What the ‘food security’ agenda means for animal conservation in terrestrial ecosystems


The goal of the ‘food security’ agenda – to provide the world's population with a sustainable and secure supply of safe, nutritious, affordable and high-quality food (Research Councils United Kingdom, 2011) – comes with considerable challenges. To feed the expanding human population, numbered over 7 billion and growing (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2011), it is anticipated that by 2030, crop production must increase by 43% and meat production by 124% (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2009). Growing demand is expected to result in escalating food prices as transport and storage costs increase, potentially reducing access to food among the world's poor. Given the past relationship between lack of access to affordable food and political instability (Brinkman & Hendrix, 2011), food security is given a high priority on global and national political agendas.

Increases in food demand and price may potentially work against animal conservation in a number of ways. For people in rural areas, escalating food prices may create a need to increase hunting, leading to greater impacts on wildlife species that are currently harvested and new species being targeted for the bushmeat trade. To meet increasing demand for food, wildlife habitat will be reduced as wilderness areas are converted into agricultural production and pressure to increase crop and meat yields changes the way land is currently used (Smith et al., 2010). Because these large-scale changes in land use can negatively impact the structure of biological communities (Gil-Tena, Brotons & Saura, 2009), they are likely to result in substantial impacts on wildlife and a loss of biodiversity (see Smith, Acevedo-Whitehouse & Pedersen, 2009). Furthermore, pre-harvest consumption by wild species accounts for 20–30% loss of crops and livestock in the supply chain (Oerke, 2006); efforts to reduce these losses are likely to impact on the wildlife concerned. Additionally, while the expectation is that food production will be sustainable, intensive food production has historically caused biodiversity loss, as well as soil erosion, water pollution and reduction in ecosystem services (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).

The growing influence of a food security agenda suggests three broad priorities for the focus of animal conservation research: first, how to optimize protected area networks to conserve vulnerable species from habitat conversion; second, how to benefit species that can live in agricultural landscapes; and third, how to strengthen interrelationships between agriculture and species that can benefit production goals. For many species, such as large predators and habitat specialists, an increase in food production that relies on conversion of land to agriculture and large inputs of fossil fuels, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides is virtually irreconcilable with reducing their risk of extinction. For these species, the need for protection within a global network of reserves and national parks will be greater than ever. Thus, research will be needed to develop effective protected area networks, as well as the means by which landholders can be encouraged to manage for wildlife movement between protected areas. Additionally, new research will be required to ensure that assessments evaluating the costs and benefits of land conversion to agriculture include evidence about the impacts of conversion on wildlife conservation.

A second priority relates to species that can live within agricultural landscapes. For these species, conservation science will have to increase its efforts to (1) assess the most effective means of managing landscapes so that pressure from agricultural development can be minimized; and (2) identify which food production methods actually benefit wildlife populations (e.g. Bengtsson, Ahnström & Weibull, 2005). Agri-environment schemes across Europe and the USA provide incentives for farmers to manage their land to benefit wildlife (Whittingham, 2007; United States Department of Agriculture, 2009). At present, some wildlife-friendly farming techniques can reduce yields of crops and livestock (Green et al., 2005); as food prices rise in the future, farmers may be less willing to accept wildlife-friendly farming approaches that reduce food production, so research will be needed that helps minimize wildlife conservation/food production trade-offs, as well as research that tailors government incentives that continue to change farmer behaviour to benefit wildlife conservation.

Thirdly, sometimes the goals of wildlife conservation and food production are synergistic, such as when wildlife provides ecosystem services that support the development of sustainable agriculture. Integrated biological control – use of wildlife to increase nutrient cycling or control pests – increases yields and reduces reliance on pesticides and fertilizers (Paoletti, Foissner & Coleman, 1993) and is likely to become more prevalent in Europe as legislation comes into play to substantially restrict the use of pesticides (Hillocks, 2012). Inevitably, realizing the benefit of wildlife for food production will require integrating areas where wildlife can flourish with farming systems rather than annexing wildlife to marginal areas where agricultural potential is limited (e.g. Bhagwat et al., 2008; Koh, 2008). To increase our understanding of when animal conservation and food production are compatible, we need more comprehensive evidence as to when wildlife species benefit food production (see also Rosenzweig, 2003). In cases where beneficial wildlife species have been extirpated, we will need to develop the knowledge and tools to reintroduce them into agricultural systems (Winfree, 2010). However, animal conservation will not benefit unless land managers change their practices. Therefore, the social and economic sciences are fundamental in informing conservation practitioners how to engage with stakeholders, such as farmers and corporations, who currently are unaware of the benefits that managing wildlife can have for food production systems.

The growing political agenda behind food security will create many challenges for animal conservation. Increasing efforts will be needed to protect vulnerable species within a matrix of agricultural production landscapes and include wildlife species within farming systems. Our science will be needed to inform the integration of conservation and food security goals in land management and to provide insights and innovation in the development of sustainable food production systems that support, rather than conflict with, animal conservation.