ACC Network:Theme:NREM

ACC Network on Rural Development and Food Security

 Welcome  News  Background  Members  Countries  Themes  Resources

Posted 28 May 1998

Theme: Natural Resource and Environmental Management (NREM) for Food Security

by Uttam Dabholkar
Director, Policy
United Nations Environment Programme
Views expressed in this article are personal and should not be ascribed to the institutions with which the author is associated.
See also: Sustainable livelihoods (July 1998) | Building a pluralistic network (May 1998) | Moving forward (April 1998)

NREM in World Food Summit's Plan of Action

The World Food Summit's Plan of Action [1] recognizes the role sound NREM can and should play in raising land, water, forest, marine and labour productivity in increasing food and agricultural production, and in enhancing food security. It provides a range of guidelines to achieve sustainable food security, inter alia, through better NREM as it relates to farming, grazing, forestry and fisheries. These pointers include technical, technological, legislative, regulatory, institutional, economic, social and sectoral measures. And they involve government administrations, the private sector, communities, scientific and technical research bodies, NGOs, and national as well as international institutions. Commitment Three of the Plan of Action dwells, in particular, on the NREM ingredients of a strategy to enhance food security.

The challenge

The majority of experts who analyze the world's food supply and demand scenarios believes that the world's aggregate food supplies to the year 2020 should be adequate to meet the global demand for food [2]. But experts also agree that such statistical projections are consistent with the likelihood of many countries experiencing large food deficits and widespread hunger. Regional and national disparities in food availability and nutrition may persist and could become more pronounced.

Environmental constraints, such as droughts, floods, pests, crop and animal diseases, water scarcity, land degradation, soil, forest and biodiversity loss, and chemical pollution may be slowing down agricultural productivity gains. Yields may not increase as significantly as in the past in relation to input and technology innovations. The difficulties may be particularly pronounced in low potential areas and on small scale farms where food insecurity tends to be common.

Experts agree that most of the increase in food production which is needed to reduce by half, by the year 2015, the number of the world's undernourished has to come from more intensive cultivation of existing arable land. There is little scope to extend farmland, except in the acid soils of Brazilian cerrado, the Llanos of Colombia and Venezuela, and acid soil areas of central and southern Africa. Further, molecular genetics and biotechnology may not increase agricultural yields in food-deficit low income countries in the near future [3].

Thus the role of sound NREM is vital in the face of: a) growing demand for food from larger populations and resource-intensive consumption patterns (e.g. animal protein); b) growing scarcity of arable land and freshwater, depleting fisheries and forests, land degradation, and rising costs of irrigation; and c) harmful environmental impacts (e.g. pests, soil and water pollution, nutrient loss) of some past high-input technology applications.

Policy context

Increased food production and supply are necessary but evidently not sufficient to enhance food security. While sound NREM can increase and sustain food production and supply, other policy and programme interventions are needed to improve the economic and physical access of the hungry to food. These measures encompass social, economic, institutional, humanitarian, regulatory and political aspects of development. Reduction of poverty is their primary focus, and they include fostering technological change, improving the efficiency of irrigation, improving infrastructure, strengthening markets and agribusiness, providing education and health services on a broad front, and promoting participatory and democratic decision-making and management [4].

Since the late '80s and early '90s many developing countries have implemented macroeconomic and agricultural policy reforms including: exchange rate adjustments; reducing public expenditure; reforming taxation; removing price controls; reducing price subsidies for pesticides, fertilizer, irrigation water; reducing the role of parastatals and promoting the private sector in agricultural marketing; clarifying property and tenurial rights, and encouraging land markets. Policy reform is an ongoing process, involving learning by doing. Nonetheless several countries have made gains in food security as a result of such reforms [5]. The sensitivity of the reform process to the needs of vulnerable groups has been an important factor in such successes.

The Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture which partly brought agricultural trade under multilateral discipline, converting non-tariff barriers to tariffs and establishing new rules on market access, export subsidies and on domestic support, should liberalize agricultural trade. In the long run this should help improve NREM, agricultural production and food security in the developing countries. In the short run, however, it may raise food prices in food-deficit countries. The Agreement's Decision on Measures Concerning Possible Negative Effects of the Reform Program on Least Developed and Food-Importing Countries addresses these concerns [6].


Although the need for sound NREM is accepted as a prerequisite to enhance food security, right action may not necessarily follow. NREM outcomes result from a multitude of forces, including individual, household, enterprise and community activities, government interventions, institutional and policy frameworks, incentive systems, information, knowledge, technology and investments. The divergence of private and social costs of environmental damage, and the long range and long term nature of environmental impacts of human activities call for deliberate measures to steer them in the right direction. This holds true for use and management of private holdings as well as common property resources, such as rivers, lakes, coastal areas, mangroves, fisheries, forests and village woodlots and grazing land.

The main constraints that need to be addressed to improve NREM practices to enhance food security include the following:

  • lack of information on the links between NREM and food security
  • lack of access to needed technology and expertise
  • lack of (initial) investment funds
  • marked diversity or conflict of interests in the use of resources
  • absence of needed institutional frameworks
  • dysfunctional policies and incentive systems at work
  • severe limitations of resource productivity
  • intense population pressure on scarce natural resources.


Evidence is accumulating on how some communities, NGOs, local, provincial and national governments and the private sector have overcome some of these constraints. The abstracts on case studies referred to below are indicative of such effort. However, even after achieving initial success, the challenge of sustaining the soundness of NREM practices and of their linkages to enhancing food security does not fade away. To achieve and sustain success, some key issues have to be carefully addressed. These include:
  • creatively linking national, regional and global NREM objectives with local food security and rural development imperatives

  • establishing synergy in the efforts of government departments (e.g. irrigation, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, social welfare, health and employment) related to improving NREM and food security

  • making interventions of different levels (e.g. national, provincial, district) of administration internally consistent and supportive of community-level action for sound NREM and agricultural development

  • effectively relating short term sacrifices and benefits of food producers and communities to gains in resource and labour productivity, poverty reduction and food security

  • ensuring equity in the distribution of the benefits and costs associated with improving NREM and strengthening its linkage to food security, with particular attention to the needs of vulnerable groups, including women

  • creating and strengthening participatory, self-reliant and democratic institutions at the community level to improve NREM for sustainable agricultural development and food security

  • striking the right balances of investments and programmes between: a) high and low potential areas; b) domestic production and foreign trade; c) subsistence crops and cash crops; (d) traditional and modern technology; and (e) agricultural and "non-farm" employment, to improve NREM and food security.

The following case studies offer some insights into achieving a resolution of some of these issues involved in improving NREM and food security in tandem.

Case study 1: Costa Rica [7]

Costa Rica's INBio (National Biodiversity Institute) collaborates with private enterprise to explore non-destructive commercial use of biodiversity, e.g. in medicine and cosmetics. Funds received from royalties are used in part for research and protection of conservation areas, including watersheds. This adds value to farmlands and nature reserves as biodiversity is marketed through the private sector e.g. by way of ecotourism.

Secondly, the country allocates one-third of its gasoline and fossil fuel tax revenue to forest activities to secure global and local environmental benefits, including carbon sequestration and watershed protection. A Forest Financing Fund channels resources directly to small and medium size farmers to compensate them for reforesting the land and managing forest lands.

Thirdly, with an IFC loan Costa Rica has created a timber futures market to enable small and medium size landholders to receive the fruits of their labour, without having to wait for 15 years. This promises to make sustainable forestry a bankable business even for smallholders.

The Costa Rican experience illustrates how sound NREM backed up by discerning government policies and programmes as well as private sector partnership, can enhance food security and well-being of the small farmer. It also demonstrates the feasibility of linking global environmental benefits with NREM, sustainable agricultural development, and food security, and of mobilizing external resources in support of that process.

Case study 2: Morocco [8]

IFAD's project on livestock and pasture development in the Eastern Region of Morocco improved living conditions of some 9000 pastoral families and productivity of some 700,000 hectares of grazing land. It achieved this through: a) the formation of modern pastoralist co-operatives which built on traditional ethnic group lineages; b) introducing economic incentives; and c) promoting adoption of sound range management food security, including limits on livestock holdings, rotational land resting for environmental regeneration, and payment of grazing fees. Innovations in social organization, building on traditional institutions, and use of economic incentives made it possible to improve NREM practices and livelihoods at a modest cost of $40 per hectare, and to dispense with the high cost of fences to protect land from degradation.

Case study 3: India [9]

For over three decades forests in the uplands of Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh in India were indiscriminately felled by contractors, and cleared for farming by local residents. Intensive farming of uplands and hillsides without proper management of soil, water, vegetation and tree cover led to soil erosion, heavy runoff, loss of land productivity and of food security, and large scale out-migration.

Since 1994 the Rajiv Gandhi Mission for Watershed Development has worked with the local community and various government programmes, such as Drought Prone Areas Programme, Employment Assurance Scheme, Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, and Integrated Watershed Development Programme, to restore vegetation cover and reclaim degraded land. The programme's success led to revision in 1996 of its initial target of restoring productivity on 1.2 million hectares to 2.8 million hectares, covering some 6700 villages and over 5000 watersheds. Livelihoods, incomes and food security in the region have markedly improved, reversing previous out-migration.

The main ingredients of the programme's success have been: a) creating institutions for co-ordination at various levels and departments of government administration; b) participatory planning, management, maintenance and monitoring of the land, water and forest resources and public works by the concerned communities; c) backstopping of local decision-making and management by technical expertise; d) implementing an integrated approach to land and water management, with watersheds serving as management units; e) the project's responsiveness to meeting the multiple (e.g. food, fodder, employment, income) needs of local communities; and f) the cohesiveness of the local tribal community and its capacity to work collectively for a common purpose.

Case study 4: Niger [10]

A small scale irrigation programme administered with IFAD support in the remote Diffa district of the Komadougou valley in Eastern Niger exemplifies notable improvements in land and labour productivity, livelihoods and food security. The programme has capitalized on the region's geographic and biophysical circumstances to enhance food security by encouraging production of the Diffa green pepper, which is a cash crop and not a staple food. Two-thirds of the region's irrigated area is under green pepper which fetches a high price in neighbouring Nigeria and Niger's towns. The Diffa region itself receives in turn reliable staple food supplies at low prices from neighbouring areas.

The programme has raised productivity on small farms through construction of natural reservoirs fed by the Komadougou river, and through the rehabilitation of irrigation schemes that pump directly from it. It has fostered self-managed collective irrigation, provided small motor pumps to farmers for purchase on credit, and inculcated cost recovery and loan repayment disciplines. Favourable soil, availability of water, proximity to a large market, flexibility of project design, and trained staff have been among the factors instrumental in overcoming initial ecological and economic constraints.

Case Study 5: Lesotho [11]

A notable success of IFAD's Soil and Water Conservation and Agroforestry Programme in Lesotho has been the improvement of land productivity, incomes and food security in low-potential uplands (1300-2000 metres above sea level) through the propagation of the traditional Machobane farming system (MFS) adapted to current needs. With programme support over 2000 families adopted by 1997 the MFS and markedly improved their food security.

MFS is an intensive relay and inter-cropping system based on raising sorghum, maize, beans, wheat and pumpkins; under the programme initiative two new crops, namely, potato and watermelon, were added for better nutrition and higher incomes. In Lesotho's highland agriculture MFS serves well in improving food security in view of: a) its reliance on organic sources to build up and maintain soil fertility; b) crop mixes ideally suited to the soil, climate and ecology; c) maintenance of perennial plant cover for soil and water conservation throughout the year; d) self-reliant use of household waste (manure and ash) by farm families; e) sufficient yields on intensively cultivated small farms for subsistence and income for families; f) lowering of risks through reduced yield fluctuations; and g) emphasis on learning by doing and self-reliance to improve NREM and food security.

The pilot success of MFS in Lesotho brings into clear relief the significance of securing economic, social and environmental viability of proposed NREM measures and their strong linkages to livelihoods and food security. It also highlights how communities in low-potential areas work hard to become self-reliant in improving NREM and food security when they receive the fruits of their labour by way of better diets and incomes in the short term.


Many countries and development institutions are currently engaged in designing and implementing policies and programmes to promote food security. These often form part of their efforts to promote sustainable development, especially agricultural and rural development. Improving NREM needs to be an integral component of strategies to enhance food security and to achieve sustainable development. The stronger the NREM's link to food security, the more sustainable the latter is likely to be [12]. Traditional and modern inputs and technologies, agro-ecological and environmental information systems, and participatory social processes and benefit sharing all have a role to play in securing this linkage. Nonetheless approaches to enhancing food security should also fully harness the potential of trade and non-farm employment in improving livelihoods and reducing poverty.

The growing experience of ongoing programmes in this field provides useful insights some of which are touched upon in section V above. There is great promise in a continuing exchange of views and of lessons of experience among policy makers, analysts and practitioners involved in field projects. The ACC Network on Rural Development and Food Security provides a practical vehicle to foster such an exchange. Its potential needs to be fully explored in the service of furthering rural development and food security.


1. FAO, Report of the World Food Summit, 13-17 November 1996, Part One. Rome, 1997.

2. FAO. "World Food Summit Follow-up: Draft Strategy for National Agricultural Development: Horizon 2010". Rome, 1997.

3. Norman Borlaug, 'Technological and Environmental Dimensions of Rural Well-Being' in "Rural Well-Being: From Vision to Action", op.cit., pp.43-46.

4. Alex F. McCalla and Wendy Ayers. 'Rural Development, Agriculture and Food Security', in "Finance and Development", December 1996. pp.8-11.

5. FAO, "World Food Summit Follow-up: Draft Strategy for National Agricultural Development: Horizon 2010". Rome, 1997.

6. Merlinda Ingco, Donald Mitchell, Alex F. McCalla. "Global Food Supply Prospects", World Bank, Washington D.C., 1996.

7. Jose M. Figueres. 'Political Dimensions of Rural Well-Being and How to Achieve Results on the Ground', in "Rural Well-Being: From Vision to Action", Proceedings of the Fourth Annual World Bank Conference on Environmentally Sustainable Development I. Serageldin and David Steeds, World Bank, Washington D.C., 1997, pp. 27-30.

8. Fawzi Al-Sultan. Reaching the Rural Poor, in "Rural Well-Being: From Vision to Action", op.cit, pp.53-62.

9. Anil Agarwal and Richard Mahapatra. 'When Olds Gods Died', "Down to Earth". February 1998, pp.33-43.

10. Fawzi Al-Sultan. 'Reaching the Rural Poor', in "Rural Well-Being: From Vision to Action", op.cit, pp.53-62.

11. M. Bishay, "IFAD Update" No. 3, January 1998, pp.11-12.

12. Gabino Lopez. 'How Ecological Agriculture Changed my Life', "Our Planet", UNEP, Vol. 8, No. 4, 1996, pp.34

 Welcome  News  Background  Members  Countries  Themes  Resources