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A farmer near Tonle Sap, Cambodia

Natural resources for food system activities

In the previous step we learnt of the use of natural resources used for food systems, and particularly the fundamental role of land, soil and water in food production. In this article we explore in more detail which natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, are used all across food systems, and where they are used: from production, to processing, to distribution, to consumption, and finally to waste management.

Food systems rely on a variety of Earth’s natural resources: land, water, minerals, fossil fuels, biodiversity and ecosystem services. We need these resources not only for agriculture and fisheries, but also to process, package, distribute and consume food. Almost all food system activities require energy, much of which now comes from fossil fuels – or in traditional systems, from fuelwood, animals and human labour.

Table showing indicative functions of natural resources used in food system activities Indicative functions of natural resources used in food system activities (UNEP, 2016).

Many of these resources – land, water, biodiversity, and ecosystem goods and services – are renewable within certain limits. In principle, they can be used for centuries or more with proper management, as they are naturally replenished or regenerated. Without proper management, however, the potential of these resources to support food systems will be reduced, resulting in lower crop yields, fish catches or livestock production. It is particularly crucial to avoid crossing any critical thresholds or “tipping points” after which regeneration is very slow (e.g. soil degradation), or impossible (e.g. species extinction).

Other key natural resources are non-renewable, meaning their natural stocks cannot be regenerated after exploitation – or they are only replenished by very slow natural cycles. Crucial non-renewable resources used in food systems include minerals (nutrients, metals and other mined resources, such as lime) and fossil fuels. Fossil fuels clearly can be exhausted over time. Minerals, such as phosphorus, are not actually exhausted, but they can be removed from food production systems when they are not captured and recycled for use. Much of the phosphorus used in agriculture passes through in human waste and eventually ends up on the ocean floor, where recovery for future use would be very costly. It is much wiser to recover the phosphorus and re-use it in agriculture before it is lost from the system.

Renewable and non-renewable natural resources alike are critical for food production in particular (i.e. agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries), and are used to some extent in all food system activities. This means that sustainable management of natural resources is central to food security.

Yet food system activities in many cases significantly degrade the natural resources upon which they depend, while also contributing to climate change, local and regional pollution. In addition, natural resources are being strained by population growth and development. If we want to ensure that all people have safe and nutritious food, in appropriate amounts, we need to be aware of the natural resources used in food system activities, manage them sustainably and efficiently, and reduce environmental impacts.

As shown in Table 1, different food system activities use different natural resources, and at varying levels. Food production is particularly resource-intensive, requiring large amounts of land to grow crops, water for irrigation, ecosystem services such as pollination, and minerals for fertilizer, among other needs. Yet land is also used for food processing plants, storage, shops, and in the end, landfills for food waste. Fossil fuels, meanwhile – still our main source of energy – are used all across food systems: to produce agrichemicals; to power farm machinery, food processing equipment and refrigeration; to transport food; to cook, and to collect waste. Some resource use may seem negligible by comparison, but is still significant: for instance, about 17% of aluminium in Europe is used in packaging.


UNEP (2016). Food Systems and Natural Resources. A Report of the Working Group on Food Systems of the International Resource Panel. Westhoek, H, Ingram J., Van Berkum, S., Özay, L., and Hajer M.

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This article is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute