwin, Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Paul West, David Tomberlin, and Monika Zurek.

References and Notes

[1]Foley et al, 2005, Science 22 July 2005:Vol. 309. no. 5734, pp. 570 - 574

[2] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis. Washington DC: Island Press. Online at:

[3] Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B12 Feb, 2008. vol. 363 No. 1491 p. 639-658

[4] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends, Volume 1. R. Hassan, R. Scholes, and N. Ash (eds.). p. 831-2. Washington DC: Island Press. 2005

[5] R. J. Diaz and R. Rosenberg, Science 15 Aug. 2008: Vol. 321. no. 5891, pp. 926 - 929

[6] Raudsepp-Hearne at el, 2010, Bioscience, Vol. 60 No.8, Untangling the Environmentalist's Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade? at

[7] Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, Executive Summary, Convention on Biological Diversity, 2010 at


[9] IPPC Fourth Assessment Report, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Chpt 5: p.275, 2007

[10] IPPC Fourth Assessment Report, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Chpt 4 p.241, 2007

[11] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis. Washington DC: Island Press. Online at:

[12] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis. Washington DC: Island Press. Online at:

[13] Global Forest Resource Assessment 2005, FAO Forestry Paper 147, Rome

14] Rising Global Interest in Farmland, World Bank Report, Sept. 2010

[15] Corporate Ecosystem Services Review, Guidelines for Identifying Business Risks and Opportunities Arising from Ecosystem Change, Hanson et al. World Resources Institute, World Business Council for Sustainable Development and Meridian Institute, 2008

[16] Ecosystem Services: A Guide for Decision Makers, Ranganathan et al, World Resources Institute, 2008

[17] /stories/2009/12/new-hope-restoring-forest-landscapes

[18] /project/potico

[19] /project/potico


[21] Rising Global Interest in Farmland, World Bank Report, Ch. 1 p.9 2010