The Planetary Boundaries Initiative evidence submitted to the International Development Committee considering Global Food Security.

1. The Planetary Boundaries Initiative (PBI) is a new NGO, formed to explore the implications for governance, law, and policy of recent scientific work identifying a set of nine “planetary boundaries”.

2. The planetary boundaries analysis has been put forward in various scientific papers, including the initial papers which had Johan Rockström as their lead author, and is now the subject of a major research programme based at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This analysis provides a clear way of conceptualising and working towards quantifying the environmental limits which human activities should stay within. The ‘planetary boundaries’ concept responds to current scientific understanding of the functioning of the Earth System. Scientists now consider it possible to quantify the risk of crossing thresholds or tipping points which would lead to fundamental state changes with major implications for human societies.

For a summary of the “planetary boundaries” analysis, see: http://www.nature.com/news/specials/planetaryboundaries/index.html

3. In this evidence, we will be concerned only with what can be seen as a single, although extremely important, aspect of the problem of food supply and security: the environmental context within which the production and consumption of food takes place. The Planetary Boundaries Initiative does not have an agreed view on the full range of questions raised by the subject of global food security, but we do have a view about the planetary boundaries which largely set the environmental context, which we believe it is vital to take into account when devising and recommending policies on food.

4. Any set of policies recommended by the Committee needs to take into account the “planetary boundaries” analysis. This is partly because it is becoming increasingly influential, and therefore is now something which some policy-makers and organisations will be using to assess any policy recommendations; and partly of course because the analysis reflects real constraints on what is possible. For example – an important example in the context of this inquiry – a set of policies for food and agriculture which ignores the problem of nitrogen pollution will come up against the barrier presented by limits to the overuse of nitrogen-based fertilisers. Such policies are therefore not viable.

5. The boundaries which are particularly relevant to food are: ocean acidification, freshwater use, biodiversity, nitrogen and phosphorus, land use, and climate change. This amounts to six of the nine boundaries (the others are ozone depletion, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution), including all three of the boundaries which are currently being exceeded (biodiversity, nitrogen and phosphorus, and climate change).

6. In general terms, the Planetary Boundaries Initiative advocates the need for policy-makers to take serious account of the nine planetary boundaries, and to reflect this in international legal agreements, national legislation, governance arrangements, economic and business arrangements, and the setting of objectives and indicators, such as those to be established as part of the process of setting Sustainable Development Goals and ‘post-MDGs’ for the world community. The recognition of planetary boundaries through these means would help to establish a context for policy-making on (amongst a very wide set of problems and issues) global food security. In this evidence, we will outline the main legal and policy issues we believe are raised by this idea.



7. The ‘planetary boundaries’ concept is one that is helpful for establishing a new way of guiding international law for the better protection of the environment. In the spheres of human rights and trade law, we have clearly identified goals, such as human security and ‘free trade’. However, there is no such overall goal for the protection of the environment leading to lack of effective integrated enforcement. Although there is the policy of sustainable development which is frequently taken as an overriding goal for environmental protection, the level of protection is often weakened by policy decisions that strive to find a balance between the economic, social and environment. This does not necessarily help to ensure that human activities do not go beyond the capacity of natural earth system thresholds.

8. Additionally, whilst there are a plethora of multi environmental agreements (MEAs) these can often compete to the disadvantage of one another as they have not been developed with synergies established between them (eg; climate change and biodiversity governance).

9. In the context of food security, where so many different environmental regimes are in play as noted here, such lack of integrated environmental measures leads to a kind of fragmentation of global governance outcomes, where it becomes impossible to achieve an international set of goals, such as those set out in the millennium development goals.

10. Moreover, whilst there is a core value system, such as the polluter pays, precautionary principle, sustainable development and common and differentiated responsibility, many argue these are weak and vague terms that simply provide a set of commitments by States.

11. The PBI considers that it is necessary to begin to look at global governance through the lens of planetary boundaries in order to find a concept that provides greater definition and certainty to the concept of sustainability whilst also reflecting the value humanity places on the preservation of the biophysical conditions upon which we all depend.

12. The planetary boundaries concept can provide such a definition when seen in terms of ecological integrity. Instead of the term ‘ecological integrity’ remaining vague and weakly defined, the concept of planetary boundaries provides a way in which ‘integrity’ can be measured and quantified. Scientists are used to establishing measures and indicators at a national scale. Now we should urge the international community to consider establishing thresholds at a planetary scale that are recognisable within a system of international law. The PBI Declaration established by the Planetary Boundaries at www.planetaryboundariesinitiative.org is one way in which this could be achieved.

13. Unless we define governance around such fundamental goals and principles we consider that there is unlikely to be little real progress around governance on the issue of food security.



14. Thinking about food supply and security in relation to planetary boundaries shows in a particularly acute form the predicament the planet and its people are currently in. Many policies to increase food production would increase the degree to which the three currently exceeded boundaries will be exceeded in the future: for example, policies involving far more use of nitrogen-based fertilisers, far more extensive use of land for agriculture, or increased carbon emissions.

15. At the same time, many policies designed to ensure that human impacts on the environment stay within the boundaries would reduce food supply and make the food security situation worse. If humanity had either solely environmental or solely social problems to solve, the tasks ahead would be far more straightforward than they are. The difficulties we face arise from the need to address both sets of problems at the same time. This has been conceptualised as the need for humanity to operate within a space bounded on the one side by the planetary boundaries and on the other by a set of human needs, such as the need for adequate nutrition.

16. We envisage a two-fold set of policies and actions. One set would be based around devising and achieving an international agreement about human impacts in relation to each of the boundaries, or possibly in some cases a series of regional agreements. We already have the beginnings of such a regime in the case of climate change and biodiversity loss, and we can envisage parallel agreements on, for example, nitrogen use and ocean acidification. Each agreement might set a total “budget” for the relevant factor, such as total carbon emissions, or total nitrogen use, with such a global budget then being divided up between different countries.

17. In order for national governments to be able to deliver on such an agreement, this would then have to be complemented, principally at the national level but in some cases again through agreement internationally (e.g. in the case of EU policy on agriculture), by policies on food and agriculture (and of course also other policy areas outside the scope of the current inquiry) which will enable each country to stay within its allocated segment of the global budget. This would amount simply to reflecting biophysical reality in governance and policy arrangements. Although it may take many years to put such a framework in place, it seems very clear to us that this is what is required, in order to reconcile human needs with environmental limits.



18. The land use and biodiversity boundaries are very closely connected, and both have an obvious relevance for food supply. However to some extent the implications of these two different boundaries point in different directions for policy. We can think of land use by analogy with geopolitical competition for territory among major powers. Instead of that form of rivalry, we can think about competition between agriculture, urban uses (such as industry, housing and transport), and biodiversity-rich biomes such as forest. Although the global situation is of course far more complex than this, we can say as an initial generalisation that biodiversity depends principally on ‘wild land’, and food supply principally on agriculture. To the extent that this is a valid generalisation, the implications of the need to keep within both these boundaries are in conflict with each other.

19. In order to ‘complete the circle’, we will need forms of agriculture which retain biodiversity, uses of wild land which help to sustain food production, and urban design which provides space for biodiversity and enables efficient distribution of food supplies. Probably most significantly, we also need forms of food production which are efficient in their use of land, so that land remains available for biodiversity. That in turn needs to be reflected in diet and consumption patterns, agriculture subsidy expenditure, and relative prices for different foods. Overall this implies the need for a shift amongst relatively affluent consumers towards lower levels of consumption of meat.



20. Nitrogen and phosphorus are being released into the environment to a dangerous extent, currently exceeding the relevant boundary. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus are over fertilising lakes and seas, and acidifying soils. This is particularly a problem for food policy, because most of the excess nitrogen and phosphorus is derived from fertilisers, which have contributed enormously to the worldwide increase in food production over the past century or so. It is possible to argue that nitrogen- and phosphorus-based fertilisers are the principal reason why the pessimistic predictions made by Malthus concerning food production have so far proved false. In order to maintain this level of food output without increased environmental damage, fertilisers will need in future to be deployed in far more efficient ways.

21. According to the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM), the excess use of nitrogen is leading to severe pollution of air, water, land and sea around the world, as well as contributing to climate change when emitted to air in the form of nitrous oxide. One of the most serious consequences of the excessive release of nitrogen to the environment is the eutrophication of freshwater and marine systems when it enters water in untreated sewage or run off from fertiliser use. This is currently having devastating impacts on mangroves and river deltas. Phosphorus is also contributing to eutrophication.



22. Climate change is a threat to food production, both through changing the distribution of climatic zones, and therefore the food that can be produced in different areas, and through extreme weather events, such as droughts. Both ocean acidification and climate change have the same principal cause: the emission of excessive quantities of carbon dioxide (along with nitrogen pollution in the form of nitrous oxide). Carbon dioxide in turn is produced partly through food production, and its processing, refrigeration, and distribution. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are also tending to rise because agriculture is reducing the amount of land available for forests which absorb CO2.

23. A policy for food therefore has to be inseparable from a policy for climate change, even though much of the debate about climate change has focused on energy generation and other aspects, such as transport policy. As with biodiversity and land use, climate change and ocean acidification considerations imply the need for greater efficiency in the use of land for food production, along with changes in consumption patterns.



24. Human appropriation of water supplies is now on a vast scale, not currently beyond the boundary of what the planet as a whole can sustain, but nevertheless causing serious problems regionally and seasonally. There are three main aspects to these negative impacts: shortage of drinking water for humans, loss of irrigation for agriculture, and climatic changes.

25. Water is essential for virtually all food supply, although it can in most cases be used more efficiently, but allowing sufficient water for food supply may imply a need to reduce water use for some manufacturing processes, the production of drinks, and non-food crops such as cotton; and a need for the more cautious design of dams and irrigation schemes.



26. The Planetary Boundaries Initiative is not in a position to put forward a full-scale policy for agriculture and global food security. However, when the Committee comes to devise its own recommendations, we urge it to give serious consideration to the global environmental context, and specifically to the way this context is represented through planetary boundaries analysis.


Deborah Tripley

Director, Planetary Boundaries Initiative.

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